Our stay in Hanoi was split in two by our trip to Halong Bay. We arrived here on our first day in Vietnam and had a quick look around the old quarter, walking around Hoan Kiem Lake and getting happily lost in the streets around our hotel. We enjoyed a coffee (for me obviously) and a coconut (for Sally) in a cafe with a decent view out over the lake and had dinner in a little restaurant that served Vietnamese cuisine but was clearly geared towards tourists; by that I mean it was a new looking, sit down restaurant with tables and chairs! Our lunch was very different. We had been warned about the roads in Vietnam and that to cross them you mostly just walked and let the traffic avoid you (very true of motorbikes, not so much for cars and definitely not for buses), but despite all of the warnings the first time we stepped foot in a road and a bike headed towards us Sally stopped. No harm done and we soon got the hang of it, but it was hungry work and we were already fairly lost so we just entered the first place selling food we saw. Luckily the girl spoke some English and explained the menu so we sat down on tiny plastic chairs and ate a platter of meats and noodles washed down with an Hanoi Beer.
We were completely knackered from our overnight flight only giving us a couple of hours sleep so it was an early night. Then off to Halong Bay in the morning. On our return to Hanoi we checked into a different hotel only to be told that there was a water leak in our room and we would need to stay at their sister hotel for a night. Now on our cruise one of the couples had been in the same situation and found themselves moved to a disgusting hotel without running water so we were a little nervous. Turned out the sister hotel was about four doors down the road and whilst maybe not as nice as the one we were booked into we did spend the night in a very spacious room with two double beds. Sadly my overindulgence on the cruise meant we spent most of the night in the room and got another early night.
The next day, our last and only full day in Hanoi, we got up and headed back to Hoan Kiem Lake to grab a coffee and get tickets to see the water puppet show. On the way back to our hotel we booked on a street food walking tour for the evening and then swapped back to a smaller, but nicer room in our original hotel. We decided to walk a bit further afield and visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the One Pillar Pagoda, although we weren’t suitably dressed or prepared to find our way into any of the buildings it was a nice walk through town to see some impressive buildings. We rewarded ourselves for the long walk with a lunch of pho (noodle soup) in the cafe attached to the Handspan tour office, because it was easy and opposite our hotel.
Onto the water puppets. The stage is essentially a pool of water in front of a traditional building facade and the puppets are wooden and/or material and controlled by poles under the water. They dance around, sometimes portraying stories, to the sound of music and singing from live performers off to one side. One story depicted a Vietnamese ruler on Hoan Kiem Lake showing a mighty warrior the powerful sword that had helped him to win his rule, a giant turtle then surfaced and took the sword from him before disappearing with it below the surface. The ruler is said to have returned his sword to the gods after they helped him gain his rule and bring peace to the land. Other parts were just fun dances and there was a little bit of slapstick comedy (like a fisherman chasing a fish and accidentally catching a nearby lady in his net).
We went straight from the show to our street food walking tour and were lead around the city by our tour guide and a girl from the tour agency. Sally got chatting to the girl and discovered they were the same age, I think she was just there to help Sally cross the roads and take shed loads of photos! We visited a lot of different parts of the city and tried a variety of street foods. First off was some sticky rice, which was tasty enough but a bit dry by itself. Sally was especially pleased to see us stop at an ice cream shop for a chocolate flavour ice lolly. A long walk later we enjoyed spring rolls (nam) and some sort of pork pasty creation sat on plastic foot stalls indoors huddled under someones stairway. Our favourite stop was for pho bo (beef noodle soup) at a place that had served pretty much only that dish and smelled absolutely awful! The pho was lovely though. There is a trend here for very imaginative shop names; what they sell followed by the the street number and street name. Next was more foot stalls this time just on the pavement and a glass each of super sweet sugarcane juice (thankfully less sweet and a lot nicer than the stuff we tried in Cabramatta). Before our last food stop for some very slimy rice pancakes, which we weren’t overly fond of, could just have been because we were full to bursting by this point. We finished the tour sat on foot stalls on a pavement near our hotel drinking super cheap locally brewed beer (Bia Hoi for 5000VND a glass which is about 20p I think). The tour cost us $15 each, lasted three hours and showed us more of Hanoi’s culture and food than we ever could have tried on our own. I’d highly recommend it and thank you to the girl on our Halong Bay tour who suggested it to us.