Motorbikes are ubiquitous in Hà Nội with about 3.5 million in 2010
Hà Nội is a city of the haves and have-nots.
There are roadside eating places with simple stools and short tables, and there are restaurants that provide clean, air-conditioned comfort; pushcarts overflowing with common wares and swanky shopping centres with almost nary a soul in sight.
The roads are packed with squat buildings, motorbikes, people, food and goods, and the locals cook and eat on the sidewalks using portable stoves and charcoal burners.
Pushcart vendors with their colourful wares
At street corners, kettles for tea boil on stoves surrounded with cardboard, presumably to keep the wind out.
Navigating the lanes of the Old Quarter — 36 streets known for their history and architecture — I peered into the rooms facing the streets and saw Hanoians eating, playing card games or watching TV in groups.
There are usually a bed or two, household items and personal belongings on the floor and chucked in corners, and a light bulb hanging from the ceiling.
A free tourist booklet that we picked up said the Old Quarter has a 2,000-year history of commerce.
It was interesting to see entire streets dedicated to specific items of commerce.
Silver and goldsmiths are found at Hàng Bạc, bamboo lattices at Hàng Cót, wedding cards at Hàng Ga, incense at Hàng Hương, coffins at Lò Sũ and so on.
One sweltering afternoon, we decided to try Bún Chả, a lunch favourite in Hà Nội.
It came as a plate heaped with vermicelli, a bowl of soup with charcoal-grilled meat swimming in it and a colander of vegetables.
I thought the meat tasted like minced pork but a local patron said “pork and fish” in her pidgin English.
My friend was worried that it was dog meat and didn’t finish her food!
I later learnt that the patties were made of ground pork and the sweet broth of pickled vegetables, vinegar and fish sauce.
The same person eating at the roadside stall told us that our meals cost 30,000 dong (S$1.90) each.
However, this woman later paid only 25,000 dong for the same meal, plus a glass of tea to boot.
And so, we learnt first-hand the pervasiveness of “foreigner pricing” in Việt Nam — a customer, not the vendor, quoted us a higher price.
Our next encounter with street food took place at a back alley packed with local patrons.
We sat in the open on dirty, greasy stools at a small table, thumbed through a picture menu which left black streaks on our fingers, and ordered what almost everyone else was eating — roast pigeon plus steak and chips.
The pigeon was delicious while thetough and fibrous steak was drenched in a strangetasting sauce.
On other occasions, we visited restaurants like La Badiane, which seemed to be in a world of its own with suited expatriates and fine French food adulterated with the Vietnamese’s favourite coriander leaves.
A must-visit is the Quán ăn Ngon, which serves local cuisine in a clean, cloistered environment.
If you intend to eat after 6pm, it’s best to make reservations as many well-to-do Vietnamese descend on the place for dinner
Along to Hạ Long
One day into our trip, we booked an overnight cruise to Hạ Long Bay, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
I highly recommend this place, not for the Hang Sửng Sốt (Surprise Cave) with stalagmites and stalactites which look like animals, the pearl farm, floating fishing villages or the kayaking that comes with the cruise package, but for the enjoyment of gazing upon a beautiful bay with mist-covered islands dotting the horizon, as far as the eyes can see.
The bay with each turn of the day — afternoon, sunset, night and sunrise — is like a seductress who reveals yet another facet of her allure.
Of the many museums in Hà Nội, we ventured into two – the Hồ Chí Minh Museum, whose third floor exhibits like giant fruit sculptures and avant-garde heads have been described as “hallucinatory”, and the Hỏa Lò Prison, which showcases instruments of torture and cramped prison cells.
The water puppet theatre was good fun, with the live traditional music and puppets re-enacting folk legends on water.
The Tuồng Theatre, on the other hand recalled a simpler, albeit entertaining version of Chinese opera.
Việt Nam National Tuồng Theatre
This and the Chinese words on temple doorposts and altars here pointed to a time when Hà Nội was steeped in Chinese culture.
And herein lies another duality of the land.
Locals told me that elderly Hanoians could speak Chinese, but not the young, who have embraced Western culture ever since the reunification of the north and south.
Hà Nội, a land of the East and West, luxury and disrepair, smiles and scowls, beauty and squalor — would I return?
Frankly, I’m in two minds about it.
We booked Jetstar Asia return flights months in advance when they were on sale, and selected our Hạ Long Bay cruise at one of the many travel agencies in the Old Quarter in Hà Nội.
Our two-day stay on board the Hạ Long Dragon Cruise was relaxing and fun
There are many other flight options, including Tiger Airways, Vietnam Airlines, SilkAir, Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airways and Cathay Pacific.
■ When you cross the road, don’t run, move quickly or make sudden movements.
Follow the locals’ leisurely pace so that the motorists can anticipate your movements and drive around you.
■ Get small change (1,000 dong and above) if you can from your money changer or friends.
It will come in handy when you pay for street food or taxi fare.
Most of the taxi drivers we met claimed that they didn’t have small notes and refused to return the change they owed us.
■ Only hop into cabs of reliable companies such as Mai Linh, Hanoi Tourist and Taxi Group.
Many unsuspecting tourists have been ripped off by drivers of other taxis.
By EVE V FOO