Back in Hanoi

As I’ve mentioned before, Hanoi was my home-base. I spent a lot of time in this city and managed to see quite a bit. While I could have a post for each of these sites and experiences individually, I think it’ll be easier if I just outline a few of the highlights.

Hanoi Hilton: Not the hotel. It was the tongue-in-cheek name for the notorious Hoa Lo Prison, given by American pilots imprisoned there during the Vietnam war. The prison is much better known in Vietnam as a symbol of national strength and perseverance. It’s easy to remember that America’s war in Vietnam was just part of the greater struggle within the country. Decades before US troops found themselves in the jungles of SE Asia, the people of Vietnam had been struggling for independence. Hoa Lo prison was built by the French in the 19th century and housed thousands of  Vietnamese revolutionaries. The name Hoa Lo can be translated to ‘fiery furnace’ or ‘hell’s hole’ and presumably was not a pleasant place. One of the signature features of the prison, standing as a reminder of its bloody history, is the French guillotine that is displayed in main room. While touring the prison, it was interesting to learn about a war from the oppositions side. History of war is typically written by the victors, and Vietnam portrays the ‘War of American Aggression’ in the way they find appropriate. The line between fact and anti-American propaganda is thin. For foreigners visiting the prison-museum who know nothing of Vietnam, the US would be seen as a nation of war criminals (and I’m not saying this is an incorrect depiction of the US in the 60’s and 70’s). Meanwhile the Vietnamese explain how humanely they treated American prisoners at Hoa Lo during the war. They would play basketball, write letters home, eat Christmas feasts, listen to music and more! I’m not sure John McCain would agree with that version of POW life, but creative license is awarded to the victors.

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Cuisine: The food in Hanoi needs its own paragraph. Its delicious. Some of the more prominent dishes I tried were Pho Ga (spiced noodle soup with chicken), Bun Cha (rice vermicelli soup with pork), Cao Lau (noodles with fresh greens and meat), and plenty of Banh Mi (sandwhiches). For a more exotic dish, I enjoyed steamed chicken feet with a side of rice for lunch on two separate occasions. The feet had an unusual texture and I would not get them a 3rd time.

One of my favorite meals in Hanoi was at a local joint recommended to me by the bartender on the Ha Long Bay cruise. It was made famous by Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Parts Unknown.’ In the most recent season, Bourdain meets with president Obama during his official visit to the country this past spring. The pair ordered the local bun cha with a side of spring rolls and a beer. After the meeting, the establishment changed its name to ‘Bun Cha Obama,’ offering the presidents order as one of their specials. The walls are adorned with photos from the evening. Another fun characteristic of Vietnamese dining was that excellent places to eat are set up on the side walk. The streets of old town are lined with tiny plastic tables and chairs, no more than 12 inches off the ground. We associate this furniture with a child’s set in the States, but its a common setup for local Vietnamese joints. Anyone over 6ft had a more difficult time eating in this setting.

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Other points of interest: Hanoi is a great walking city once you figure out how to cross the busy streets. Old town can be crazy but it has a great energy. The colors and smells mixed with the continuous honking of horns can be invigorating. While the toutes can be nagging, the people are extremely friendly for the most part. You’re sure to get smiles along the streets. The city also has quite a few parks and a beautiful man-made lake. You can find the One Pillar Pagoda in one of the more prominent parks. This is one of the most iconic Buddhist temples in the country. While its appearance is a little underwhelming, it has a long history. It survived 900 years perched atop its lone pillar until the French spitefully burnt it to the ground in traditional colonial fashion during their withdrawal from the country in 1954. Close by is the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum which I did not visit due to the insanely strict rules, and the fact I think its bizarre to display the embalmed body of your former leader in a GIANT memorial. Did not need to see that. Plus you have to silently walk through in lines of two, wearing respectful attire, without crossing your arms or putting your hands in your pockets. Downsides of communist rule I suppose.

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Overall I’d say Hanoi is my favorite of the three capital cities I visited on this trip. Certainly a spot I would return to (and with a full year visa, I might just do that).


Vietnam: Hanoi arrival / Snake farm

After Cambodia I headed northeast to Vietnam. I took a sketchy prop plane (in true Cambodian fashion) from Sihanoukville to Ho Chi Minh city and then jumped on a jet engine plane to the north. I wanted to start in the capital and spend more time in the North before moving down through the country. I was able to meet up with my friends from Thailand and an old friend from home! Colleen happened to be exploring SE Asia and had crossed into Hanoi from Laos just a day after I did. My friends and I used Hanoi as a base camp while touring the north. Between trips to Ha Long Bay and Sapa I had quite a bit of time in Hanoi. In total, I spent about two weeks jumping in and out of the capital and I ended up loving it. It is right up with Chiang Mai as one of favorite cities in all of SE Asia.

I think what I loved the most about Hanoi was its energy. To be totally honest, it can be a little overwhelming at times. It isn’t for everyone. The traffic can be downright insane. There are over 7million people in the city and about 5million motorbikes. Crossing the street in Hanoi was the most dangerous adventure I had undertaken to date. The crosswalks mean nothing, stoplights (if there are any) mean nothing, there are no traffic cops and there are seemingly no traffic laws / speed limits. It’s the wild west of driving. My mom would love it. After about a week I finally realized that the only way to get across was to put your head down and just walk at a normal steady pace. The cars and motorbikes adjust to your speed and move around you. The WORST thing you can do is hesitate, stop, or speed up. That’s how you end up being hit by a motorbike or van (it happens a lot).

So what was there to love about Hanoi? For one thing, the food was incredible. Everything was made from fresh ingredients. Nothing was processed, nothing was fake. I ate pho, bun cha, bun thang, and plenty of chicken banh my. I also ate my weight in rice noodles. Beyond that, I enjoyed local rice wine, terrible home brewed beer, steamed chicken feet and snake. I suppose my culinary journey through Hanoi began with one of the crazier experiences I’ve had… the snake farm.

While in Pai, Thailand I was walking through the night market with some friends. A street vendor was selling different skewers of meat. One skewer consisted of 7 chicken hearts. I made a pact with a friend that we’d come back the next night, have a few shots of the local poison, and split the hearts. Unfortunately the next night there were no hearts! Chicken hearts were the Wednesday special. We agreed that if we met up again in Vietnam we’d have to eat something crazy. So on my second night in Hanoi we joined the group headed to snake village… for dinner.

About 5 miles north of the city is the village of Le Mat. It is home to more than 100 snake farming households. Our group arrived at one of the more prominent farms / restaurants and explored the many cages of snakes. Most of these are cobras which have been de-fanged and no longer have venom. We are able to touch them and drape them around our necks. The worker also brought out a massive king cobra from a special cage in the back. We were instructed to stay back. I happily complied. The group was then seated around a large table while the staff brought out the large pots of rice wine. Shots were certainly needed to calm the nerves. Next came the 3 large snakes we would be sharing for our meal. They were still alive and slithering. The group gathered around for the infamous ritual, while three brave souls from our group stood forward. What happens next is a little disturbing. The staff cut open the underbelly of the live cobras and one by one the volunteers stepped up to bite the beating heart out of the living snake, washing it down with a shot of rice wine. It was insane and a little disturbing. Next the workers drained the snakes blood and bile into two separate chalices of rice wine. Each member of the group received two shot glasses; one bright red shot of snake blood and one florescent green shot of snake bile. With a chant of ‘Mot, hai, ba!’ the shots were thrown back one after the other. Full disclosure the bile shot tasted horrible. I suppose I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will not be welcome at PETA meetings moving forward.

After the gruesome cocktails were finished, the 3 snake corpses were taken into the kitchen. When they returned, they had been turned into a 4 course meal. There were grilled snake short-ribs, stir-fried snake with veggies and garlic, snake spring rolls, and snake with rice. For a restaurant that only serves snake, they sure know how to do it right. Everything was delicious! The sauces and the spices were well balanced and everything went down smooth with glasses of rice wine. Snake had an odd texture, somewhere between chicken and fish. It was a delightful dinner and there was plenty of food.

Overall the snake farm was a unique and fun experience. It was something out of the norm and out of my comfort zone.  Snake meat has been a popular cuisine in Vietnam for years and snake is used for pharmaceutical purposes. Its blood is considered to be a powerful aphrodisiac. I’m not sure the science behind all of that, but I do know that my time at Le Mat was a wild introduction to Vietnam!