Goodbye Dumpling, Hello Pho

Trip Start Mar 08, 2011
Trip End Jun 11, 2011

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The flights to Hanoi were fairly uneventful. This was our first time flying Dragonair (obviously), and it didn't disappoint.  The flight from Beijing to Hong Kong included a three course meal that was the best airline food we have ever tasted, and there was a movie to boot (True Grit).  Not bad for a three hour flight.  No wonder all of the Asian airlines win the awards for best airlines.  Our layover was supposed to be fairly short, so a representative from Dragonair was waiting for us when we got to Hong Kong to take us to the gate.  We learned that our flight to Hanoi had been delayed which gave us time to check some email (and wish Matt a happy birthday).  We received dinner on the second flight and made it to Hanoi around 9pm.  After picking up our bags and clearing customs, we headed to find an ATM (which is our standard routine these days).  We find the ATM and I am able to take out increments of 500,000 dong with a max of 8 million.  For the first time in my life I was a millionaire, and didn’t even need a briefcase to carry it all.  For those who are curious, there are 20,000 dong to the dollar.  So I tell Amy to move over the decimal place 4 spots and divide by 2 for the exchange rate.  Our hostel (Little Hanoi 2) sent a driver to pick us up free of charge.  This was a nice feature considering the drive to the city was about an hour and there are many scams by the taxi drivers (which we will get to in a future blog).  We made it to the hostel safely, but it was late and we were awfully tired (and it was pouring out), so we had a complimentary glass of tea and headed to bed early.

We slept in the next morning, but made it down to breakfast (once again included, this hostel is great) just in time.  In Vietnam, most people eat pho (a beef or chicken noodle soup) for breakfast.  Anyone who knows me knows that I will eat pho no matter what time of day it is.  So I went with the chicken soup.  Amy had the more traditional eggs, bacon, and bread.  The bread in Vietnam is fantastic from the French influence (so plenty of baguettes). 

Due to the smog in Beijing, along with two flights, Amy had developed a sinus infection, which is typical for her.  In America, this usually means a trip to the urgent care doctor, then off to the pharmacy to get antibiotics (and a $200 bill at the end of the day).  We tried to skip the doctor part, so we asked the concierge at our hotel (the lady at the front desk) where a pharmacy was to pick up Sudafed.  She points us in the right direction and off we go.  We make it to the pharmacy, and in sign language try to ask for allergy medicine.  The lady disappears for a few minutes, comes back with amoxicillin and nose spray, and asks for 300,000 dong (yikes, oh wait, that is only $15).  No wonder our healthcare system sucks so much. 

Finally able to explore the city, we start to walk along Hoan Kiem Lake.  The lake is famous for housing turtles and an ancient story about a magical sword.  During the drive from the airport last night and the morning we’d heard all the mopeds, scooters and cars whizzing by and honking.  It wasn’t until we were on foot trying to cross the road where we realized the pure chaos on the street. There are lines on the road and traffic lights but it seems to us that these are all optional.  When crossing the street, might makes right where the biggest vehicle (usually a tour or mini-bus) gets right of way and then come the smaller cars and taxis and then mopeds and scooters and then cyclos (a rickshaw type set up where you sit up front and are pedaled around, and then bicycles and then finally pedestrians.  It took Amy about an hour to work up the courage to cross the street following me. The key is to go slow and steady after all the large vehicles have cleared and the smaller ones can go around you. Amazingly, there are very few accidents or fender benders in this sort of symphony – we’ll post a video with more detail later.

Our hostel is located right in Old Quarter on the lake, so pretty convenient for walking around. We had read and heard about the Water Puppetry (mostly from Amazing Race Season 12) so we head across the lake to the to the Water Puppet show ticket office.  There are performances every hour and fifteen minutes starting at 2:15pm.  We figured we are getting there early enough (it was about noon) to have quite a selection, but instead the ticket counter is just about to close and we get the last two tickets of the day (for the 2:15 show).  We spent the rest of the morning walking around the Old Quarter.  The Old Quarter consists of many streets (all walkable though) that contain shops and restaurants.  Each street has a number of shops and stalls that all sell the same item.  So there is sunglass street, t shirt street, silk street, a street to pick up more panties (or unterhosen for our German friends), muffler street, etc, etc, etc.  We first stop by fake North Face goods street because Amy was looking to get a smaller bag to carry around as a day pack.  She tries on a few pairs and decides that the best option is this cute little grey fanny pack (whatever she likes).  Now is time for the negotiation.  I am still learning the art in Asia, but I am getting better with all the tricks.  At first I was trying to be careful with not insulting them when I counter offer.  But they don’t care about insulting me when they start at 500,000 dong for the fanny pack.  So now my first maneuver is come back really low at 20,000.  After a few rounds of back and forth, I pull out my next  maneuver called "the walk away."  This is usually a good way to get them to show their hand of the best price.  Finally, my last move is to deduct a percentage of “the walk away” price and show them that amount and tell them that is all I have left.  I have a success rate of 72.72% with this.  The great thing is, in Hanoi, there is a fourth move of going to the store next door that sells the same item.  Hopping around from store to store always gets you the best price.

Feeling successful, we walked around a few more streets but didn’t purchase any more items (besides a stop at a drugstore-type kiosk for water, tissues, etc., for a whopping total of like 40 cents).   At the same time we were shopping around for a Ha Long Bay cruise for later in the week.  The thing to do is take a bus ride 3.5 hours to Halong City and then hop aboard a junk boat (an old wooden style of boat) for a 1, 2 or 3 day cruise around the Bay to view the limestone mountains.  I had a list of ships that were recommended on Tripadvisor, but there were what seemed like 50 companies running these cruises.  Each travel agency you go to is obviously pushing one company or another as they will tell you why that junk boat is the best.  We were looking to book the cruise for 2 days from now, so I was hoping to be able to get a better price.  However, most agencies were not budging.  If they were lowering prices, it was because they started higher in order to make a better commission.  After a while, I didn’t trust any of the agencies we went to, so Amy and I decided to let our hostel book a cruise for us (they have been fantastic so far). 

It was getting close to water puppet show time at this point, so we make our way back to the theater.  As you enter the theater, I see that you can purchase another ticket.  This 20,000 dong ticket gives you the ability to take photos throughout the show.  Why not?  We enter the small theater and are pointed to the back row in the corner.  I guess our pictures might not come out that well.  The show is about to begin and a group of Chinese tourists come walking in and sit in front of us.  We noticed this during the Shanghai acrobats and the Kung Fu show in Beijing, but the Chinese tourists are not always the most well-mannered during a show.  Forget about silencing your mobile, they actually pick up the phone and talk.  So needless to say they were having their own conversation for the entire show.  Regardless, it was still fairly interesting as the puppet show described the farming traditions and culture of Vietnam.  And the traditional music was pretty good as well. 

Once the show was over, we wanted to go to Hotel Hilton (also known as Hoa Lo Prison) which is where the captured Americans were imprisoned during the Vietnam War (called the American War over in Vietnam).  The prison was built by the French in the late 1800s and housed many types of inmates (from political prisoners, to women, to the Americans).  John McCain is perhaps the most famous (American) inmate.  We got the other side of the story as apparently the Americans who stayed here were treated very well being able to play sports and decorate Christmas trees.  Sounds like a holiday to me, although I highly doubt that is what really happened since the rest of the exhibits looked pretty harsh (when the French were running the show). 

At this point we were starting to get hungry as we had skipped lunch in all the Water Puppet show excitement.  Since the breakfast soup was more of instant ramen, I had a hankering for actual pho.  So we walked around, but since pho is a breakfast item, our only options were touristy places.  It would have to do for today. We enjoyed chicken and beef pho at Pho 24, a local chain which wasn’t too bad. After late lunch/early dinner we started to walk back to the hostel, but stumbled upon a bia hoi.  For those that do not know, a bia hoi is the Vietnamese version of a microbrewery.  The bia hoi (which means fresh beer) makes brew daily and when they sell out, the store closes down.  Since there is not a standardized production of the beer, the quality of the beer can fluctuate from day to day.  This means that locals will go to several until they find a particularly good brew and then stay there for the night.  This is not a problem since beer goes for 1000 dong (the local rate) to 5000 dong (our rate).  You sit on tiny stools at tiny tables which isn’t a problem for the locals but us large Westerners almost had to ask for 2 stools each!  Not exactly the best beer I ever had, but the price was right.  I wish they charged a little more in order to actually clean the glassware (perhaps the alcohol will kill any bacteria).  We were tired from the long day, so we just headed back to the hostel and called it an evening.
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Joe on

The .25 beers and dirty glasses sound much like a certain Thursday night Bloomington establishment.

suj on

dirty beerware is exactly why you should drink beer from a straw. if you send me your address i will ship you a box of bendy straws to carry around with you post haste.

Steve on

Your description of the Hanoi traffic is spot on! I once hailed a taxi in Hanoi to pickup my friend across the street because he was afraid to walk across!

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