A city called Hanoise, pt 3 — delicious streets. Days 1-3

In Hanoi, you’re never too far from the exhilarating action that buzzes on the whole day. And in my book, it’s the gastronomic action that draws you in the most. It happens mostly on the streets, spilling over onto every inch of the sidewalk, and with all manner of edibles for your culinary pleasure.

Hot, fresh, tasty and mobile.

Space is at such a premium that stools are turned into tables

It goes on at almost all waking hours

You can't go wrong at stalls like this ... whatever it is they are selling

Pho‘ (say ‘fur’), or noodle soup, is, of course, the most common. In fact, it’s the mainstay of Vietnamese cuisine.  Pho Bo, Pho Ga and Pho whatever… pork, chicken, beef and duck being the main draws. As for the noodles — koay teow, beehoon and a translucent variety are the most common. Whatever your choice, they are mostly all delicious. After a week, I was a self-declared Pho connoisseur. I had some bad ones though, but I also had some superb ones.

My favourite of all the phos was this one in Hanoi...pho with duck and bamboo shoots

And the lady who ran the stall. The 3 times I patronised her stall, we never spoke a single word, only through sign language.

This one is porky pho

Pho Ga, or chicken. Phos were almost always accompanied by an assortment of fresh salad - water-cress, long beans, basil, and slices of lime for added zing to the soup.

My favourite was a little corner stall in the Old Quarter near the guest house I stayed in. It’s main item was Pho with generous pieces of duck meat, laced with thinly-sliced, crunchy bamboo shoots. Complemented by lethal chillis and Vietnamese tea, nothing could be more fufilling …especially the end of the meal — when you’ve just slurped in the last strand of noodle, spooned off the last bit of soup from the bottom of the bowl; and the tannic finish of warm, yellow tea the perfect neutraliser of whatever oily aftertastes there may be left.

All this while, cars and motorcyles are zipping by just a few feet away from where you are sitting on a low stool — and women peddlers in their familiar conical hats, hurrying by with their wares on 2 baskets balanced on a bamboo pole; peddlers on bicycles loaded with so much goods that, from the back, only their feet can be seen, calf muscles straining with every pedal stroke…

Life is never still in Hanoi

As if to maintain an inner balance, the Viets have another dish called Bun Cho, or skewered barbequed meat, to provide a smokey contrast to the clear, soupy Pho. The fragrant smoke that wafts up from little BBQ pits on virtually every corner fights for the olfactory attention of passers-by. Enjoy it straight off the pit if you like or in the weirdest combination of all — pieces of the burnt meat swimming in a bowl of overly sweet soup, accompanied by rice noodles that you dip into for taste. I didn’t like this one though …

Bun Cho, or BBQed meat in a sweet soup which you dip the noodles into. Horrible stuff...

Bun Cho anywhere

and I mean anywhere

When Vietnam’s French colonial masters left for good (after their humiliating defeat at the infamous Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1953), they left behind some very endearing legacies — their architecture would be chief of these (think French windows); coffee, naturally; and, that most delectable one of all — the humble baguette.

Only the French knows how to make a baguette the way they do -- crispy and crusty brown on the outside, with slits cut into the top for it to expand, and soft-like-a-pillow on the inside.

Baguettes are available practically everywhere...freshly baked, of course, and quite cheap too, at only 2,000-3,000 Dong (RM0.40-RM0.60) each, depending on how swanky the establishment was.

I had my fill of these and I never quite tire of it when I was wheeling through Vietnam and Laos. The fillings, are of course, what make it delightfully tasty. One memorable baguette sandwich I enjoyed while walking the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter turned out to be a heart-attack inducing version – with strips of pure lard (I didn’t know it was lard then, but I did wonder why oil was dripping down my hand from the warm confines of the sandwich) together with fried eggs and leafy greens. It had the unmistakeably yeasty smell of freshly-baked bread … and it was heavenly.

A typical sandwich stall. This one was simply fabulous. The little strips of white and reddish stuff is lard...hmmm

This stall was a little bit more fancy, with fillings that ranged from Nutella to tuna to Laughing Cow cheese

Drifting from street corner to street corner, I had my fill of food and drink. I also drank copious amounts of Vietnamese coffee – sweet, rich and sometimes so thick you could stand a spoon in it. Hot or with ice, it made no difference – I was in caffeine nirvana. Brewed the Vietnamese way, using a small metal percolator that dripped ever so slowly, Vietnamese coffee stands on its own in taste and aroma. It’s definitely not for casual coffee drinkers. This is one instance when thin is not in. Espresso lovers will quickly develop a fondness for these brews.

The most elaborate coffee I ever had in Vietnam, complete with a bowl of water to cool it down. It was so thick and rich the aftertaste stuck in my mouth for a long time after I left

The one regret I left Hanoi with was finding this little cafe on the day I was leaving the city for Sapa. It served the best coffee in Hanoi, and it was the cheapest too, at only10,000 Dong when most others charged me 12,000 to 15,000 Dong. That be me sitting in front of the cafe while the boss's wife passes time with her embroidery.

The variety of mostly Robusta beans is quite impressive

Often, the coffee came with a complimentary glass of tea.

Often, the coffee came with a complimentary glass of tea.

I couldnt help noticing my neighbours preference...coffee, tea and beer?? Lethal, especially at 6.30 in the morning.

Once, I couldn't help noticing my neighbour's preference...coffee, tea and beer! (check out the straw). Lethal, especially at 6.30 in the morning.

Sometimes, iced-coffees came with a full tray of ice...

Cycling around Hanoi, evading the onslaught of trigger-happy motorists, taking in the sights  — one would invariably work up a healthy thirst. Water was fine and usually did the trick but nothing I had ever imbibed, especially after a few kilometres in the noonday sun, could compare to the golden brew the Vietnamese call bia hoi.

Bia Hoi! It's sounds very much like what sailors of yore would shout out when approaching a Vietnamese watering hole

Bia hoi isn’t a brand. Rather, it’s a term for freshly-made draft beer. Three major breweries in town make bia hoi: Hanoi Brewery, Viet Ha Brewery and South East Asia Brewery. But, if you happened to spy the containers that dispense this delectable liquid, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was made at the back of the shop. They were nothing fancy – just big, battered metal drums with a tap at the base.

I still remember the first time I tried it. It was after dinner and I passed by a sidewalk establishment that was crowded to the brim. There were no empty tables, and they were all locals — red-faced, loud and boisterous in their speech; and animated in their gestures. Practically everyone had a glass of bia hoi in hand.

I sat down on an empty seat behind a girl working the tap of the bia hoi barrel; caught the eye of a waitress and pointed at the bia hoi dispenser’s direction and then held up straight one forefinger. A cold glass of bia hoi was quickly served.

This joint was alive with locals going great guns with bia hoi and snacks

It never stopped flowing.......

It looked promising; in fact, it looked more like a super-light lager, with a nice rich head. I took a sip. It was light, crisp, fresh, very palatable and very, very smooth. I was impressed. But what really floored me was the price – 3,000 Dong – or RM0.60! No wonder they run out of bia hoi way before the patrons run out of conversation topics.

Another great thing about bia hoi is its low alcohol content — about 2-3%. You would have to drink quite a few glasses to lose your sobriety. Well, I wasn’t complaining. As I said, what could be better (and cheaper) than a glass of refreshingly tasty and chilled beer that was low in alcohol to cool you down? Of course, I can’t vouch for the Aussies who seemed to drink bia hoi like it was water … well, it probably was water to them.

Later, I would come across a bia hoi watering hole that seemed to be very popular with the backpacker crowd. It was about 5 minutes walk from where I stayed and it comprised 3 little cafes all facing each other at a cross-road on Dinh Liet Street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

On one of my visits, I had to contend with the less-prime 2nd row, looking at the backs of other customers rather than the action on the street. Directly opposite and to the left are the other 2 bia hoi shops -- both equally well-patronised.

Rows of plastic chairs would line the front facades of these 3 stalls, and when chillin’ hour was high (usually after dinner) they would enthusiastically spill over into the street. Once, when I was chatting with an American couple, the police enforced the law on obstructing traffic; and amidst the shrill blasts of police whistles, everyone would get up, beer in hand, and squeezed as legally as possible onto the sidewalk. Of course, when the police left, everyone moved right back where they were before.

So much for respecting the law. One more bia hoi, please!

Next: By train up north to the Chinese border and finally the ride begins — to Sapa highlands.

North to Lao Cai and upwards to the highlands of Sapa. Day 4 & 5.

The city of Hanoi had had its fill of me. In truth, I was never really a dutiful tourist. I did not do the full rounds of tourist sites; I didn’t pay my respects to Uncle Ho’s fantastically preserved body, I didn’t contribute anything to the ‘shopping’ economy (I was after all, a cycle tourer and no one expects you to come back with souvenirs when your panniers are somewhat limited in luggage space)… I did however, learnt a great deal about the Vietnamese’s prowess in winning a war at the military museum.

The real cycle tourer' s bike at the military museum. I wonder if that's a Brooks saddle?

370kg!... and here I was thinking how heavy my packs were.

Happy pack-cyclists of the Viet Minh enroute to decimating the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. It didn't look like they were rolling on sealed roads either.

To get to Lao Cai on the Chinese border, I had to catch the overnight train. Unfortunately for me, all the soft sleepers were sold out, so I had no choice but to settle for a ‘soft seat’ ticket which I bought from a travel agent in Hanoi. Arriving at the train station, which was overflowing with passengers, I wasn’t prepared for the stress that the unfriendly station staff put me through.

First, I wasn’t allowed to push my bike through the main lobby. I had to go behind to a locked gate where goods were unloaded onto the platform. After getting the attention of one of the ladies, she opened the gate for me and promptly asked for my ticket, as well as that of my bike’s. I told her I hadn’t got one yet. Comrade Train Station Officer pointed to the ticketing hall on the other side and I had to push my bike out again.

OK…stress level now up 2 notches.

There was no way I could leave my bike outside while I dashed in to buy a ticket. And then, I heard Manglish being spoken. Aha, Malaysians! I saw 4 young men who were obviously doing the Sapa thing standing around waiting to board the train. After establishing our Malaysian ties, I promptly asked them to keep an eye on my bike while I went to get a ticket. “No problem, go ahead”. I went straight to a ticket counter and told Comrade Ticket Seller what I needed. In a most unhelpful manner, he straightaway pointed to the main lobby where I was just shooed out of a while ago.

Stress level now up 4 notches.

So back to the lobby I went to look for the conductor of this musical chairs game. She told me, in whatever little English she could, that I had to get a ticket from the ticket hall, and then she turned and walked away. Oooooh….

Stress level now up 6 notches.

I could really feel it this time. It was simmering just below the boiling point where the steam was building up its pressure, ready to blow. I was in no mood for comradeship this time, not the least with self-serving bureaucrats. I walked back to where I had just come, passing the 4 nice Malaysian boys and assuring them that I would only be a minute. I went straight to the counter and in my most authoritative voice, firmly told Comrade Tiket Seller, “Ticket for bicycle!” a few times while showing the universal 2 clenched fists in motion sign for bicycle. I was prepared to stay put and not budge until I got what I wanted… he must have sensed my frustration. Finally, he got the message and wrote ‘30,000’ on a piece of paper. It was all over in seconds … the pressure gauge eased up immediately, and I strolled out coolly with ticket in hand.

In typical badly-treated-tourist fashion, I related the sorry episode to the 4 Malaysian boys who nodded emphatically in agreement. After chatting with them a little, and after telling them about my touring plans, they were fascinated and surprised that I was doing it solo. I felt quite famous too, when they asked to take a photograph with humble old me (if you’re reading this boys, I’m still waiting for a copy of that pic to slot it in here 🙂

The 10-hr train ride to Lao Cai was pretty uneventful — well, if you can call it uneventful when 2 seats in front of me was Mr. Fidgety, a young man travelling with his mother and girlfriend, and who never seemed to sit still for more than 5 minutes; walking up and down, exploring other cars, chatting with people; eating, eating, eating…even at 3 in the morning. And then there was Mr. Lecher, clearly a Chinese national on his way home to the motherland — he was unashamedly parading up and down in his suave-looking leather jacket, staring hard at all the girls within the vicinity.

Mr.Fidgety is seen here getting his 40 winks; head on the arm-rest and legs wrapped up in the curtain on the window. A few minutes after this shot, he was up and about again. Mr. Lecher is behind him by the window.

At 6.15am, the sun was already up and the day looked promising. The train was rolling in to Lao Cai, and I was excited at the thought of finally getting in some serious saddle time; and all uphill at that, too.

Lao Cai is a non-descript border town – China on one side of the river and Vietnam on the other. It was warm, humid and very dusty. Outside the train station, the thought of hot Vietnamese coffee and some food pulled me into a cafe that promised such victuals. After a cup of hot, sweet, rich Vietnamese coffee and banana pancake, I sat back with a satiated sigh. Life was good. My adventure was about to begin.

But before that, there was something else I had to do — I rode the 3 km to the Chinese border, just for the heck of it.

Lao Cai train station

I just had to take this shot of my bike ... on the border of China and Vietnam.

...and one of me . Yea, you'd look this good too after a 10-hr, overnight train ride with almost no sleep.

A glimpse of capitalistic leanings of communist China -- the billboard is of one 'Spider King Group of companies', a big-time shoe manufacturer. A quick browse of their website revealed an interesting proclamation: "Standing on the new starting point, Spider King People are making effort to develop “SPIDER KING” as the first international brand with full of passion and the spirit of innovation and never satisfaction".

With that out of the way, I was ready to ride. The destination was the highland town of Sapa; made popular by the French colonial masters as a cool retreat to escape the searing heat of Vietnamese summers.

Highway 4D to Sapa. Fom Lao Cai it's only 38km...should be easy enough, like riding up Fraser's Hill...or so I thought.

The first few km were easy enough. That was when I committed mistake #1. I did not bother to stock up on riding fuel, thinking that there would be stalls along the way. After all, Sapa is a popular destination. How wrong I was. As the day drew on, the weather improved. For cyclists, this is not necessarily a good thing. Clear skies equal hot sun. Halfway through the ride, and after the banana pancake had long since disappeared into the bowels, I felt the first pangs of hunger. The scenery was getting better and better, but no stalls came into view.

The Hmongs were clearly animists in their religious outlook, as can be seen from this strange snake sculpture on top of a little house of worship

Even more strange were these pair of bamboo smoking pipes. It seemed to be an offering for someone who met his end on this stretch of the road. Spooky...

Then came my first encounter with Hmong natives — Black or Red Hmong, I had no idea. But it was a tiny hut and it sold canned drinks and some stuff that passed off as food. The mother, sitting outside, was intent on her embroidery piece, no doubt to be sold to some tourist at Sapa. The daughter was in charge. I picked up a can of tamarind juice, and some biscuits.

The shelf in front is all there is to the stall's offerings.

The biscuit looked suspiciously well-past its expiry date, but I didn't care. It was food...and yes, it did taste expired; and dry and insipid, too. The warm, overly sweet tamarind juice didn't go down too well either.

Inside the hut that served as a stall, the younger brother was hard at work, pounding dried maize in a gunny sack to separate the corn from the stalk.

Inside the hut, the younger brother was hard at work, pounding dried corn in a gunny sack to separate the golden seeds from the stalk.

The pristine valley is brought to life by pristine rivers -- crystal clear and bubbling with cheerful songs over smooth rocks and boulders.

As the day wore on, the incline began to unmistakeably inch steeper and steeper. Fraser’s Hill this ain’t. Not when it’s 10% gradient. At one point, a Hmong boy, who happened to be on the way home, ran alongside me for a good km or so. And he wasn’t even breathing hard! That little act of his charged me up (in fact, throughout the rest of the trip, I would look forward the countless number of kids who kept me energised with their high-fives, ‘hellos’ and ‘Sabaidees’)

The little Hmong runner.

The last 7 km or so were the hardest. Tired, hungry and already half-burnt to a crisp, I struggled at the incessant 10% climbs. It was quite relentless; it was quite clearly time for some drastic measures. Plodding along, I waited patiently until I heard the sound — a  heavily-laden truck in bottom gear inching up the same steep climbs as me. As the truck went passed me, I grabbed on to the rope-ends of the  tail-gate and hung on for a free ride. Although it was only clocking 10kph, it was far better than my miserable 5kph. I hung on to the truck until it reached a short flat and I reluctantly let go. The ‘10% gradient’ signboards were still dotting the roadside, so I waited for saviour #2.

I didn’t have to wait long. This time I hung on until almost at the top. My arms were tired, even with constant switching from left to right, but it was worth it. Sapa town was flat, cool and most of all, there were plentiful cafes and food stalls to replenish my depleted glycogen levels. I wasn’t up to checking out guest-houses so  I simply checked into the first one that I thought was OK, and which only charged a reasonable USD6 for a room. It also reeked mildly of urine going up the stairs, and the windows in the room would leak when it rained later. And, when asked if they provided Internet access (seeing as there was a PC in the lobby), they said ‘yes’. Later, when i came down to send an email to Lilian, my wife, they said “Err… no Internet..cannot”.

That was mistake #2 — NEVER believe the Vietnamese guest-house owner when they say Internet and cable TV is provided. Check to see that there really is a connection, and check out the TV channels so that later when you’re ready to hunker down for the night with Star Movies, it won’t be Vietnamese soap opera instead.

The lacework on top of the bed are mosquito nets, not honeymoon-hotel decorations.

Next, exploring Sapa…

Sat 4 Oct 2008

Lao Cai to Sapa – 38km
Total ride time – 5hrs
Total ascent – 1430m
Total descent – 50m
Total to date – 38km

Lao Cai to Sapa – Uphill all the way, last 8km steep. No decent food stops along the way until almost near Sapa.

A city called Hanoise, pt 1. Days 1-3

Hanoi assaults the senses like no other city I’ve ever been to in Asia. It is anything but a quiet city; and yet, it is an orderly chaos that rules the streets. If you’ve been in one, you know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t, well…you’ll need to experience it first hand to appreciate the fear that freezes you to a spot in the middle of the street, not daring to cross because the stream of motorcycles, cars, trucks and cyclos just never seem to end.

So how does one cross a typically busy Vietnamese street?

You just do it. You would also need to ditch your mother’s advice about first looking left and right. You then step away from the pavement and onto the road — and the traffic simply avoids you as you make your way across. That’s all there is to it. I’ve tried it on foot and on my bike and its quite a thrill the first few times you do it. After that, and after riding WITH the traffic, I decided to try what every sensible Vietnamese does.

I rode INTO the traffic. The result is not pretty; with the instant chorus of a thousand horns erupting into your ear.

This is actually a less busy street...

Mind you; you only do this very, very briefly to get to the other side. Actually, I had no choice – I’m a right-hand drive Malaysian road-user. I lost track of the number of times I slowly but surely drifted to the wrong side of the right side of the road. But the beautiful thing with Hanoians is that nobody ever loses their temper. They just honk at you and they carry on with their lives.

How can anyone not love the energy of this city? The people are so animated in whatever they do. I love the colour on the streets, I love the even more vibrant colours that clothed some of the Vietnamese women — fashion faux pas be damned.

Matching pants and seat? She probably has a wardrobe of scooter seat-covers.

Hoan Kiem, Lake of the Restored Sword, adjacent to the Old Quarter, and a popular hangout for locals.

There weren't tourists. They were a group of all-female professional photographers who would capture your digital image for a price if you didn't have a camera handy.

The living takes great pains to ensure that the dead are well-remembered.

Ladders made from one of nature's most versatile materials.

Even weighing machines come to you. You'd always know when one was coming your way -- they all have built-in speakers that only played Mozart.

And this was only my first day in Hanoi. At the airport, I had acted the dutiful tourist, paying USD15 for me, my bike and my panniers to be transported by a cramped-to-the-brim mini-van that dropped me off at a USD10 hotel room (which I thought was cheap, from what I saw of the photographs) that I booked from an agent of sorts in the airport’s arrival hall. It was raining and I had no wish to ride 45 km to the city, then start looking for the Old Quarter (where I intended to stay), and then look for a hotel.

It was hard to believe a room this nice was only going for USD10...untill the jackhammer next door started its jarring song

It's hard to believe a room this nice was only going for USD10...until the jackhammer next door started its jarring song

I realised why USD10 got me such a newish, nice and clean air-conditioned room complete with cable TV and free Internet downstairs. It was 4 flights of stairs up and … next door was a 4-storey buildiing under construction. Welcome to make-a-fast-dong-when-you-can-Hanoi.

The next day, I checked out when i found new digs smack in the heart of the action in the Old Quarter. It was a small hotel; the room was clean, old, but not run-down. Even the taps looked like they had been used since French colonial days. It looked liked how a room in the Old Quarter should look like. Charming.

Next: The mystery of the skinny Vietnamese…

A city called Hanoise pt 2 – The skinny Vietnamese. Days 1-3

In the short time that I spent in Vietnam, I observed that there wasn’t a single fat Vietnamese to be found. Well, the Viets are, after all, quite an industrious lot — a mostly agrarian society that gleans a hard life out of its fertile ground. Generally, the people that I’ve seen are lean and scraggy but, I was more intrigued by another equally emaciated icon — Vietnamese buildings.

Quirky by most Asian standards, Vietnamese buildings tend to compensate for their constricted girths by going deep and tall instead. So what kept them from going wide? A little research yielded some very interesting facts.

Back in the old days, the original buildings were little more than hovels and makeshift stalls. Once they laid claim to the piece of land, they just stayed put…and so did everyone else. And as they prospered, and families grew bigger, the only way to house them all was simply to build up and in.

I suspect it became part of the Vietnames culture after a while. Thin is in. But then, so were the gaudy, heady colours that they were sometimes swathed in. They’ve learnt how make kitsch kitsch-ier still … like this one here, with its purple eyesore of a paintwork complemented by Roman columns (you would almost expect to see a statue of a cherubim peeing into a pond inside). But … who am I to judge another’s taste?

Next: The delicious streets of Hanoi…