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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Vietnam (Day 11) Exploring Hanoi

Today was all about exploring Hanoi completely on our own without our hotel-provided map (and "I'm lost" hotel card with address).  My, how confident we have become - hahahaha.

Selfie from the electric car!

Anyways, our day began with an aim to take it laid-back as we chillaxed our way around Hanoi after sleeping in (which we never do) and having a late breakfast. 

Because we were feeling THAT lazy, we hired an electric car to take us around.  We really liked it! I can't remember how much we paid, but we happily agreed on a price for 1 hour. 

Our driver drove around Hoan Kiem lake and was inclined to let us out to explore, but we let him know that we had already strolled this area. Moving on, he stopped in front of the Cho Dong Xuan market and told us we should go check it out indicating where we would be able to find him afterwards. Turns out, this is Hanoi's oldest market (original storefront opened in 1889)! It's huge with so many vendors selling any product you can imagine. It appears to be mostly bulk selling and lots of local buyers, but we found everyone offering to sell individual items to us.

This was a good quick stop for us resulting in a few purchases. The kids even got into it, buying a couple of face masks that they insisted upon (I figured these would be good for them on our upcoming dusty motorbiking tour in Ninh Binh). When we came outside, we found a parking area full of identical electric cars. Lucky for us, our driver spotted us and guided us back to the correct vehicle and off we went happily enjoying the passing Hanoi street scene.

Blending in with the locals! 

I sneaky took this pic of the police station.

We hopped out at St. Joseph's Cathedral to take more pics and see about going inside. It's just as stunning in the day with its Neo-Gothic style aging with time. We learned some interesting facts about the oldest church in Hanoi. It was one of the first structures built by the French colonial government in 1886 after first demolishing a pagoda from the Ly Dynasty (11th century). To enter, you go in the side door as the main door is mainly kept shut except during mass.  There is no fee to enter and we were let in as we walked up, but we did notice that a group was held off for a bit as we exited, maybe for managing the number of people inside.
St. Joseph's Cathedral

The nice thing about hiring the electric car was being able to easily hop on/off anywhere we wanted as well as simply zip around the streets and alleys - this was very convenient to do with the kids.  

Hahaha, we even found stuffed animal street. "Keep driving!", we shouted.  As a surprise, Rob later walked back with Molly to get her a souvenir. And, didn't get lost.

Can you believe we ended up eating lunch back at the hotel. Again.  It's so good that we were actually craving the EXACT same dishes that we previously tried again. That bun cha is OUT OF THIS WORLD! Oh yeah, I took the opportunity to get another Rooster. Of course.

Another Rooster - so so so good. And, bun cha!

In the evening, we hired a sitter from the hotel and had a proper kid-free date night. We reserved a time slot at the hotel's movie theater for the sitter to bring the kids. 

La Siesta's very own movie theater.

I wanted to see more of the famous Hanoi train tracks, so we headed in that direction.  We found an even better section this time and dared to eat at a local food stall right along the tracks.  Egads - I had ice in my beer (I saw her scoop it out of a plastic sack­čś▒). Don't worry, I'm still here - hahahaha.

Old Quarter alleys are the vibe of Hanoi!

No problem. It's working just fine.

The famous Hanoi train tracks!

Yes, we ate here.

Then, we got a cyclo (could we be any lazier) to bike us the 2 minutes to Beer Corner. Turns out, Beer Corner is more like Beer Alley (or alleys). It's has an awesome✌️vibe and I enjoyed way too much­čŹ║especially considering it was the night before a road trip. Anyways, the sitter worked out great as she took them to dinner and then the movie theater in the hotel. 

Weasel coffee.  Google it.

I blame the beer, but we bought way too many propaganda posters. Like well into the double-digits. That extra luggage is definitely needed at this point.

Up Next: Enchanting Halong Bay - the Stuff of Dreams!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Vietnam (Day 10) Hanoi Kids & Hanoi Street Food

Our first full day Wandering Hanoi guided by Locals

Today we met our 2 guides from HanoiKids for our free 1/2 day (9am - 12pm) city tour. This student-run organization pairs volunteer university kids with English-speaking tourists for cross-cultural experiences. 

After some discussion in the hotel lobby, we decided on a few sights for our day.  Our guides arranged a taxi and we started with the Temple of Literature, Vietnam's first national university. Hosting the Imperial Academy, this spiritual place is a Temple of Confucius. It was built in 1070 and consists of many well-preserved complexes. It was interesting to learn about the path to doctorates and high rank scholars. There are 82 large stones etched with names and origins of 1307 doctors, corresponding to 82 exam courses from years 1442 to 1779. I can't imagine visiting this site without a guide of some sort to explain the significance of all the artifacts.  

We saw University students come for cap/gown pics.  I always love when Caitlin and Molly get the opportunity to see schools and student groups on our travels. In Vietnam, the kids are so friendly and push through shyness to introduce themselves to us and share in conversation.

Caitlin and Molly appreciated the symbolism associated with all the objects that our guides described to us as we explored the Temple of Literature.  They also participated in many symbolic activities to bring good luck to their studies. 

Book bag of olden times.  Looks heavier than books.

Writing their names to bring good luck to their studies.

On our way walking to the 2nd sight, we found a section of the Hanoi train tracks. Life takes place right alongside the tracks! In fact, a restaurant can seat you on one side and have their kitchen on the other side. This is active railway! We peeked into homes as we walked along a section. 

Hoa Lo Prison was a dark place, but we appreciated our visit. At a couple points, one of our guides had to bypass sections with Molly as we continued. There were some very graphic photos and depictions of this prison, which was used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for U.S. POWs during the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese refer to as the American War). Nicknamed "Hanoi Hilton" by the American POWs, this is the same prison where John McCain (his captured flight suit and personal effects are here) was held for over 5 years. The "pilot exhibit" is a very sanitized one-sided account. 

The girls were fascinated by the tales of successful escape. 

Bars cut section of escape. I would clearly not fit thru.

First tunnel of escape. The bars were added on afterwards.

Yes, used by the French. Yes, there were photos.

Interestingly, communism was born here as the French colonizers unwittingly facilitated the exchange of revolutionary ideas and fostered unity among the rebels in the prison conditions. 

After the haunting prison visit, we really needed a boost, so we finished up with delicious iced coconut coffee ☕️ at a kitschy Communist memorabilia decor shop called Cong Caphe. 

This was a highlight of our day as it is when we really got to learn about normal daily life and viewpoints of the average local. Our students relaxed and were quite forthcoming with their responses to our questions. They seemed equally comfortable asking us about life in the United States. Boy, did we have some laughs over each other's perceptions. They were particularly interested in Americans and gun culture. We also had candid conversation about politics and feelings about the war. Our kids, of course, asked embarrassing questions and gave embarrassing answers.

It is mind-blowing to reflect on where we were and what we saw today. But in addition to the tourist sites visited, it was wonderful to learn so much from our guides about Vietnamese culture, customs, and traditions.  They seemed to enjoy their time with us as well. If you are coming to Hanoi, you must arrange time with Hanoi Kids.  They are quite popular so make sure you reserve your day well in advance.  The guides are all students so they do this in addition to their studies and around their school schedules.  I actually tried to get a full day tour initially several months in advance, but was lucky just to get the 1/2 day. Again, they are volunteers so there is no charge.  They only request that you pay for any expenses (transportation, tickets, food/drinks).

Afterwards, we made our way back towards the hotel.  Rob went out on his own for a bit to wander and returned with some delicious (and some odd) street food.  By "some", I mean enough to feed us for days.  You know, just before we go on a food tour.  Hahahaha, you try to resist the street food!

Did someone say "street food"?! Not sure where to start? Well, the right answer is Hanoi Street Food! Yesss, we made the right choice with this food tour. Best way to explore the crazy busy chaotic frenetic streets of Hanoi at night. So much good food. So much night life. Awesome city vibe and we survived all the crossings. Our guide would shout "sticky rice" before a crossing and we would close ranks to make as big a single target as possible.

Our first stop was for bun cha (rice noodles with grilled pork) and bun nem (fried spring roll) at 21 Nguyen Huu Huan. It was sooo good that I have no pics because the food was inhaled that quickly.

Next, we tried xoi ngo (corn sticky rice) at 35b Nguyen Huu Huan.

Third stop was for nom bo kho (green papaya salad with dried beef) at 23 Ho Hoan Kiem.

4th stop was for bang cuon (rolled rice pancake) at 14b Bao Khan. The kids were more interested in the small puppy behind us, so Rob and I ate their portions in addition to our own.

We found ourselves passing by the stunning St. Joseph's Cathedral - oldest church in Hanoi. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hanoi to nearly 4 million Catholics, opened in 1886 under French colonialism. 

Our guide told us that it's open during the day, so we made a note to return tomorrow to try and go inside.

5th stop was pho cuon (summer roll), nem cua be (crabmeat spring roll), bang goi (pillow cake), and bang ran ngot (sweet donut) at 52 Ly Quoc Su. Guess which food the kids liked most? Yeah, I barely got a bite of the donut.

Nature taking over.

6th stop for pho tron (mixed pho with chicken) and bun bo nam bo (southern beef noodles) at 66 Bat Su. I lost track of my camera after the rice wine (apple and apricot), so no food pics. I love that our guide joined in! 

Caitlin and Molly nearly lost their minds when we rounded the corner and came upon this sight! Do you know why? Amazing Race!! One night before our trip, I suddenly got a million text messages telling me that Amazing Race was in Vietnam. I managed to find the Vietnam episodes and we watched it together as a family, so very excited for the Ninh Binh portion. Like BEYOND excited. Anyways, one of the challenges involved running around with these bamboo ladders and the kids immediately recognized the spot. I don't think our guide understood our explanation - hahahaha. I think the locals were amused and trying to figure us out.

The streets were getting quieter and most shops were closed as we meandered to the 7th stop for banh mi (sandwich) and ca phe trung (egg coffee) at 7 Cho Gao. OH MY GAWD, the egg coffee!!!! This was legit the most awesome sweetalicious beverage of my life. I don't understand why this isn't  thing EVERYWHERE on earth.

Our 8th and final stop of the night wrapped things up with dessert of sua chia how qua (fruit yogurt), che long nhan (longan with lotus seed), and ken xii (ice cream with sticky rice) at 95 Hang Bac which was pretty much back around to the starting point. For some reason, Molly got supreme satisfaction from eating the ice instead.  I know that will freak some people out - the horror, not the ICE!! Bwahahahaha, she was fine, as were we for the ENTIRE trip of throwing caution to the wind and eating ANYTHING that was set before us, including the OMG ice.

We LOVED our Hanoi Street Food tour and highly recommend it! Such a great way to take in the sights and sounds of Hanoi life as you are led around from one food vendor to the next one.  I had pre-booked our tour online.  We paid in person ($20 per person cash-only) at the meeting place of 74 Hang Bac Street, which was so easy to find near our hotel on Ma May Street. We went in expecting to be a part of a group, but somehow got lucky with our very own private tour.  They probably took one look at our kids and decided to spare the other tourists - hahahahaha.

Afterwards, our lovely guide handed me a handwritten note listing all the places and foods that we had experienced on our fabulous Hanoi Street Food tour. She even added a couple more, which we sadly did not get to try. But, I'll list them for you! 

Original Egg Coffee - 39 Nguyen Huu Huan (go into the small alley).

Banh Mi Sandwich - 38 Dinh Liet.


As we walked back to our hotel, we nearly lost Molly not realizing that she had come to a complete halt at the Fish Massage.  I had to retreat back to get her. Love these moments when I catch them fascinated by new and unfamiliar things!    

Up Next: Exploring Hanoi - On our own with no plan!