We took a very comfortable and short hour flight from Vientiane to Hanoi in Vietnam via Vietnam Airlines. We were eager to get through visa processing and passport control quickly as Dave’s dad (Steve) and his work colleague Hung were picking us up (our flight arrived in at 9.30pm). This was not the case though. For Vietnam, you can apply for a visa in advance letter through one of the many online agencies (We used Vietnam Visa Center- takes 3 days to process). This allows you to print and take this letter, with your passport and passport photo and present it to the visa in advance window when you arrive at Vietnam airport where it is then processed. When your name is called you then collect your passport with the visa printed in it and you then pay for it. This would be a great system if passports were processed in order of who has handed them in first. However, the immigration officials would gather up a large stack of passports, hand them to someone for photocopying and then they would then join another stack (often just put on top of others) for processing. This meant there was no real organisation and we were stood around waiting to collect our passports for over an hour, ours obviously got stuck at the bottom of a pile! This whole process, going through passport control and collecting our luggage took longer than the actual flight. We also could not get in contact with Dave’s dad to let him know but they were still there to collect us when we eventually got out.
Hung drove us to a local bar, and we had our first beers in Vietnam. On the drive, we got a sense of the scale of Hanoi and how big it is a city with huge infrastructure and a lot of traffic, mainly scooters. As it was quite late Hung then dropped us and Steve at our hotel in the Old Quarter area (backpacker district) and returned to his family for the evening. Dave’s dad was there for work for a few days so he was able to combine seeing us with his work. He also put us up in the Thaison Palace Hotel for a few nights which was much appreciated. As it was late when we arrived (nearly midnight) we headed down to the lake area however everything was mainly closed. We found a nice Japanese restaurant luckily though that was still open and had a very lovely meal (pork and wonton soup, braised beef soup, pork buns and pork ribs).
The following day was the only full day we had with Steve and Hung also joined us for the majority of the day to show us around the area. Hanoi itself was actually quite grey and we had on and off rain whilst we were there, the first of our trip. After breakfast in the hotel, Steve took us all to the original egg coffee cafe- Giang. This coffee shop is down a tiny alleyway that then leads to an unassuming cafe with small plastic stools and tables. It is now a well-known stop apparently for the walking tours in Hanoi so it was very busy whilst we were there with a good mix of locals and westerners. Egg coffee is a northern Vietnamese drink. It sounds disgusting but it is actually very rich, sweet and thick like a desert. The eggs are whisked into a batter with sugar and condensed milk and then this tops a Vietnamese coffee (which are traditionally very strong). It was nice but too rich for me. It became Dave’s coffee order whilst in Northern Vietnam though he couldn’t get enough. We loved Hanoi as it is filled with tiny coffee shops with small tables and plastic stools that are generally purchased on the corners of the streets. On the weekend the standard thing Vietnamese people do is frequent these coffee shops to watch the world go by. Often they have Vietnamese coffee though which is strong coffee put through a fine drip filter this is then poured over ice and has sweet condensed milk- making it strong, sweet but cooling. We drank a lot of this whilst in Vietnam!
From here we went to Hoan Kiem Lake the centre of the Old Quarter in Hanoi. This is a pretty lake and it has a temple in the middle of the lake, although we never got over to it. We were there on a Saturday and the popular thing is for local families to come out to the lake to walk and play. There was an amazing atmosphere and the area was full of life with people playing games, eating street snacks, teenagers playing shuttlecock and children racing around the lake on electric hover boards that they had turned into homemade go-karts. Hung took us away from the lake and to a local restaurant for lunch called Bun Bo Nam Bo. The place was packed and there was one chef at the front of the restaurant constantly frying meat and stirring stock whilst people were rushing around compiling the dishes. We all had a bowl Bun Bo Nam bo which is a beef noodle salad with crunchy vegetables and a lovely stock at the bottom. After a few weeks in Laos being underwhelmed by the food, it was great to have something that was full of flavour. We also tried some steamed pork in a banana leaf that was not a great texture for us, very jelly like, and some dumplings which were like fried bread. Afterwards Hung took us to one of his favourite coffee shops where we had a traditional iced Vietnamese coffee. It was nice but one of the strongest coffees I have ever had. We said goodbye to Hung after this and left Steve to relax in the hotel whilst we went out to have a good explore of the lake area.
It was great to see families out together for the day with children laughing and playing with balloons or bubbles. Lots of people were participating in games that were put on for the community- tug of war, Jenga, locals games of ‘square catching’ where squares are drawn on the pavement and you have to move stones around in a way to capture them! Whilst we were there we had a couple of groups of children approach us wanting to speak to us and ask us questions to practise their English. Whilst we were in Hanoi this happened quite a lot and the ages varied from 6 years old to 19 yeards old. All the people were lovely and friendly, seeming to have a genuine interest in wanting to learn English even though the majority were completing extra curricular activities (n the weekend) this way for their schooling.
In the evening we went out for a drink at Bai Hoi corner (Beer corner) which was full of bars with cheap draft beer where everyone sits outside on plastic stools again watching the world go by. You can find cheap draft beer in Hanoi, the cheapest we saw it for was 5000 dong (17p) so it doesn’t matter when it doesn’t taste great! We then went for dinner with Steve at a hotpot restaurant where you get a selection of meats, vegetables and herbs and you cook these yourself in the stock provided in the hotpot placed on your table. We actually ended up with a barbeque too as the guy next to us gave us his so we got to try both. Cook your own hotpots and barbeques are very popular restaurants throughout Vietnam but we just found the food ok. That might have just been our cooking though!
The following day we said goodbye to Dave’s dad as he was flying to Ho Chi Minh City with Hung that day. We explored and hung out in the city trying some local food and coffees. We then had our first Banh Mi sandwiches in Vietnam- delicious baguette sandwiches which are traditionally served with pork pate and a selection of other meats and salad, it varies per seller. We tried a pork and hoi an sauce one and a chicken thigh and salad one for 25 000 dong each at Breadmore, they were delicious. Then we found a small local coffee shop on the side of the road for more coffee and people watching. In the evening we went to New Day restaurant which is highly rated in Lonely Planet and on trip advisor. It was very busy but we managed to skip the queue as we were happy to sit inside and not outside. We had rare beef pho (pho is Vietnamese noodle soup-55 000 dong), fresh spring rolls with prawns (45 000 dong) and a beer (20 000 dong). After walking off our dinner we ended up at Bai Hoi corner again and had a cheap beer at the green pepper.
We did not really do any tourist attractions in Hanoi, I believe there are some good museums and temples. Instead, we just enjoyed being in the city though and did not feel we missed out on anything, particularly as it was the weekend so it was full of life. It suited us well just sitting people watching with coffee or beer. The following morning we were picked up by the bus to head to Cat Ba island to explore the infamous Halong Bay.