Blog: We’ve Seen It All – In Hanoi

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You might have noticed that I start all reviews of the 1000 places with “1 of 1000″ in the title. This time, I am actually writing about 3 of the 1000 in one single post:

Hanoi’s Old Quarter,
The French Quarter of Hanoi and
The Cha Ca La Vong Restaurant...

Since all of them are in Hanoi, we thought it would be fitting to put them all in one post. If you want to learn about crazy Vietnamese traditions, a fantastic morning experience and our horrifying animal encounter, then you should keep on reading.

1: Taking the Night Train

We had a wonderful and comfortable train ride from Hoi An (Danang) to Hanoi on the night train in a 4 bed soft sleeper cabin.

Don’t be mistaken when I say the terms “comfortable” and “soft sleeper”. That is all in Vietnamese standard. Comfortable means, the beds were big enough so I could fit in them (barely), there was air conditioning, although switching from hot to freezing and back within 30 minutes and the train was bouncing so much that we took a motion sickness pill just in case. Soft sleeper just means there is a little bit of cushioning over the wooden beds. But all in all it was good enough for us to get some sleep before we got to Hanoi at 5 am.

The most exiting part of the train ride was the first 3 hours, between Danang an Hue. Not only did we meet an interesting guy (about 50 years old, British) who sold everything back home to travel around until his money runs out. We also got to see a astonishing view of the Vietnam coast. The railway was partly build right next to the coast and along some pretty beaches. Somehow we forgot take a picture before it git dark, so we can’t share that view with you.

2: The Old Quarter in Hanoi

To make it easy for us to see the Hanoi Old Quarter we decided to stay in a hotel right at the heart of the Old Quarter in Hanoi. To avoid getting scammed by the Taxis outside the train station we walked the 15 minutes to the hotel, just to find out that it was still closed and we had to wait for the doors to open.

Since we were tired we weren’t too happy about it, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It was fascinating to see the people in the Old Quarter starting to get into gears at 5 am. Restaurant owners were sitting outside to pluck chickens and peel potatoes or shrimps. The market vendors drove their fully packed bicycles to the markets and some people just stood outside and did their morning aerobics.

It was quite an experience and I encourage everyone who goes to Hanoi to wake up early and just absorb the action that is going on before everyone else gets up and the streets become to busy to notice anything else but traffic.

The Old Quarter is made up by 36 streets, each of them named after the product that used to be sold here (Silk Street, Rice Street, Pan Street, etc.). Today it still filled with hundreds if not thousands of stores that sell everything and of course they are kept to the Asian “Same, same, but different” principle. We walked around the Old Quarter for an hour or so after it got dark, but we didn’t want to by anything anyways so we just enjoyed the variety for a few moments and headed back to the hotel.

3: Same, Same, but different

If you have never been to Asia before, let me explain the “Same, same, but different”- principle. Unlike in other parts of the world, the shops of a specific product are not spread out all over the city so that in each area there is at least one place the people of the neighborhood can go to. Instead, if there is a successful shop selling something, then someone else will open a shop with exactly the same products just next door. And if there are 2 successful shops for specific products, then there must be a market for 10 or 15 of those stores right next to each other.

Therefore you might walk around the city for hours, looking for a shop of a certain product and never even find a single one. But as soon as you find one, there are at least 10 of them. The words “Same, same, but different” were used by the shop owner who tried to lure the tourists to their shop, claiming that he has the same products as the other shop (“same, same”), but just a little bit better (“but different”).

4: The French Quarter of Hanoi

Hanoi used to be the capital of the French Indochina, the French colony which included Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. As a result, there is a whole quarter that still has lots of French villas, buildings and broad avenues which remind of past times.

The French Quarter was only a 15 minute walk away from our hotel, so again we avoided the scammers and walked past the Hoan Kiem Lake to see what the French had left behind. Once we saw building that were wider than just 4 meters, we knew that we had reached the French Quarter. Today most of the area is converted to luxury boutiques and restaurants for those who are able and willing to spend a little more.

5: The Cha Ca La Vong Restaurant

This is the first place that we will cross off our list even though we didn’t really go in. The Cha Ca La Vong is a specialty restaurant with a 200 year tradition behind it and they only serve one dish. After we read some online reviews and walked by the restaurant we decided not to go in. The place looked a bit run down, the portions are supposed to be tiny and overpriced.

Instead we had a great culinary experience when we met with Tom, a Vietnamese who grew up in Germany. He took us to a street “restaurant” where we sat at tiny tables with even tinier plastic chairs. It was one of those places where you couldn’t go as a foreigner because you just wouldn’t know what to eat.

Tom ordered different meats that were served raw with a little burner and pan that was placed on the table. We spent the next two hours enjoying the food as Toms friend barbecued the different meats and vegetables for us. Delicious and interesting at once.

When we started to rave about the food and mentioned Cha Ca La Vong, Tom started to rave about their food. He explained that the one dish they serve is very hard to prepare and this place was the best in the world for this dish. He also told us that is a very special fish dish that has an extreme smell to it and you must love fish in order to really appreciate the food. He said that people who don’t like fish and haven’t tried this type of food will most likely be disappointed.

Even though we decided not to go because we probably wouldn’t enjoy it, we realized that you can’t always rely on the looks of the restaurant and the reviews of other travelers.

6: Is each place one of the 1000?

Hanoi’s Old Quarter: The variety of products sold on the streets and the flair of the Old Quarter at night is something worth seeing. I guess that in the past it was even more exiting to see the each street filled with merchants selling their goods. Today the goods that are sold can be found in every tourist area in Vietnam which makes this place something worth going to when you’re already in Hanoi, but not something you would tell your grandchildren about when you’re old as one of the great things you’ve seen in your life.

French Quarter of Hanoi: If you have been to France, especially to Paris, then the French Quarter might not seem to spectacular as advertised in the 1000 Places To See Before You Die.

It is kind of cool that there is a French Quarter in the middle of Asia, but it is not something that I wouldn’t say that it is worth to fly to Asia just to see it. So no it is not one of the places.

The Cha Ca La Vong Restaurant: Even after Tom explained the value of the meal and the long tradition of this restaurant we still don’t think it should be one of the places. It is a great delicacy for those who are into this kind of food, but it is not for us. So we will scratch this one from our list, too. It might be one of the 1000 for some people, but certainly not for us.

7: What about Hanoi?

Today we scratched 3 places, but like in Saigon, we will add the entire city to the list. The 3 places are great, but not as individual places. If you take them all together and combine it with the experience of a wakening Hanoi and the small stuff around Hanoi like the early morning aerobics at the Hoan Kiem Lake it is really worth a visit at least once in your life.

8: Our Horrific Animal Encounter

I promised you some action stories and first hand experience. Well this can be considered just that. Our last night before we were supposed to leave for Sapa, we woke up in the middle of the night because we heard a strange noise. We turned on the light, but couldn’t find anything that suggested something was wrong. Lights off.

After 2 minutes, the same rustling sound appeared. Was it the air conditioning? Lights on. No sign of anything strange. Air conditioning off. Lights off.

Another 2 minutes later. Lights on. Nothing strange. Lights off. This happened 4 or 5 times until I decided to turn the lights off and wait with my cell phone flashlight at the edge of the bed. And surely after a few minutes the rustling sound reappeared. I turned on the flashlight and didn’t see anything. But I did hear where the sound came from. Lights on.

It came from underneath the small table, where I found one of our vacuum packed cookies, but there were tiny bite marks on it. I knew I had to get rid of all our food in the room. I took the cookies out from our backpack and put them into the tiny fridge.

As I started to tell Soni about it, I saw it running. The rat. There was a rat in our room and it ran past me right into our small backpack. I guess it was disappointed that there weren’t any cookies left, so after 10 seconds it ran up the wall behind our bed and through a tiny hole in the back wall.

We were tired and exhausted and just wanted to sleep. But how can you sleep when there is a rat in the room? We left the lights on. Soni put on her sleeping mask and tried to sleep while I stayed up and did some research on the web what we could do to get rid of rats – quickly.

Unfortunately all information I found in more than 1 hour of research was about long term plans of how to get rid of rats and even more discouraging was the information that rats have adapted to light… So leaving the lights on would not keep them away. I decided not to tell Soni so she would still think we are safe with the lights on ;- )

After more than 1 1/2 hours I was finally so tired that I also fell asleep. The rat never reappeared and we got up in the morning, completely exhausted with the knowledge that we would have an exhausting night train ride to Sapa in front of us. But that will be another post…

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