We made our way into Vietnam overland at the Friendship Gate border crossing near Pingxiang, China. The journey from Daxin took just over 3 hours. Oddly enough, the Chinese have made Friendship Gate a destination in it’s own right and many Chinese tourists ventured only as far as the border to see the underwhelming “gate”. Customs on the Chinese side was very official, with Ting almost being retained in China. The Chinese customs official insisted on matching every single one of her entry and exit stamps over the past 7 years. On the Vietnamese side, we hopped in a minivan headed to Hanoi. After a three hour bus ride and our first experience with locals vomiting en route, we were dropped outside our hotel. By chance, Jake and Lucy, two friends from Shanghai also on a long vacation from Nepal down through Southeast Asia, were walking by our hotel at the exact moment we were dropped off. Small world.
We checked into the Tu Linh Palace Hotel and after years in China were pleasantly surprised by Vietnam’s emphasis on customer service. The front desk manager, Tim, walked us to the nearest phone store to get a SIM card ($2.50 for a month of unlimited data) and told us everything we needed to know to hunt down the best food Hanoi had to offer. He greeted us by name and offered us drinks and fresh fruit every time we came back to the hotel. When we called four days after checking out, he still remembered our names and was happy to help with anything we needed while in Vietnam.
Once we were settled, we headed out for food…and didn’t stop eating for four straight days (see our Hanoi Food Gallery). While difficult to pick a favorite, top contenders were bun bo (beef, noodles, mint, basil, fried onions, carrot, pickled radish, bean sprouts, lettuce, and peanuts) and hoa qua (fresh fruit with coconut milk, condensed milk and shaved ice) which we ate everyday. Another highlight was Cafe Pho Co, a hidden coffee shop accessed through a silk shop located at 11 Hang Gai Road. The hallway behind the shop opens up to a beautiful courtyard where you place your order before climbing two sets of stairs and a spiral staircase to seating that provides great views across Hoan Kiem Lake. We tried the ca phe trung (coffee with whipped raw egg) and spent some time writing other Wandering Table entries while soaking in the views.
At night, Hanoi doesn’t slow down a bit. The most active spots are the bia hoi shops. Bia hoi is beer that is delivered fresh every day. It has no preservatives and doesn’t keep well so the places stay open until the beer runs out. Patrons sit on tiny plastic seats along the sidewalk and sip 8000VND pints (~$0.42). Every seat faces the street. To take advantage of this perfect people watching opportunity, we invented a drinking game called Hanoi Three Seater. The rules are simple: take a sip of beer every time you see 3 or more people on a motor bike. This was intended to encourage casual drinking, but we grossly underestimated the Vietnamese people’s ability to car pool. Forty-five minutes later, 8 beers down, but only three dollars poorer.
One morning, when Eric’s cowlick became particularly unwieldy, he decided to try one of the city’s many outdoor barbers. We found a man armed with a mirror, a chair, and a patch of sidewalk a few blocks from our hotel. Despite low expectations and not being able to communicate with the barber, it ended up being perhaps the best haircut of Eric’s life (no offense, Mom).
Despite the dangers of dodging Hanoi’s millions of motorbikes, we truly enjoyed traversing the city in search of new culinary treasures.