Good but not without fuss


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We based ourselves at the Hotel Intercontinental on West Lake for the last three days in Hanoi, and it was worth every penny we paid for. After being out on the hot, humid and dusty streets all day, nothing was better than coming back to a plush hotel room and getting a good hosing down from the powerful rainforest shower head.

On one morning, I filled up the bath with bubbles and had a good soak. The hotel was built on stilts on the lake and the setting was incredibly beautiful and romantic. When we arrived, we had a golf cart driving us to our paviliion building. Because it was our honeymoon, we got upgraded to a lake view room on an upper floor. There was a pillow menu from which we selected a polyester fibre pillow and a latex one which were delivered to our room.

In the evening after we had arrived, we decided to head out to get some dinner. However, after walking down a busy residential street filled with minimarts, fruit stalls and other shops, we didn’t manage to find any cafes or restaurants which looked like they had anything on offer for us. Eventually, we found a vegetarian restaurant next to the main busy road. At first we didn’t think it was open for business as the shopfront had sofas and employees lounging around. We thought it was a massage centre. When we went closer, we realised the restaurant was at the back of the building, through the lounge area.

It was a beautifully decorated little place and we were the only diners. That meant all the staff did was too stand around and watch our every move, which made us feel quite uncomfortable. But the food was very delicious and very affordable. After leaving the restaurant, R spotted an ice-cream parlour just doors down so we popped in for some dessert and I also got to check my email using their computers.

We had a really good rest on the huge king size bed in our room and I was awakened by the gentle whirring of a small fishing boat’s engine as it zipped through the waters underneath our building. Breakfast was a an amazing spread. There were different kinds of fresh fruits, various cuts of ham, interesting blends of power juices and even soya milk. That was the first time I’d come across a hotel which provided soya milk for its lactose intolerant or health-conscious guests like me. It meant that for once, I could enjoy the breakfast cereals while on holiday.

On the first day we explored Hanoi by foot. It was alright for a while but as the day got hotter, the roads busier and we got more tired, it became more and more impossible to walk. We were in need of drinks every hour or so to replenish the fluids we’d lost. It was also very energy-sapping to have to watch every step you take, as you could trip over bits of wire or crumbled pavement or kick over a boiling hot kettle many people place by the roadside on an earthen stove. We also had to avoid the millions of motorbikes zooming past us at all times of the day.

By the second day, we became wiser. We hired a motorbike from one of the guesthouses down the road. R was pretty confident about riding it since he uses one back home to get to work. The terrain is flat and alot easier to ride on as compared to when we went to other hilly destinations like Phuket and Koh Samui. But with more than six million motorbikes in the city and such busy road traffic, I didn’t want us to let our guard down.

Our first stop after getting enough petrol at the garage was Hoa Lo Prison, built by the French to contain Vietnamese political prisoners. During the Vietnam war, it was the holding place for the Americans POWs, who nicknamed the prison “Hanoi Hilton”. The place was grim and gave us a thorough understanding of what life was like for prisoners who were held there. After that, we headed to the Temple of Literature, a Confucious temple which also served as Vietnam’s first University in 1070. There were a few couples taking their wedding photos in the beautiful grounds with an entourage of stylists and photographers.

We spent the afternoon on the road, hunting down a bakery recommended by Lonely Planet. We’d expected it to be a quaint little cafe serving cakes and pastries but when we got there, it was no more than a neighbourhood bakery with uninspiring decor. However, there was a queue for the bread and most of the customers were white. One of them came out with three or four baguettes and told us to get them while they were piping hot from the oven. So we got a baguette and tried to find somewhere along the street to sit down and have a rest.

Just two doors down a small restaurant had a fridge of drinks and some low stools outside their premises so we got a couple of beverages and sat down. Looking at the guidebook, I realised this was the street where we could find delicious Cha Ca, or Vietnamese grilled fish. I asked the man who worked at the restaurant if they sold Cha Ca and he said yes, so we went in for some. He gave us his name card which claimed that his restaurant was featured in every major tourist guidebook as a place to get Cha Ca. We laughed it off as the place was deserted and looked like somebody’s dining room at home.

It was until R flipped through Lonely Planet when we realised this was indeed an eatery highly recommended by authors to enjoy grilled fish. There was only one fish on the menu – Cha Ca. The waitress brought a hot pan and began frying the fish with spring onion and dill. Then she put some rice noodles (pho) in a bowl and dished out the fish and topped it with a peanut sauce. It was delicous and we enjoyed it very much.

We headed back to the hotel for a swim in the evening and were too tired to go out for dinner so we ordered room service. I had Bun Cha (Boon Cha) and Chao Tom. Bun Cha is rice noodles in a slightly sweet tangy clear broth with bit of vegetables, topped with pieces of grilled minced pork. You eat it with lots of fresh basil and mint. Chao Tom is minced prawn and pork wrapped around a sugarcane stick and fried. I enjoyed both my dishes very much. R had fettucine in tomato and basil sauce and an assortment of Vietnamese spring rolls.

On our last day, we visited the Vietnamese Musuem of Ethnology, which Musée de l’Homme in Paris helped to design. Visiting the museum allowed us to better understand Vietnamese life and culture, introducing us to the art of conical hat making and bamboo weave fish trap. I especially liked the sections dedicated to the traditions, costumes and culture of the different Vietnamese ethnic groups.

For lunch, we went in search for Pho 24, an eatery offering delicious rice noodles in the Old Quarter. I didn’t think the food was that spectacular, but it was nice to stop for a break and get something to eat. We also managed to pick up some oil paintings for a very reasonable price, which we intend to get framed back in the UK.

We had just enough time to go back to the hotel, freshen up and check out. For an early dinner, we went to Quan An Ngoc, an outdoor restaurant in a leafy environment, offering traditional Vietnamese fare. I had rice with grilled pork chop while R had grilled mackerel. The food was good but none of the waiters spoke English despite it being a tourist haunt. We had to interrupt a young Vietnamese diner next to us twice to get him to help us translate our request into Vietnamese.

Having eaten our fill, we got back on the bike to return to the hotel, turn in our rental vehicle and head to the airport. This was when things started going downhill. With the sun rapidly setting, we got lost after missing a turning at a junction. After 30 minutes of riding, we found ourselves back where we started.

The traffic grew thicker and it became increasingly difficult for me to read the map and road signs in the dim lighting. The people we stopped to us didn’t speak enough English to give us any substantial advice. We both were panicking by then as we didn’t want to miss our flight back to Singapore. So relying on instincts, guesswork, gesturing with passerbys, we at last managed to make our way back. That was a frightening experience.

Vietnam is scenic and beautiful. I just wish I had the right tour guide, a proper phrasebook, more patience and more time to truly appreciate its beauty.

Explore posts in the same categories: Drama, Relationship, Travel

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