Vietnam 07/2009-Day 2


Day 2
Hanoi, Vietnam

July 5, 2009

We are on our own today and we wake to dumping rain and 90 degree weather. After breakfast, we try and wait it out for a while, but the rain does not stop. Finally, we give in and set out with umbrellas, locals looking at us as if we are insane because almost everyone here wears those big plastic rain ponchos. But with the heat, the plastic becomes a sauna so we prefer the umbrellas.

We are in search of the large old market building built by the French called Dong Xuan. To get there, we have to walk though some of what are called the "36 streets" of the old quarter. Each street is named after what it sells, or used to sell; i.e, "silk street", "tin street" etc. Most shops on that street sell exactly the same thing. It's a business model I don't completely understand.

The market is a massive disappointment from a food perspective. If you’re looking for fabric, a cheap watch, or anything plastic and imported from China, this is your place. A foodie destination it is not. In fact, the only “food” I can find are stalls selling dried shrimp and dried mushrooms. At least there was none we could find, though my guide book (DK Eyewitness) said there was fresh food here.
The facade is from 1889, but the rest of the building was rebuilt after a large fire in 1996. I find it depressing and a little uncomfortable. There are too many people sitting around doing nothing. Everyone is watching you, watching them.

Dejected, we leave and decide on an early lunch of Bun Cha. Last night I had asked the guy at the front desk for restaurant recommendations. First he suggested the usual “safe” choices; Quon an Ngon (where we’d had lunch already) and Green Tangerine.
I said, “What about something less touristy, more local?”
He said, “You like Bun Cha? Go to this place, it’s famous for Bun Cha, right at the end of the street…”
We looked, and at first could not find it. Then we figured out it was closed. Later that night I'd heard from a friend who said "go to this place for Bun Cha" and it turned out to be the same place the hotel recommended. It must be fate. And fortunately for us, today it is open.

We go in and are ushered to a small room up a very narrow set of stairs. There’s no menu; we’re asked what we want to drink and then the food is brought to us. On the table already is a massive plate of greens and herbs, a plate heaped high with cooked rice noodles, and a bowl of sliced chilies and chopped garlic.
They bring us each a bowl filled with grilled pork patties wrapped in herbs and sliced grilled pork, swimming in a sweet/sour vinegar sauce. There’s also a huge plate of Nem Cua Da (fried pork filled spring rolls).

One of the women there senses just the barest hesitation on our part and jumps in to show us how to eat everything. Some noodles in the empty bowl, top with a couple of spoon-fulls of pork and sauce from the other bowl. Add some garlic and chilies and a bit of greens. Mix it all up with chopsticks and enjoy! Later, we are relieved to know we’re not the only ones to receive such instruction; the Japanese couple who sits down next to us get the same.
Lunch for two (with a massive amount of food, too much to finish), 2 sodas, 130,000 VND. Bun Cha Dac Kim, #1 Hang Menh St, Hanoi. It's right in between Yen Thai (where the HE4 is) and Hang Non street.

After such a huge lunch, we took a bit of a rest and then set out for Hoa Lo Prison (which is closed during lunch time).

Hoa Lo is also known as the "Hanoi Hilton" and is famous for housing American prisoners during the war, John McCain most famous among them. It was built in 1896 by the French and most of the museum is dedicated to showing how horrible the French were to Vietnamese political prisoners. There is also a small section showing how "well" the Vietnamese treated the American POWs in comparison. It's interesting and more than a bit grim in places. The propaganda is fascinating, as in, see how nice we were to US prisoners, we gave them Christmas and lots of food unlike how horrible the French were to us! To be fair, the French did some pretty nasty stuff, including keeping people shackled in dark cells, shackled by the ankle or neck and a guillotine which they apparently used with regularity. In the 1990's most of the prison was torn down to build a large office building but a portion of it remains as a museum. There is a 10,000 VND per person entrance fee.

Afterward, we walk around in the relentless rain and get completely drenched. We're looking for a place to sit and have iced coffee but for some reason, no place is appealing so we end up going back to the hotel and getting a recommendation. The guy at the front desk comes through again and recommends what is just a corner where there are a few local cafes close by the hotel. We are specifically looking for the Vietnamese specialty, Ca Phe Sua Da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk).

We walk over to the corner of Hang Dieu and Bat Dan, pick a cafe, and settle down on tiny blue plastic chairs on the sidewalk.

The woman running the place gives us a menu with English translations and I can’t find the iced coffee! So I say, “Ca Phe Sua Da?” and she looks at me like I'm nuts. But then the guy sitting next to me smoking a cigarette and looking irritated/bemused by our very existence says “Ca Phe Sua Da!” and she understands him.
Shortly, we have two dark iced coffees in front of us with a healthy dose of sweetened condensed milk in the bottom. They are fantastic in every way for 15,000 VND each.
We sit, in the rain (under the awning) and enjoy watching the world go by for a while. There are women pushing bikes filled with fruit and flowers, carrying baskets hanging from a pole over their shoulders, and one women balances a large basket on her head in the rain. I even manage to capture a picture of four guys on a motorbike!

We go back to room for another break and after a while I was not feeling well. It may have just been indigestion from coffee, heat exhaustion or jet lag. I rested and then we went in search of dinner. We were looking for a place which supposedly makes the best banh coun but it was no longer there. We end up choosing a place at random for Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup). Again, it was served with no garnish, and this one, not even with any herbs. It was good though, and just what I needed (the soup plus a pepcid did the trick for my tummy trouble). 
Two bowls of Pho Ga, one bottle Bia Hanoi, 65,000 VND. Song Anh Restaurant, 32 Luong Van Can St, Hanoi.


I love the old colonial buildings






Monument inside garden at Hoa Lo







Kristina's Food Blog

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