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A Laid-back Day

I’ve developed a pretty good blister from all the walking I’ve been doing, so after applying a bandaid this morning I decided to enjoy a laid-back day. I cobbled together some notes and set up an Agency Podcast recording session with Candy Minx in Chicago, recording from my hotel room.

I did walk down the road towards the lake to do a little shopping, and sought out a local favourite spot for cha ca for lunch. There is a more well-known place on the street named for this Hanoi fish specialty but instead I visited the one suggested by the chef at the Hanoi Cooking Centre, Cha Ca Thang Long.

Cha ca is a fish dish, usually made with freshwater snakehead. It features tumeric and dill. Each table has a burner. They bring out a pan of partially fried fish, and at the table, add loads of dill and spring onion, which cooks up in front of you. After a couple minutes, you add some of the fish, dill and onions to a small bowl, pile on some herbs, chillies, noodles and peanuts, add a spoon of fish sauce, mix it all together with chopsticks and enjoy.

Lunch was delicate and tasty and all around some of the best fish you can imagine. I’d recommend Cha Ca Thang Long as a must-stop for anyone visiting Hanoi.

After more of the usual morning rain today, the afternoon was very pleasant and a cool breeze has taken away the humidity. If tomorrow is nice, I’m planning to head to the Long Bien Bridge.

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Beer Street

My neighbor Chris, realizing he had 2 friends in Hanoi at the same time, connected me up with Zak, his buddy going back to highschool. We decided to go check out an area of Hanoi known as Beer St.

Beer Street is not my jam. The place is a high-pressure nightmare all about extracting money from partying tourists. Imagine a narrow street lined with bars, clubs, restaurants, with plastic stools into the street. Guys on motorbikes hang on its edges. “You want massage?” “You want marijuana?”

Touts pushed menu boards in our faces as we walked through, blocking our path. “Here, here! Food! Best menu. You sit here. Sir, Sir, shisha here sir. Best beer.” They were super aggreesive, sometimes 2 at once trying to get us to sit down.

When we finally sat down we were converged on by Miss Tuborg and Miss Tiger, dressed in beer label outfits, thrusting menus at us, talking at the same time. You want Tiger Beer? you want Tuborg? It was a competition for our dollar, in which you only ordered one company’s beer from the appropriately dressed server.

Then along came the lady selling stale donuts, followed by the lady selling t-shirts, followed by the girls dressed in gold coats to match the brands of cigarettes they’re selling on the street. “Only a dollar”.

It wasn’t a busy night – Miss Tuborg told us Sunday nights are when the place gets packed.

We stayed for a beer and watched the circus for a while. Miss Tiger and Miss Tuborg realized we weren’t big spenders and moved on to other victims. By the time we decided to move out, lines of backpackers were moving in, whooping and laughing and ready to keep that party happening.

We wandered through the Old Quarter, passed the old city gate, an 18th century landmark, and zig-zagged in the general direction of our hotels.

We stopped at a cafe for a smoothie. The relaxed vibe was a relief to me, in sharp contrast to the aggressive sales pitch characterizing Beer Street.

I’m happy to have experienced Beer Street, and I suppose it’s fun for the backpacker crowd looking to party with young travelers from around the world. I think there are many better places to drink beer in Hanoi, in particular the little sidewalk bia hoi joints all around the city, where the beer is cheaper, the vibe is friendly, and the snacks are better.

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More humid and it would be rain

It must have rained much of the night, from the size of the puddles on the streets this morning. It started during the evening. I had connected with a good friend of my neighbour Chris back home – a fellow named Zak – and we walked out to Bbq Chicken Street for a bite to eat and a couple beers. Our walk back to the Old Quarter was accompaied by a gentle mist. Later, I could hear the mist change to a hard downpour.

By this morning, the rain had given way to some serious humidity, which I’m hoping will end in the next few hours. I ventured out in search of bún riêu cua for breakfast. I found it in a little plastic stool place located in a small alley not far from the cathedral.


Bún riêu cua features a tomato based broth, vermicelli noodles meats, tofu and a paste made from freshwater paddy field mud crabs.

The picture shows some of these mud crabs at a market. As I understand it, these crabs are made into a paste, shell and all. In broth, the shell drops to the bottom and the meat floats to the top.

Today’s soup came with kumquats to squeeze in, and the lady showed me how to reserve the seeds with a spoon as I did this. There was also chilie oil, fresh chilies and garlic in vinegar available, as well as a plate of fresh herbs to mix into the soup. What a great breakfast!

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Into the French Quarter

I walked south-east from my hotel, a direction which would take me south of the bottom end of Hoan Kiem lake, into the French Quarter. Here, I found myself on a wide avenue with broad sidewalks, and large buildings, many of which with the yellow walls typical of French Colonial architecture. The sidewalk had enough space that I rarely had to step into the street to find my way around parked motorbikes.

There was a great deal of traffic, but here most intersections had traffic signals, which were more or less being followed. Even though I’ve become relaxed about stepping into Old Quarter roads with a platoon of motorbikes heading straight for me, I was glad for the traffic signals on these wider roads.

I passed some swanky restauants and cafes, including one with the disturbing corona virus inspired sign and policy, “This restaurant does not accept customers from China”. This area is home to some high-end hotels, government buildings, residences and embassies. For instance, I walked past the Embassy of India. The Opera House is in the French quarter as well, where two years ago when we were here, Sheila and I attended a symphony performance.

I turned north onto a street that would take me to the east side of Hoan Kiem Lake, passing a cinema along the way.

It became foggy by the lake. I stopped to rest on a bench, watched a photographer photographing his family, and read a couple chapters of John Higgs’ excellent book, stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century.

After walking north along the lake into the Old Quarter, I found the street which leads back to my hotel, Turned onto it, and 20 minutes later, I was sitting down at what has become my favourite ‘local’ cafe. The young guy serving up rocketfuel greeted me, and welcomed me back.

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Breakfast, and the Cathedral

I continue to enjoy early morning walks in Hanoi, watching the city come alive. Today I headed for Pho 10, a bricks and mortor soup place I’ve heard is excellent.

A few customers were already eating at 6:30 am, and by the time I left it was nearly full. The place is bright and clean and serves only pho bo, beef noodle soup. There are a few versions. I got mine with brisket and half cooked beef.

The hot sauce, which looks like it house made, packs a punch. I also squeezed in lime and added a wee bit of garlic in vinegar.

The pho here is pricey compared to the little sidewalk joints, but it was an excellent bowl, and as a bonus they had comfortable wooden chairs. Breakfast here set me back about $3.50.

Afer breakfast I walked down to see St Joseph’s cathedral, which was beautiful in the early morning light.

I continued on and came to a beautiful example of French Colonial architecture, surrounded by a green garden.

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Cooking Class

I enjoyed an excellent cooking class today at the Hanoi Cooking Centre on Hanoi and Northern Highlands cooking. This was about family style Hanoi cooking, rather than street food. I was the only person signed up today so the chef gave me a private lesson.

It began with a walk through a small local market, where I learned about fish sauce, rice, and various common ingedients used in Hanoi cooking.

We made fresh spring rolls with prawns and pork, banana flower salad, ginger chicken and a dessert corn and coconut soup. I learned that while noodles are prominant in street food, at home rice is at the heart of of family cooking. The chef told me that Hanoian families are more likely to go out for breakfast or lunch, and dinner is more often made at home.

I participated in all the preparation and cooking and was given a beer to enjoy while learning. Here are a few photos from class…

After we we prepared everything, I was served the full meal, along with another beer. I learned a lot today. Start to finish it was very informative, and I was able to ask loads of questions along the way. On Thursday, I’m going back for the vegetarian class with a focus on cooking with tofu.

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Traffic Stop

I like to watch the ciy waking up here in Hanoi. At about 6:30 this morning I left the hotel to go for a walk, have some breakfast and enjoy a coffee at a sidewalk cafe.

A couple blocks from the hotel, I saw 2 policemen had pulled a car over and were talking to the driver. It looked like a traffic stop. In a city where traffic rules seem at best to be “suggestions”, I wondered what the driver might have done to prompt a stop.

I’ve seen drivers zoom through red lights, drive the wrong way on one way streets, drive in the wrong lane, and merrily drive motorbikes on sidewalks. I’ve seen people drive their motorbikes while making phone calls, texting, smoking, carrying on conversations with other drivers. Often I’ve seen women sidesaddle on the backs of motorbikes. It’s not unusual to see mom and dad and 2 kids on a motorbike, and other drivers with impossible loads, stacks of boxes, and construction materials.

It’s amazing how quickly I’ve become used to crossing streets here with several motorbikes bearing down on me, something I wouldn’t ever consider doing in Toronto. I avoid cars, as they can’t easily drive around a pedestrian. The big thing seems to be: go in a straight line and don’t stop.

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Walking North

The centre of Hanoi is situated west of the Red River and at its heart is a small lake called Hoan Kiem. I’m staying at the west side of the Old Quarter, about a 20 minute walk from Hoan Kiem. North of here are 2 other lakes. Truc Bach is pretty much directly north, about a half hour’s walk. It is connected to a larger lake to the west, Ho Tay, or West Lake. The two bodies of water appear to be separated by a causeway.

Walking north, I found myself on a wide avenue. On either side are some kind of guarded, walled in government or military buildings that stretched for blocks. Beyond that, I was back into neighbourhood streets again, with a varity of eateries, cafes and other businesses. My first destination was the Hanoi Cooking Centre, which offers a variety of Vietnamese cooking classes in English. I signed up for tomorrow afternoon’s class featuring dishes from Hanoi and the Northern Highlands.

From there I decided to have a look at Truc Bach.

I sat down on a lovely mosaic bench and watched a fellow fishing, using spinning gear, a bobber and a worm for bait. While I was there he caught a catfish, perhaps 15 inches long.

I continued on to West Lake. There is a perimeter road with sidewalks along the lake. At one point I passed a business renting paddle boats. It was not so different from lakefronts everywhere.

At a lakefront cafe, I took a seat on the second floor balcony and ordered up a smoothy. Hanoi does coffee and smoothies tremendously well.

From here I received Whats App messages from home about Bong Joon-ho’s tremendous success at the Oscars for his brilliant film, Parasite.

Last night I was up a couple times during the night and then out the door before 7 for breakfast, and at this point I was thinking an afternoon nap was a choice idea. I decided to try my Grab app for the first time.

Grab is much like Uber except they run a motorbike service which is hugely popular here. Unlike Uber back home, though, payment is in cash. I put my destination into the app and within minutes, a driver appeared. He handed me a helmet, I hopped on the back of his motorbike and off we went into the madness that is Hanoi traffic. My ride of a couple miles cost me under 2 bucks. Fabulous, and fun too.

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Banh Gio for Breakfast

I saw a sign for banh gio at the corner of an alley – convenient for people to stop on their motorbikes to grab something to go. There were only a couple tables and a few blue plastic stools, made for someone half my size. Banh gio was their only food offering.

These are like pork buns, with the addition of some whole quail eggs and a few noodles. The lady running the place had no English, but she offered me what turned out to be a glass of coconut milk by holding up a jug of it. The banh gio was steaming hot and so tasty. Hot sauce added some punch and a bit of acidity. The coconut milk, something I haven’t had in many years, was perfect with it.

I finished up and gestured with 1 finger for another. Breakfast was inexpensive, under 2 bucks. After, I made my way to a nearby cafe I knew was open early, for a coffee. I love the coffee here. I’ve taken to having it black with a bit of sugar. Now, I’m set for the day. I’m going to walk north to the West Lake area shortly.

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The Hanoi Fine Arts Museum and more

This morning I connected with Candy via Zoom and my cell phone and we recorded a new episode of The Agency Podcast from a sidewalk cafe, complete with street noises.

The weather remained overcast but the rain stopped and a cool breeze dried things out. I packed my rain pancho in my kit bag and headed to the Temple of Literature and the Fine Arts Museum. As it turned out I passed them both on my way to Chicken Street last evening. There was no missing them today though – there were tour buses parked in front of The Temple of Literature.

The Temple of Literature, built in 1070, was Vietnam’s first university. It was created to identify and promote outstanding scholars. They held competitions at the village level with final exams in Hanoi. The small number of students who passed were assigned choice gigs by the king.

There are 5 courtyards and a temple area – and when I was there a few tour groups.

This is in contrast to the excellent Fine Arts Museum across the street which was nearly empty.

The Museum housed work from many centuries and included a fine selection of 20th Century paintings executed using a tradional lacquer method.

There was also a selection of sculptures, screens, woodcut prints and a low basement packed with very old ceramics.

The collection was somewhat overwhelming for a single visit. Some more robust labelling of the galleries would have helped me sort out the centuries and the mediums. Still it was well worth the visit and would be worth stopping by a second time as well.

On the way back I spotted a little sidewalk bun cha place packed with local customers, and decided to stop in for lunch.

This was another spot which has dispensed with the idea of ordering. I sat me down and shortly out came my greens and bun (vermicelli noodle) followed by a genous bowl of pork in that tasty bun cha sauce (or would you call it a broth). This was even better than the bun cba I enjoyed the other day.

By this time the streets were pretty much dry so I walked over to Hoan Kiem Lake and did a drawing, after which I headed back to my hotel to relax for a while.

I opted for a simple dinner tonight of fried rice and nem (spring rolls) in the alley around the corner from my hotel.

I wanted to avoid waking in the dead of night again, so I skipped an after-dinner coffee. It as another full day and I’m knackered.