Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Good Morning Vietnam

Dear Friends,

I have been a frequent traveller both professionaly and also leisurely for many years. My travels have spanned continents and I must say that my horizons widened tremendously. I have spent both short and long periods in countries that I have visited as a student, a tourist and also as an expatriate.

Vietnam is one country that I have visited frequently these past two years. In particular; Hanoi the capital. This is a heavily populated city with close to about six million people. I remember arriving for the first time at Noi Bai International Airport, I was surprised to be taken back the clock by almost twenty years. I found the people to be traditional in their dressing, bad haircuts, bad set of teeth and most of all unfriendly. The immigration officials as the first point of contact were undesirable.

Noi Bai International Airport, is situated approximately 40 kilometres north of Hanoi. As I was travelling in the Noi Bai taxi, polluted honking noises are shared by cars, scooters (love the Vespas though) and motorcycles. The journey to the hotel in the taxi is normally 'serene' with no efforts of conversation as most of the taxi drivers are not English conversant.

My residence is located in the 'Ho Tay' area better known as the West Lake. I have stayed here so often that I have learnt to say, 'Hai Nam Ter' or '254', Thue Khue - which is where the Somerset Residence, managed by Ascott International is situated. I have always thought that the staff manning this residence under a Singaporean manager, was a different breed from the ones I encountered upon arrival at the airport. 'Ho Tay' is about a 20 minutes taxi ride to town. I like this area because it has the largest lake in Hanoi (West Lake) and the scenery from my studio exudes a feeling of peace and tranquility. Hanoi is known as the city of lakes and has many scenic lakes which are mostly big. The most famous of them all is known as 'Hoan Kiem' lake.

This lake may not be as large as the West Lake but due to its' location in the city, it is busily frequented by the locals. I remember strolling by the lake one evening and I noticed that the locals just lazed around and did nothing. The older folks chat away while the younger couples are openly expressing themselves intimately. French kissing and petting among the younger couples in the visibility of the public is not taboo.

Near the 'Hoan Kiem' lake area is where the Old Quarters are, it has the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi. At the beginning of the 20th century, the city consisted of only 36 streets, most of which are now part of the Old Quarters. Each street then had merchants and households specializing in a particular trade such as silk, jewelery and etc. The street names nowadays still reflect these specializations. An example would be that all shops trading and selling silks are all located in 'Hang Gai'.(This is the most famous street in the Old Quarters). You will never go wrong by telling a taxi driver (in your little Vietnamese) 'Hang Gai' and he will almost understand you immediately.

A night market (near the'Dong Xuan' market) in the Old Quarters is open for business every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening selling a variety of clothing, souvenir and food. This market will remain with me for the rest of my life because I was given a real Vietnamese 'baptism of fire' during one of my visits. It is a very busy market with both locals and tourists flocking. The more 'entrepreneurial' locals would target tourist like me, prospering quickly and effortlessly by pickpocketing. There were a group of ladies (easily five of them) - three would act as they were being pushed from behind by the crowd against me and simultaneously slit my sling bag. They then walk ahead of me to deter suspicion and the other two accomplice would then walk towards me, pushing amongst the crowd and removing my belongings from the slit bag. A Playstation portable (PSP) and an I-Pod Touch has made its' way to the black market streets of Hanoi, I am sure. I was devastated and hated Hanoi the entire trip.

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach as the saying goes. Restaurants and bars could be found in the Old Quarters and it's vicinity too. Hanoi has rich food traditions and many of Vietnam's most famous dishes such as 'Pho', 'Cha Ca' and 'Com' are thought to come from Hanoi. Perhaps most widely known is 'Pho' pronounced as 'fur', a simple rice noodle soup (equivalent to Malaysia's 'Kway Teow Soup) is often eaten as a breakfast dish in the home or street walk stalls. 'Pho Bo' contains beef and 'Pho Ga' contains chicken.

One of my most frequented cafes during every trip (non- Vietnamese) is an Australian cafe called Kangaroo. There is a 'duplicate' Kangaroo Cafe which the original owners despise. The original cafe often refer themselves as the 'REAL' Kangaroo Cafe. It is located at 18, Bao Khanh Street and is operated by a 'fair dinkum' with his Vietnamese wife. They also operate a travel agency out of this cafe and is popular amongst the foreigners. A must try here is the Aussie Bangers. (assortment of sausages and potato) and not forgetting the beer :)

These are the cafes and restaurants that I will never fail to visit on my trips:

LITTLE HANOI, 23 Hang Gai Street - Good chill out place for food and drinks.

AL FRESCO CAFE AND GRILL - 98 Xuan Dieu Street - Speciality are ribs and pizzas

QUAN AN NGON - Phan Boi Chau Street - Vietnamese cuisine in a open air square environment

FANNY'S - Le Thai To Street (facing Hoan Kiem Lake) - Ice Cream

BOBBY CHINN'S - Ba Trieu Street - Continental restaurant (Owned by Discovery channel's food personality Bobby Chinn)

HAPRO COFFEE - Le Thai To Street - Coffee sidewalk by Hoan Kiem lake

Pho 24 - Various locations - Vietnamese Pho

SEASONS OF HANOI - Quan Thanh Street - Fine dining Vietnamese restaurant (Pictured below)

CLUB DE L'ORIENTAL - Ton Dan Street - Fine dining Vietnamese restaurant

LE CLUB - Sofitel Metropole Hotel - Champagne Bar

MALAYSIA IN HANOI - 136E, Tran Vu, Truc Bach Lake, Ba Dinh - Malaysian cuisine

I have visited Hanoi during the hot summer months which can be very humid. I nearly 'suffocated' due to the thin air and it caused me shortness of breath. The winter months are nice, relatively cool and dry. Summer can get as hot as 38 - 40 degrees Celsius (May - September) and winter can dip to as low as 6 - 7 degrees Celsius. (November - March). I enjoyed the winters better as I have a perpetual sinus problem which erupted during the hot summer months.

Another must to do when in Hanoi is to experience a Cyclo ride in the Old Quarters. It is a three wheel bicycle paddled by a 'man machine'. Remember to initially negotiate the price before embarking as it could cost to be pretty hefty, sometimes more than the taxis. (BTW, for taxis I would recommend hailing the CP Taxis which are more reliable)

The magic word to use against touts in Vietnam is: 'TOI KHONG MUON' which is translated as 'I DON'T WANT'. Whatever is offered, just say those words and end it with 'XIN MOI DI CHO' meaning 'PLEASE GO AWAY'.

Hanoi has touched me in more ways than another. Wonderful memories were created here and it will remain with me for a very long time.

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