Monday, 10 August 2015

Hanoi & Sapa, Vietnam

Here comes the second part of Vietnam, the North. 

I wanted to cover Hanoi and Sapa in one long weekend. Though it would have been nice to cover Ha Long Bay too, I’m not overly keen about it. Yes it’s supposed to be stunning, but it’s also frightfully touristy and there aren’t options to do it in a non-mainstream way to see something different. Maybe another time for another weekend and I’ll mix it up with something else. 

Went solo this time too. I didn’t book any accommodation for the the 3 days, because I booked one overnight train to Sapa for a day-trek, then return to Hanoi on the same day via another overnight train. It’s a fair amount of walking, and previous experience has taught me that it’s better to go alone than to drag the dead weight of someone who’s not physically fit enough.

Landed Hanoi around noon, took bus no.7 then changed to no.9 to get to the Old Quarter area - about 1.5hrs. Traffic is much better than Saigon here, yea there are still a gazillion scooters everywhere, but decidedly less honking and somewhat more organised in a chaotic way.

My first stop was bun cha & nem at 1 Hang Manh Street (90k dong). I love bun cha, partly influenced by Mama Chan and party because it’s the ideal food in a hot country. The cool vermiceilli is served next to charcoal grilled pork patties, belly and thin chops, together with a tangy sweet vinegar sauce, abundance of herbs, chopped garlic and chillies and a side of crispy spring rolls. We don’t get this kind of bun cha outside Vietnam - the version we are used to is a bowl of vermicelli with lots of shredded lettuces and carrots, topped whatever you like, and mixed with nouc cham! This was a thousand times better - the patties were juicy and smoky, pork belly slices were tender and nutty, the dipping broth was savoury and sweet and tangy, I added a generous amount of raw garlic too and it was stunning. I devoured everything. The man did well to recommend this spot - tick.

With a satisfied stomach I wandered around the Old Quarter. Most of the streets started with “Hang”, which translates to “Buy”. So historically each of these streets were named after what they were selling, like Hang Vai was selling clothes. Things have moved on so it’s not always applicable now, but this is still evident on some streets. Stopped for a good egg coffee, which was whisked egg instead of milk foam on top of ultra strong coffee and a layer of condensed milk at the bottom. It was perfect as long as I don’t disturb the sweetened milk.

The Hoan Kiem Lake was a good spot to rest as the sun sets. The story was a Golden Turtle God claimed a magic sword from an ancient emperor, and so it was also named the Lake of Returned Sword; the little tower in the middle of lake is the Turtle Tower. I couldn’t spot any turtles though. 

Meandered my way back into the labyrinth of streets in the Old Quarter for dinner. It’s time for pho; the dish did originate from North Vietnam after all. The other place the man recommended from his travels was Gia Thuyen at 49 Bat Dan Street. And boy you’d know it’s famous judging from the insane queue. Turnover was speedy though so it was less than a 10min wait.  I even got a portion of fried dough like the locals here to soak up the savoury broth (c.45k + 5k dong).

Unfortunately this one didn’t hit the spot for me. Though it was still a strong soup base with smooth pho and tender beef tendon and brisket, I felt the one at Pho Le in Saigon was better…

I also picked up a sticky rice at Xoi Yen at 35 Nguyen Huu Street for the train, the pho wasn’t that substantial and I didn’t like mixing fried dough with it. The portion was very hearty, topped with gio lua, marinated egg, pork floss, shredded chicken, minced pork, chinese sausage, and the highlight of it all, mung bean puree (50k dong). It was like a massive deconstructed rice dumpling. I’m a sucker for sticky rice and it was delicious. Couldn’t stomach the whole box but I really wanted to.

I went with Fansipan Express for the overnight train. It didn’t really matter as all the companies were just the same train in different coaches. The ticket office was just behind the train station, offered free wifi while we waited to board the train.

The train journey was very comfortable, standard 4 beds per cabin with strong air-con. I slept for at least 6 hours in the 9-hour train ride. 

Arrived at Lao Cai just before 6am. Past the hordes of minibuses and taxis to the far end of the carpark was the public minibus to Sapa which ran at 30mins interval, starting as early as 5am. The ride took just over an hour. As we started to climb the mountains, it was a gob-smacking sight during sun rise, when it rose above a dense layer of fog among the undulating slopes, which peaked just above the fog sea. It was a shame I was so mesmerised by the view I forgot to snap a shot… Stick to the left hand side of the bus on the way to Sapa. 

I slurped a good breakfast pho before signing up to a 1-day trek tour in Sapa (300k dong). Most people stay more than 1 day in Sapa, to venture to further villages and perhaps homestays with one of the tribes. It’s one of the things I wasn’t sure about. All the ethnic minority groups in the region are dependent on tourism as their main source income, so the homestays have mutated to cater for tourists. This means the accommodation would be fairly comfortable, at the expense of the authenticity. On the other hand, if it was a truly rustic experience, as an ultimate mosquito magnet, am I prepared to trek for 7+ hours the following day after an uncomfortable sleep in a relatively wet region, for relatively repetitive scenery? My mind was set on doing 1 day in Sapa.

It was a very laid back trek around the fields, only made difficult by the scorching sun. We stopped at Lao Chai village for lunch. The cold water in the river was clear and incredibly refreshing for a quick dip… We carried on to Ta Phin village after lunch, from there a minibus drove us back to Sapa.

The trek finished around 4pm and I was offered to shower at the tour office before catching the 6pm bus back to Lao Cai for my 8:15pm train. Even had time for a drink with my new friend:)

Back to Hanoi at 4:30am. I headed to the West Lake to catch the sun rise and wandered around the French district before the city heats up.

Then I headed back to Old Quarter for a bun rieu cua at 11 Hang Bac Street. It was literally  a hole in wall. The tomato based soup was infused with freshwater crab, which gave the soup a beautiful sweetness. The rice vermicelli was loaded with a small lump of crabmeat, fried tofu and plenty of herbs on the side. It was a great start of the day, followed by a drip coffee in City View cafe that overlooks the lake.

Then I had a mid-morning snack of banh cuon at 14 Hang Ga Street. It was a thin steamed rice flour pancake, like cheung fun in Chinese cuisine, filled with minced worked and preserved vegetable, served with a fish sauce based broth for dipping and a handful of fresh herbs and deep fried shallots. The wafer thin pancake was incredibly smooth and went gorgeously with the broth. Gorgeous.

Then it was a blissful hour at SF Spa for a hot shower and a full body Vietnamese traditional massage. 

Before heading to the airport, I had another bun cha and nem in Ngon Gach. The hem here is definitely crispier with fluffier rice paper wrapping, but much greasier. The pork was less well barbecued as it had more burnt bits too. It was good, but not as good as the other place. I didn’t finish everything. Instead I picked up a banh mi at Banh Mi 25 down the road. The owner was lovely, the baguette, though served warm and crusty, wasn’t as good as the one from Saigon. 

I had a great time in North Vietnam, and I can understand why a lot of people prefer Hanoi to HCMC, there’s a certain European charm to it. I don’t think I have a preference, thought both ends of the country have lots of offer. I felt very lucky that I could break it into separate trips, I could imagine if I had to travel along the country, it could be very exhausting to cover as much. I might start looking into Da Nang or Haphong next:)

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