Friday, 26 February 2010

I wish it could be Christmas every day...

Well in Hanoi it is! Or at least it appeared that way as we taxied our way into the city centre under drizzly grey autumnal skies, fresh off the plane and still rocking shorts and t-shirts. Shop fronts sparkled with decorations, hotel lobbies sported green plastic Christmas Trees and Santa's peered from the rear windows of cars. It was mid January. We were a little confused. Our taxi driver had no idea where he was going and couldn't speak a word of English and pointing to the map in the guide book only seemed to confound him further, but he nodded and made positive noises anyway. I'm pretty sure we could have shown him a map of Bolton and he would have done the same, but we were getting a free impromptu tour of Hanoi and frankly we weren't complaining. In fact neither of us could stop smiling as we passed street upon street amazing looking food stalls, women in conical hats carrying yokes piled high with fruit and vegetables and old men sipping steaming tea on street corners.

After four months of amazing travel in India everything looked brand new; different faces, different architecture, different smells and sounds and we were excited. Eventually we found our hotel, and in fairness to the driver it wasn't easy - hidden down and alleyway with no sign and sandwiched between a hairdressers and a moped repair shop. I'll tell you this though, ten bucks gets you a lot in Vietnam, the room was a palace compared to what we'd been used to for the last several months, "We've got a DVD player! Check the beds out - silk throws! We've got a fully loaded fridge! The shower has got proper water pressure! Amazing!" The young Vietnamese guy stood in the door way with our bags must have been wondering whether the weird hyperactive English girl usually carried out inventory on every hotel room she stayed in. I asked him "whats with all the Christmas decoration still up?" "We like them" was the response. As good as answer as any I suppose...

As I'm sure you've worked out now, food is a pretty central theme to the blog (and drinking, yes...) and Hanoi was looking good. You know things are going to be interesting when you've got a woman with huge pot of black snails cooking away outside the front door of your hotel. Now, don't get me wrong, we loved the food in India, it is hugely addictive, incredibly tasty and always different wherever you go, but the Vietnamese take cooking seriously. Indian street food is good, but once you've suffered a few bouts of Delhi Belly and spent several days on the pot wondering whether it was battered thing with the black sludgy dal in the bus park in Jaipur, or the vegetable pakora cooked in possible week old oil on the high street in Bikaner, you get a wee bit wary. Never once did this happen in Hanoi. I'm sure once you get out into the burbs there are plenty of dodgy establishments, but the food in the city always looked and smelled fantastic. As the advice goes, if its busy, and its being cooked in large amounts (usually by a grumpy woman who looks like she means business) then you're pretty much ok. This seemed to be the case for most of Hanoi's numerous street food stalls.

The way things seemed to work is that each stall will specialise in something different; maybe a particular noodle dish, soup, kebab, salad or even just one type of seafood, like our sea snail lady next to the hotel. This means dinner is basically picking what you want then finding the stall that does it. If you want a salad to start then you can, and you then can follow it up with some shellfish at another stall two streets down. It's literally like having a huge market to walk round containing all the things you want to eat and someone there to cook them all in the best way possible. Grab yourself one of the playschool plastic chairs made for mini people that the locals perch on and some 30p beer and away you go!

Just before we came away I had a two day blow out and gastro-bender with my brother for his 30th birthday, which I would be missing. As some of you probably know Tom's a pretty decent amateur chef and and to say he likes his food is an understatement (a 1.3 kilo T-Bone steak eaten in Rome is still the Personal Best as far as I know, the sick man...). We picked one restaurant each; I chose St John  in Smithfield, Tom went for Bocca di Lupo in Soho . Over the course of of 24 hours we ate and drank as well as two blokes can. Between us we devoured Roasted Marrow Bone with Parsley, Ox Heart, Sweetbreads with Fennel and Bacon, Radish, Celeriac and Pecorino Salad with Truffles, Lardo di Colonnata with Walnuts, Tuscan Blood sausage with fava beans and Foccacia with lung and spleen simmered in lard and smoked ricotta. We even ate a full English breakfast in a greasy spoon in between which I'm mildy appalled at myself with. So, I was on the phone within the first day of arriving for the wind up... "mate you have got to see some of the food here!" listing a smorgasbord of grub "Ive already eaten two dinners today! You would love it - literally the best shellfish I've ever seen and loads of mad shit Ive never seen before, its as cheap as it gets too". I got the impression it was mild torture for Tom at the other end. "I'm so happy for you. It's pissing it down here and now you've made me want to get lunch" Sorry bro.

While we're on the subject, the coffee is worth mentioning too. It's outstanding. Our first cup of the local stuff was in a tiny doorway shop where an old guy who looked like Mr Miagi still weighs out the beans with lead weights on vintage brass scales. It's got a incredibly distinctive taste - slightly nutty and chocolaty, very strong and thick and it rips your head off. After a proper cup of Roman Espresso its about the best cup of coffee I've ever had. We later discovered that's its just as good iced and mixed with sweet condensed milk too, which in the ninety degree heat of the South goes down a hell of lot better than the hot stuff.

Anyway, it was good to be back in a city where there was so much to eat and drink for the first time, and the three days we planned on staying quickly turned into a week. Just so we're clear and you don't think we're a pair of chunkers we did actually do some cultural excursions (see pics for evidence) other than hang around street stalls stuffing our faces, although admittedly that was a considerable part of it. There actually aren't a huge amount of specific sites to see in Hanoi, but if you're happy just to wander and take it in then its perfect - the Old Quarter is hugely atmospheric and an absolute hive of activity (based mainly around cooking or eating unsurprisingly) and its fascinating to get lost in - provided you don't get taken out by one of the millions of mopeds that seem to be hell-bent on driving into you.

We had a couple of really good nights out too; the Saturday night market is superb and rammed with locals and there are some good bars also including a decent smoky Jazz club which we hit one rainy night (naturally). There were some pretty talented local musicians belting out some of the old classics and an excellent guest sax player who got up and went a bit crazy - the locals seemed to love it though and we got summoned over to a table full of extremely drunk office workers who seemed to want to toast themselves and us every ten seconds and drink themselves into total oblivion while sliding steadily off their chairs. Very funny to watch...

It's probably fair to say no other nation that conjures up a more vivid set of images in the global psyche than Vietnam. For many the name itself still represents a conflict more than a country - it was really interesting to start to separate the modern reality from the history lessons. Later on we'd see more of the ravages of the wars Vietnam had been subject to, but for now it was enough to be spending time in a beautiful, sophisticated Eastern city drinking in a whole new set of experiences.

View our pics here:


No comments:

Post a Comment