February 24th 2017
I have signed up for the ‘Hanoi walking food tour’ in the hopes that I will get dinner without having to press-gang some random hapless diner into conveying me home, however the experience is not starting well. Jacelyn (surely not her real name) the guide has sent transportation to pick me up, and I soon realize the only thing worse than crossing the street in front of a wall of oncoming motorbikes, is being pedaled slowly into the wall on a bicycle rickshaw driven by a man who appears to be much, much older than me while only about a third of my size. However, when I disembark, things begin to look up. The thirty-something young man who is the other participant coincidentally comes from near my home town, so we can bond over things Northern and have the customary moan about Brexit.
First things first: ‘Crossing the Road 101’. Counter-intuitively, when confronted by the motorbike wall the key is to freeze in place rather than make the terrified dash for the curb. Jacelyn grabs our hands in the middle of the road to make the point; once I have cautiously opened my eyes again it is evident that, as she predicted, they have indeed simply flowed around us like a limpid albeit noisy stream. This revelation itself is worth the price of admission, since we can now focus on the main point of the outing – eating. Over the next 5 hours we will visit about 10 street food stalls that cook their specialty dish on the sidewalks of the Old Quarter. The drill is the same – pull up a low plastic stool and inhale. About every third stall we alternate with Hanoi home brew. By 10:30 we are ready to roll home.
Starting off with the hard-boiled duck eggs that come in a bowl with a bit of tasty ginger broth. Unexpectedly right there beside the egg yolk nestles quite a substantial, and equally hard boiled, duck embryo. Can’t deny it looks gross, but honestly tastes just like chicken (well OK duck).
Next, we duck down a gloomy side alley to a gloomy guy steaming snails with lemongrass and chili and serving them with mushroom turnovers. Check. The old crone down another alley specializes in steamed bao filled with unnamed but exquisite organ meats. Check. And on (and on and on) via all sorts of combinations of noodles and grilled meats to a dosa-like pancake and fried catfish. We top it all off with egg coffee – a kind of zabaglione of egg yolks and condensed milk that tastes like dulce de leche, floated on coffee. Many, many revelations. I graduate with honors and permission to cross the horrifying intersection by my hotel on my own, the Hanoi home brew keeping my stress levels nicely in check.
Topped off the trip to Hanoi with a visit to Ho Chi Min’s mausoleum. Everything the final resting place of a major dictator should be, a concrete brutalist monstrosity complete with lines around the block, patriotic songs blaring out of the vintage speakers, throngs of schoolkids in neckerchiefs waving flags assiduously and best of all, grimly spotty young soldiers in ill-designed and executed uniforms conveying conflicting instructions – hats on; no, hats off; cameras not allowed; no, small cameras allowed (huh?); two lines; no, single file etc. etc. Most of all no lingering to ogle the actual body (or is it called a mummy?). Apparently, H-C M is shipped off to Russia for refurbishing (according to the Swedes behind me in line there is one Russian who takes care of all the dead dictators on an annual basis –Uncle Ho too). Since this is the low season, maybe this was merely his waxen effigy?
Bus, boat and bus tomorrow for a 6-hour trip to Cat Ba Island in the La Han bay, another UNESCO site. But this being Vietnam, where watches are all set ahead so tourists are always late, this is accomplished simply and expeditiously by buying a single ticket at the bus office. We’re out of the third world!