Tuesday, February 16, 2010

day 3 - hanoi, vietnam

day 3 had us depart our hotel (the paragon inn) at 4:45am for our air asia flight at 6:55am to hanoi. there's actually a left baggage facility that allows you to leave bags at the airport at 100 THB (US $3 per day), so both pam and i checked in bags at bangkok int'l airport to avoid paying extra baggage fees for a 2nd carry-on bag.

touching down in hanoi at 8:40am was a surprise to many on our plane, as the 60-degree weather had travelers shaking in their tank tops. thank god i checked the weather before traveling, so i had packed a waterproof jacket just in case. our hotel organized a car pickup from the airport, so it made the 25-minute car ride a breeze in efficiency.

traffic in hanoi is just as insane as in bangkok, if not more so. our driver must have hit his horn in the triple digits in just a short amount of time, so you can imagine just how loud noise pollution is here. plus, there are a ton of locals on motorbikes (some carrying a family of 4!) and scooters to maneuver around traffic, so it's a wild joy ride at any given intersection.

this isn't a shameful plug, but the ladies at the boutique hanoi lakeside hotel couldn't be nicer. i was already impressed with their time and generosity with their email communication, making sure i had everything in order before the trip. but upon arrival, they even made sure we could check in early, had coffee and tea at the ready, and treated us to a complimentary breakfast with other travelers in the restaurant. we met a very nice couple (neil & annika) from manchester who were on week 5 of their SE asia jaunt, so they were happy to impart their knowledge for the rest of our itinerary.

our hotel is right above hoan kiem lake, smack dab in the historical center of the city and hub of activity for this year's tet, or new year's festival. we feasted on a breakfast of pancakes w/chocolate and bahn chung (square glutinous rice cake) - a tet staple of made w/rice, green beans and pork wrapped in phrynium leaves - then huffed it on foot around town.

since most banks were closed, we tried to do without vietnamese currency (dong), so we took a trip to the mausoleum of ho chi minh, the late vietnamese leader who secured the country's independence back in 1945. though he wished to be cremated in his will, his body is preserved in the cool, central hall of the memorial with two armed military honor guards on duty at all times.

next we managed to find one pillar pagoda, an historic buddhist temple that serves as one of the country's most iconic temples. in the same neighborhood we happened upon a calligraphy festival, where approximately 50 men of different age and in a variety of dress show off their writing skills on paper, silk, stone, you name it:

after about 4 miles of walking against the much-welcomed overcast skies, what better time to warm up than with a piping bowl of hot pho - the country's beef and noodle soup? armed w/basil, lime, bean sprouts & onions and some saigon beer, this disappeared in like 2.7 seconds.

once we got back to the hotel around 5pm, pam was wiped out and decided to stay in the rest of the night, so it was a good opportunity for me to explore hanoi's bustling nightlife around our neighborhood. here's a look at the red-painted huc bridge alit at night.

after a fruitful search, i found a place called the tunnel bar/club that still served happy hour, so i pulled up a seat at the stylish lounge that pumped out contemporary music. the bartender was a young lad and fellow econ major paying his way thru university, so it was good to converse with another english speaker. since it was buy one get one free, i opted to sample hanoi beer, which definitely counts as one of southeast asia's stronger (5.1% abv) lagers.

there was a small contingent of french next to me, so the fact that hanoi used to be the capital of french indochina in the early 20th century is certainly still not lost on this city. apparently they like to drink a anise-flavored hard liquor called ricard, as the quartet were blowing thru bottle after bottle.

now that it was time to grub, the bartended suggested i try the local dish bun cha, which is a combination of almost glowing-white vermicelli (the whiter the fresher), char-grilled meat balls and a succulent broth that contains a hint of fish sauce, sweetened vinegar, water & lime. this dish was simply heaven...

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