My last trip started on a wrong foot. For a moment before we finally boarded the plane, I felt that my French Indochina trip and my best bud A’s Southeast Asian tour would go kaput. If this trip happened five years ago, it would have been the end of my friendship with A.
We initially planned to leave our Cubao place at 8:30 pm in time for our 11:15 pm flight to Hanoi but it turned out A couldn’t locate his passport, which he last used in 2009. After spending an hour searching for it, we left our apartment heavily damaged, like some hurricane wreaked havoc to the place.
A’s streak of bad luck haunted us at the airport. While we managed to check in 45 minutes before boarding time, A didn’t have a copy of his return flight ticket. Needless to say, we were the last passengers to get on board.
Good thing Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital which is quite popular for its magnificent old French buildings, was lovely at this time of the year. The mishaps before our trip didn’t matter anymore the moment we got out of Noi Bai International Airport at 2:00 am.
We were actually fortunate to have met Thuy, who offered us to share the cab ride with her from the airport to the Old Quarter, Hanoi’s oldest district that has the most affordable accommodations in the city. We paid $20 for the ride (Thuy paid $15), which was really a good bargain considering that we were initially being charged $35 at the airport.
Thuy helped us find a place and brought us to Backpackers Hostel, a very dynamic place abuzz with a young crowd of backpackers. We managed to get a dorm room for eight people where we scored a double bunk bed for 285,000 dong (that’s roughly $13.5).
The place was impressive and clean, our only problem was that our roommates were still wide awake at 3:00 am after what I assumed was a fantastic night-out. I had trouble sleeping but because the streets of Old Quarter outside were calling, I was up by 8:00 am (9:00 am Manila time since we’re ahead by an hour).
I wanted to go to Pho 10, which according to Thuy has the best pho in town, but because I was already running late for the 10:00 am free Walking Tour around Old Quarter, I decided to just eat nearby.
One thing that I really like about Hanoi, and Vietnam for that matter, is that there is no dearth of eating spots here. There’s always a food stall in every corner, and they’re really inexpensive. Some few stops from our place I spotted a big crowd dining on the street, I took that as a good sign.
I ordered a bowl of pho ga (chicken noodle soup for 30,000 dong). What else is there to ceremoniously eat first in Vietnam than pho, right? The soup was really tasty and the rice noodle was cooked just right. The minty flavor was not overwhelming. Pho has never tasted this good.
Meanwhile, A decided to have breakfast at the hostel since he needed a wifi connection for some paperworks. Our accommodation came with a free breakfast; he had toasts, eggs, and beans, while I ordered a bowl of fresh fruit when I got back.
By 10:00 am, we were already out in the street together with some backpackers who availed of the hostel’s free walking tour. I have been here in 2008 for my 26th birthday so I was kinda familiar already with the spots that we visited.
Charming old French edifices that house shops of different kinds and merchandises dot the streets while locals converge outside enjoying a glass of tra (hot tea) or tra da (cold tea) as they watch the world go by. Vietnamese ladies with their iconic hats emerge from every possible corner while motorbikes, the most popular mode of transportation around the country, fiercely navigate through the streets of Old Quarter.
Even with such busyness, I still find Old Quarter very appealing.
Our walking tour covered Bach Ma temple, believed to be the oldest temple in the city, and the historical Quan Chuong gate. After visiting the wet market area, A and I lost track of the walking tour because we got busy taking photographs of the bustling scenery. There was just so much color and flavor that was competing for our attention, we were helpless.
Old Quarter, to me, is an interesting piece of history that merges the luxe of the old French life with the struggles of the local people. You see that text everywhere here.
By lunch time, we met Thuy at Pho 10. She wasn’t lying when she said we will find the best pho here!
The moment I had a taste of my pho bo tai chin (beef noodle soup with well done and half cooked beef) which was really cheap at 35,000 dong, I knew I was in pho heaven. Fantastic taste! I don’t even know if it’s valid to describe a food to be fantastic, but that’s what I “tasted” when I eagerly finished a bowl of pho bo tai chin. A, on the other hand, had pho bo tai (beef noodle soup with well done beef, 30,000 dong).
When we went out, I chanced upon these used bowls stacked in one corner. I wonder how many bowls of pho are consumed here in a day given the huge number of people who frequent this unassuming restaurant.
After our lunch, we got back to the hostel since we wanted to move to another room. We got another double bunk bed on the 2nd floor (285,000 dong) and while we didn’t have “active” roommates when the night came, we later realized that we had to contend with the loud music coming from the bar downstairs.
Once settled in our new room, we rented a xe om, or a motorbike taxi, which took us around some of Hanoi’s must-see places. The driver initially asked for 400,000 dong but since we were just going around for a short time, we haggled until all of us agreed on 250,000 dong.
Our first stop was at the Vietnam Military History Museum, popularly referred to as the Army Museum. Since I have been to the museum before, I skipped the tour. A went on anyway and paid 20,000 dong as entrance fee.
While A was at the museum, I walked around and enjoyed the hodge-podge of scenes around me. Motorbikes fiercely take on the streets while some leisurely bike around with prominent old French buildings as their settings. At a park nearby, I saw some people taking a nap, something that I learned Vietnamese like to enjoy after lunch.
When A was done, we continued with our tour until we got to the street that’s brimming with different embassies housed in well-preserved French buildings. The distinctive window design cannot be missed.
Ahead, we made a stop at Ba Dinh Square, where the Ho Ci Minh Mausoleum and the Presidential Palace can be found. Most of the buildings here are painted ochre.
And then of course, I just had to have my UP pose taken against the imposing structure of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
After exploring Ba Dihn Square and the nearby swanky Presidential Palace, we proceeded to Den Quan Tran Vu or the Quan Thanh Temple which is said to be one of “four gods temple” in the city. I have been here before and because A found the place to be crowded, we decided not to go inside anymore.
After almost three hours, we felt we had enough of Hanoi and went back to our hostel. We paid our driver 300,000 dong since he had to wait for us longer than agreed on. At the hostel, I tried to book a bus ride to Hue for the following night but since I will be coming from the Ha Long Day Tour then, I will miss the bus that would be leaving at 6:00 pm.
My next option was to take the train to Hue so I went to the train station to purchase my ticket which I got for 987,000 dong. When I got back to the hostel, A and I had merienda (we’re Pinoys, yay!). We got a Margherita Pizza for $7 that came with two bottles of local beer, a happy hour promo of sort, but we declined the offer.
After checking our emails and enjoying some rest time, we went out to have dinner. I wanted to try the Pork BBQ place that Ha, the hostel’s receptionist, recommended, and again we were not disappointed. Not too far from the hostel was this street side eating place that locals frequent for its delicious bo nuong, or beef barbeque.
47 Ma May Street is widely popular for bo nuong. While we found it to be a little pricey (200,000 dong) when compared with other Vietnamese dishes, I will not deny that the beef barbeque did not lack in flavor. Raw beef, together with tomatoes and other veggies are grilled in a pan in front of you, very much like the Yakiniku experience.
Bo nuong is actually very close to our pigar pigar, a sizzling beef delicacy in Pangasinan which is served overflowing with onion strips. The main difference is that bo nuong is served with different vegetables. We paired this with corn rice and bia hoi, Hanoi’s local beer.
After our dinner, we went around Old Quarter and searched for Dragonfly, which Thuy recommended as one of the most happening bars for locals and even the tourist crowd. We were surprised to see the Old Quarter jampacked with people from different walks of life. It’s even more alive at night, what with all the streets turned into dining and booze maze!
We had a hard time locating Dragonfly because of the sudden twist in Old Quarter’s aura, and thrice we had to ask the same couple for the direction. When we finally found it, it was easy to tell why Thuy highly recommended this watering hole.
The place is chic and while it is located in one of the most crowded streets in Old Quarter, you’d feel like you are in a totally different place once inside the bar. Dragonfly has three different rooms which probably cater to the diverse taste of this place’s habitués. Downstairs is where one finds the dance floor while the two rooms upstairs are intended for small cocktails and smoking shisha.
Before we finally went back to our hostel, we decided to drop by one of the drinking stalls that were full with young locals and we were happy to note that at least, in this part of Vietnam, it seemed like technology has not taken over the lives of the young crowd yet.
We found out that the place offers some “wholesome” drinks such as tea (hot tea), tra da (cold tea), nuoc mia da (sugar cane juice), and tra chanh (lemon iced tea). We had tra chanh (2,000 dong per glass) which A and I both liked for its soothing and refreshing taste.
By 10:00 pm, we were back at the hostel where the bar downstairs was full of young backpackers ready to party the night away. The bar was vibrant but we called it a night since we had to get up early in time for our Ha Long Bay tour the next day.
To be honest, I was not really excited to explore Hanoi since I have been here four years ago but I was surprised that I like Hanoi even more now. I feel that I know the place a little better and I have deeper respect for the place. Also, the traveler in me was rejoicing simply because Hanoi was just bursting with street flavor that was not hard on the pocket!
Will I go back to Hanoi one day? Surely! Will I travel with A again? Definitely! I have learned to love and keep my friends in spite of their life-threatening flaws. 🙂
Love and light, everyone. Go, juanderlust! 😀
- Except for the photographs on the second collage which were taken using Nikon Coolpix AW100 and Sony RX100 digital cameras, all other photographs were taken with a Canon 550d.