By DOMINICK A. MERLE
The colorful Old Quarter of Hanoi stretches over 125 blocks with 36 narrow streets winding through the central core and I am in the very heart of that core at a funky boutique hotel called Maison D’Hanoi.
My adventure begins as soon as I set one foot out the front door---dodging motorbikes, rickshaws, peddler carts, taxis, street hustlers, cars and mini-buses that swarm around wide-eyed tourists like a school of fish.
This is definitely no walk in the park. My guide Huan described it as “Hanoi hip-hopping,” a necessary gait for pedestrians to avoid, at the very least, being grazed by one sort of contraption or another.
“Do like this,” he said as he seemed to tap-dance along the side of the road, weaving in and out of anything that came along. By the third day, I had mastered the two-step and became accustomed to feeling the breeze of the speeding motorbikes.
I came to Vietnam to attend an international travel show known as the ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) in the resort city of Halong Bay, about a 3-hour drive south of Hanoi. The event promotes tourism for 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)---Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam---and is hosted annually in those countries in alphabetical order.
After five days at the travel show, it was time to unwind and discover the real Vietnam so I contacted a tour agency appropriately named Explore Real Asia (ERA), to set up an itinerary that would include Halong Bay, take me south to Hoi An and finish in the northern capital of Hanoi.
As its owner and CEO Mai Hoang aptly put it, “Better you relax in Halong Bay and Hoi An---save your energy for Hanoi.”
Actually, Halong Bay is Vietnam’s No. 1 tourist attraction, designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Even though it is just now beginning to receive international exposure, it can easily compare to Thailand’s Phuket, Malaysia’s Langkawi and Italy’s Capri.
There are about 2,000 limestone islands of various shapes and sizes zooming out of Halong Bay. Many contain enormous caves and grottoes and some of the larger islands even support floating fishing villages.
We cruised the Bay for a half day, weaving around the islands---actually “through” a few of
them via caves with sparkling white stalactites that hung like chandeliers and lit our way. I will long remember those magnificent limestone islands, the caves and grottoes, emerald sea and especially, the beautiful sound of silence.
Travelling is tricky in Vietnam. We drove 2 hours north to Hanoi the next morning , then took a 60-minute flight south to Da Nang to visit the nearby ancient capital city of Hue. Situated on the banks of the Perfume River, Hue’s main attractions are its sprawling Citadel grounds, which contain the former palace and Vietnam’s version of China’s Forbidden City, and the tombs of several emperors.
It was a 6-hour drive further south to our next stop, Hoi An, another ancient city, but definitely more touristy. Winding narrow streets take you past shops of every description---a Chinese temple or two, a Japanese pagoda, a covered bridge, a soup shack, a silk shop etc.
Hoi An is a walker’s and shopper’s delight. A tailor will make you a suit of clothes while you’re sightseeing.
The next day it was back to Da Nang for our flight to Hanoi. We had one last look at the majesty of Halong Bay from the air.
Mai escorted me to the heart of the Old Quarter and the Maison D’Hanoi Hotel, which would be my home for the next 5 nights, and introduced me to my guide, Huan, who was waiting in the lobby. Shortly after, Huan gave me that first lesson in the Hanoi Hip-Hop.
There are an estimated 4-million motorbikes in Hanoi and it seemed like all were zooming down my hotel street and honking their horns at the same time.
“Hope you’re hungry,” Huan said, “we’re going on a walking food tour.”
We started out with banh mi, a typical Vietnamese sandwich of beef and herbs. Next stop was banh cuon (rolled rice paper stuffed with pork and mushrooms.)
Our third stop was for perhaps Vietnam’s most famous food, Pho, that delicious beef and noodle soup in a broth that takes 8 hours to prepare. The 2 best Pho restaurants in Hanoi, in the world for that matter, are Pho No. 10, where we stopped, and Pho No. 49. The numbers are simply the addresses on their streets.
Stops 4 and 5 were for bun cha (pork and vermicelli), and sua chua nep cam (yoghurt mixed with black rice and coconut milk.)
Vietnamese are wild about exotic coffee and we finished with one of them, café truing (honey, egg yolk and cream mixed into strong black coffee).
The next day was free so I practiced my hip-hopping throughout the central core, got lost a couple of times and got ripped off by a rickshaw driver who took the “historic route” back to my hotel.
On Day 3 we had a hands-on cooking class where we prepared some of those first night dishes (spring rolls and bun cha) and ate what we made, for better or worse. In the afternoon we visited the infamous Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton) where POWs and political enemies were held during the war.
Hanoi was virtually untouched during the war, so the Old Quarter buildings remain just as they were 1,000 years ago. Many of them are tall, thin structures, often referred to as “tubes,” two rooms to a floor, one behind the other. They were initially built that way to avoid taxes, which were based on the width of the frontage.
That night Huan led me through a few alleys. “Now you can try some strange food,” he said. “Eat what you like.”
The alley buffet included tiet canh (blood pudding), balut (duck embryo), su sung (peanut worms), barbecued mice and snake (no translations for these.) I chose snake as my one snack. Tasted just like bun cha.
Days 4 and 5 were to outlying areas, first a 3-hour drive south to Thien Ha, often referred to as Little Halong Bay. On the way we passed Vietnam’s most expensive private residence, a sprawling castle-like estate valued at $130-million occupied by a cement manufacturer and his family.
But Thien Ha, with its limestone mountains zooming out of the tranquil clear waters, stole the show. We took a 2-hour rowboat tour through grottoes and caves---one cave was longer than 5 football fields strung end to end.
Our final day included visits to Bat Trang, a pottery and ceramic village, and Van Phuc, a village whose sole industry is producing Vietnam’s finest silk.
On the way to the airport the next morning, Huan mentioned that he would be attending a burial ceremony for a relative that evening. I offered my condolences, whereupon he informed me that the relative had died 7 years ago.
He explained that most Vietnamese follow a unique custom of 2 burials. On the odd years following the actual death---usually 5, 7 or 9 years---the grave is exhumed in the middle of the night and the remains reburied in a smaller metal casket at another site.
“It will be both a happy and sad occasion,” Huan said. “Even in death, there is beauty.”
(Dominick A. Merle is co-founder of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Assn. and is based in Montreal. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)
IF YOU GO;
For further information on Vietnam try the website vietnamtourism.gov.vn
For Explore Real Asia (ERA), eratour.vn or email@example.com
We flew Air China from Montreal to Hanoi via Beijing.
Practice your footwork for the Old Quarter.