Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Hazy Hanoi

The flight to Hanoi from KL took 3.5 hours and at landing, the pilot reported poor weather with low visibility. We noticed the "low visibility" the moment we stepped out of the plane - the sky, seen through the window, was grey and gloomy and distant buildings seemed shrouded in thick mist. According to Yahoo! weather forecast, it would rain 4 days out of the 5 we would spend at Hanoi, and the foggy view did little to reassure me otherwise. I therefore turned my attention to some other sort of view - I had for a long time heard that Vietnamese girls are slim and beautiful. I wasted no time in scrunitising every girl in sight. True enough, the few girls I saw in the airport were slim, and had long, slender arms and legs. Some were gorgeous, others not so, but there weren't any that I'd term "ugly". (I came to realise later that there are NO fat people in Vietnam... even the plump are scarce)

We headed out of the airport where a van was waiting to take us to our hotel. After loading our luggage, we walked to the left side of the vehicle, only to be herded by the driver to the right side to board it. We were momentarily shocked when one of our friend actually sat in front, at the driver's seat (oi, you're driving kah?) but then we noticed the missing steering wheel - Vietnamese drive on the wrong, ahem, I mean left side of the vehicle. This first ride through Hanoi was really weird as we're so not used to seeing cars coming from the other side, not to mention that the other vehicles kept honking at ours. At first, I thought it was because our driver wasn't driving properly (slowing down and speeding up at his own timing and liking, swerving left and right and hovering in the middle of two lanes etc.) but very soon I realised that all Hanoi drivers don't drive properly - they drove with one hand permanently on the honk, wherever and however they pleased, and obeyed traffic lights only when it suited their mood. It was quite exasperating (especially the constant, incessant honking!)

Hanoi driving style: one hand on the honk, the other composing SMS

Our hotel was about 45 minutes' drive from the airport, and located in a red-brick road which was inaccessible by car. So we were dropped off by the main road, and had to walk the rest of the way to the hotel. It was a rather neat little place, narrow and tall, like all other buildings in Hanoi (perhaps this suited the slim people there). It had 6 floors, and no elevators (we think that very few several-floored buildings in Hanoi had elevators, which probably contributed to the fitness of its people... heheh) and width of the staircase was probably 2/3 of the width of regular staircases in Malaysia (the doors of some buildings were that much narrower too). I bet foreigners (including some of us) can't help feeling a little overweight there...

Typical Hanoi structures

Just don't touch...

The first thing we did after placing our luggage in the care of the hotel (check-in time wasn't until later) was to look for food. We were extremely hungry, as we flew AirAsia, and being stingy enough to want to fly budget, we didn't buy any food nor drinks during the flight (of course!). We got some "directions" from the hotel staff (go left, left, then right then left and left...), walked all the way around the block of buildings surrounding the hotel only to end up back at the hotel. (ish) We decided not to risk our gastric juices burning holes in our tummies by going on another wild goose's chase, and went into a nice little corner cafe very near our hotel, eagerly anticipating our first local Vietnamese meal. What we didn't anticipate was the humongous language barrier we were about to face.

The menu itself was in Vietnamese, with very minimal and basic English translation. The staff spoke NO English at all. There were two steaming pots and a counter facing out of the shop. A lady was there with a small child. The little one was eating some curiously-cooked eggs out of a plate and one of my friends commented on how good it looked and how we should order it. "What is this?" she said, pointing to the child's plate, and in reponse to that, the lady pointed to a basket of eggs (she must had wondered which kampung we came from... never seen eggs before?) We tried to order some food in every way we could linguistically but it didn't work. Nobody could understand anything we tried to say, and in the end, the lady pointed at her stoves, pots and counter, and then pointed to an item on the menu. It said Ky Dong steamed rolls. OK fine, we'll have some Ky Dong steamed rolls. What about the eggs? Well, maybe it would be cooked along with the rolls. Fine. But how much do they cost? "How much? *pointing* How much?" They couldn't understand "How much?". Gah! We signed "money" by rubbing our thumbs against our index and middle fingers while saying "Dong, Dong!" (Dong as in their currency, ahem!) and thank goodness, they understood that! Someone took out a calculator and punched in a couple of digits, with several zeros trailing and showed to us. I forgot exactly how much a set of steamed rolls was, but I remember it was cheap :P

Ky Dong aunty preparing Ky Dong steamed rolls, which didn't involve eggs. Gah!

We ordered 1 set of steamed rolls by pointing our fingers to the steaming pots, then sign "1" by lifting 1 finger. Somehow, we signed too much perhaps, and ended up getting two sets. I seriously don't know how it happened. We also ordered our coffees by pointing and signing.

Ky Dong steamed rolls

The steamed rolls were served with some fresh dunno-wat leaves, dunno-wat sauce with two pieces of dunno-wat in it, chillis and lime. The nice lady who prepared the rolls even showed us how to eat them by squeezing a section of lime into the sauce and using her best sign language to mean we should dip the rolls with some leaves in the sauce then put them in our mouths (so cham... don't even know how to makan!) The rolls were nice, but it was the coffee that really made us go Aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh... It was so good! (Must buy, must buy, must buy!!!) Once we're done, it was time to pay and fortunately, signing for the bill wasn't as difficult as ordering the food. But understanding the total amount muttered in Vietnamese was another matter. Thank goodness for that little invention called calculator! What an experience!

Our next stop was... well, more food of course! With the experience we gained at Ky Dong (I found out as we left the cafe that this was its name) it was smoother sailing through the price-asking and ordering process. We had bread with egg and chicken in chinese herbal soup. The food here was so good we actually came back the day after the next for dinner!

Chicken in "Chinese Medicinal" (as was written in the menu)

Bread with egg

It was then time to explore the city. All along we had wondered if the city was really perpetually foggy (but it wasn't cold) or just plain polluted. A stroll through town confirmed it was the latter. Every breath we took was saturated with smoke and dust, and it was pretty alarming. Most of the residents there wore face masks, but especially those riding bikes and also the womenfolk who selling fruits or other produce (these were usually piled on two large rattan trays hanging at each end of a long pole balanced on their shoulders).

Several streets away from our hotel, in a section of the city they called Old Quarter was a huge lake (which name I can't remember, and can't be bothered to Google out). Calm and tree-lined, it was really beautiful, in spite of the extreme haziness. In the middle of the lake there was a temple, reachable from the bank via a red, wooden bridge. To get into the temple, we had to buy tickets, and they cost VND3,000 each. That's like... 60sen per person (waahahahahah! cheap!)

A view of The Lake

The entrance of the temple

The Vietnamese are mostly Buddhists and Taoists, and this temple was largely similar to our local Chinese temples. They used the Chinese language in ancient times, so there were many Chinese characters carved around their temples. The one little difference between their worshipping and ours here was the use of white lilies on the altars. Here, we use mostly cheap chrysanthemum - RM4 for 5 stalks, which is sufficient to make a pretty huge bunch (white lilies are very expensive and you only buy them for your other halves on special occassions like birthdays and anniversaries and Valentine's Day etc. :P) I don't know how much lilies cost in Hanoi, but there were LOTS of them (suggesting that perhaps they weren't as expensive as they are in Malaysia). We saw peddlers carrying big basketfuls all over the place, and they were used as offerings on altars and for decoration in many shops (even the run-down-looking ones) - they were practically everywhere.

After a good walk around the lake and the temple in the middle of it, it was time for... tea break! (yes, this group loves to eat). We went into a chic little cafe called Papa Joe's. Here the beers were cheaper than the fresh fruit juices, and the fresh fruit juices cheaper than the coffees. "Wahhh, so cheap! Order, order, order!" Well, not dirt cheap ok, but definitely cheaper than Malaysia la.

The menu at Papa Joe's

On the way back to the hotel:

"Eh, what is that? So interesting... We want to buy!!!"

"We don't know what you're saying, but yes, we want to buy 3"

Yes, it's food again. I did say this group of friends really love to makan. This was a curious snack, with a piece of fish cake-like something sandwiched between two pieces of glutinous rice cake-like something else. Interesting, but not so tasty (in my opinion la).

By the time we reached our hotel, I was quite convinced that shopping in Hanoi wasn't half as interesting nor satisfying as I'd previously experienced in Phuket. First of all, the sellers didn't speak any English! They seldom used calculators to quote prices (instead, they fished out notes from their pouches and show the values!) and they had this no-bargain policy (!!!). Every time anyone of us got a price quote and indicated the want of a discount, it would be the strong "No, no, no!" (probably the only English word they know...) response, accompanied by a sour expression on the seller's face. Gah!!! The other un-shopping-friendly thing was the currency itself. Because the Dong was so small, everything there cost thousands or tens of thousands of Dongs. The zeros were really confusing.

To illustrate how confusing it could be, let me recount this one incident: the No 1 kaki shopping in our group was interested in some hats displayed in a headgear shop. She went in and took a really pretty one off the shelf. It cost 1.3+ million Dongs - to simplify, say VND1,300,000. She took a look at the price tag, mistook the figure for VND130,000 and computed the value to be less than RM30. "Hey, this is very cheap!" Sensing something amiss (because all the other price tags I glanced at showed figures way higher), I took a look. Good thing I did - at VND1.3mil it was >USD70 (we exchanged USD70 for ~VND1.1m as the group fund). Luckily we discovered the error before she took it to the cashier's counter! As if the many trailing zeros on their notes were not enough, we Chinese have this habit of using the word wan to mean ten thousand, and qian to mean one thousand (like 130,000 is "13 wan", or "130 qian"). Within the first day itself, the wan and qian were mistakenly interchanged so many times, created so much false joy / panic and utter bafflement, that thereafter, someone always double-checked when anyone else uttered a certain number postfixed with the word wan or qian. The need to do mental conversion of VND10,000 = RM2 all the time didn't help either.

We had a good several hours' rest in the hotel before venturing out again in the evening. As you would've expected, the first business in order was, of course, dinner. We knew about the famous Vietnamese noodle, pho - said to be very delicious, particularly the beef noodle. Unfortunately, half of the group don't eat beef, so we settled for duck instead. The noodle itself was really delicious - great texture and taste and all, but the duck was nothing out of the ordinary. The soup consisted of bamboo shoots, among other ingredients we don't know about, and had a really weird smell and after-taste.

Vietnamese noodle with duck & bamboo shoot

We were charged VND20,000 per bowl of noodle, which we knew was a rip-off because there was NO WAY that it can cost RM4 for that bowl of noodle in Hanoi (that's closer to KL price la ok!). We were told later (by our tour guide the next day) that the prices of everything in Hanoi is quoted higher for foreigners as compared to the locals. For westerners, they could quote as much as 50% higher. Sigh.

After dinner we undertook an odyssey to look for a popular night market, which only happen on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights (it was our only chance to visit it, as it was Saturday, and we'd be spending the following night out of Hanoi). You might think that the use of the term odyssey here is a little exaggerative. No, it isn't. The night market was located at the street Hang Dao. From our hotel, we only needed to cross over to the adjacent street Hang Bong, and walk along it to another one Hang Gai, which connected directly to Hang Dao. Sounds simple? Yes, it was supposed to be simple! However, the moment we started out on Hang Bong, we somehow headed towards the wrong direction. Several streets later, we decided that something was not right, that we should stop and ask for directions. We approached two policemen, showed them our map, and pointed to Hang Dao. One of them took a look and furrowed his brow. The two of them exchanged some sentences in Vietnamese and then the guy with our map and pointed at a location, "You are here!", and it was like . . . t h i s . . . far away from where we wanted to be! :(

The policeman then gave us some directions and we carried on in our quest. About 15 or 20 minutes later, we were still not where we were supposed to be. Again, we approached someone, showed the map and asked for directions to Hang Dao. "You are here!" and to our horor, we saw that we were still . . . t h i s . . . far from where we wanted to be, but from the opposite side! :''(

That's it! We got the new directions, and thereafter, at every turning we're supposed (or not supposed) to make, we approached someone and pointed at Hang Dao on the map. We must have consulted at least 5 or 6 people by the time we got to Hang Gai. Thank goodness it was a straight road from there! I don't know exactly how long the entire journey took, but it must have been close to an hour! We covered a good area of the entire Old Quarter and gained like 10x the courage to cross busy streets with wild, honking vehicles coming at all unpredictable directions.

Night market @ Hang Dao

Destination reached! The night market stretched 2 whole streets (or more - we didn't walk all the way till the other end), with stalls along the middle and endless streams of people on either sides. The night market was not unlike our pasar malam here, except that there were no food stalls (though there were petty snack and drinks sellers at the sidewalks). There were souvenirs, handicrafts, clothes, shoes, bags... a true haven for shoppers! There were so many people walking there that the moment we paused to browse, hands and elbows would be pushing and nudging us from behind. It was really infuriating at first, but after a while, I got used to it, and even started pushing the people who stalled right in front of me.

So, was our hour-long night market-hunt on foot worth it? YES! Collectively, we must've spent about a million Dongs that night. Of course, our No 1 kaki shopping alone accounted for at least half of that amount (she spent all her money and borrowed all of whatever's left of someone else's money as well - and later regretted having not bought more stuff :O).

The walk back to the hotel after the night market shopping was brisk and wrong turnings-free (thankfully!). At the corner of the red-brick road leading to our hotel, my love-to-makan friends suggested to buy some Vietnamese kebabs for supper, which we did (if they admit No 2 for love of food, nobody would dare admit No 1, except perhaps Bee Ree).

That night was the night I rested the best of all nights in the entire vacation, largely due to the fatigue of having walked so much! Such, was our first day at Hanoi.


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