After filling our bellies at Pho 10, we headed out to do sightseeing proper. The streets of Old Quarter are just row after row of traditional buildings with shops that sell just about anything you can think of! We particularly love it because the original architecture is preserved; it has a certain charm about it.
Historically, the 36 Old Quarter streets were dedicated to a product or trade from certain villages, with the street named after the type of item that it sold.
|Hàng Gai... where Gai means hemp & rope.|
The streets are all labelled with this standard blue signage and all shop fronts also bear the street name, which make it very easy to take an easy afternoon strolling through Old Quarter and exploring street to street. :)
But just because there are so many different things on sale in Old Quarter, doesn't mean there is no order! Not many streets still sell the same item from those days, but you'll most definitely still find that the various vendors selling a particular product will still be clustered along one street. It sort of becomes a "hub" for that product.
For example, if you wanted to buy nuts, there's a street where shops on both sides of the road are all selling the same nuts. Or if you wanted birds for pets, you could find those too along the streets!
|Sunglasses... and nothing but sunglasses on this street.|
There's even a street where many small travel agencies can be found! This was just outside our hotel, so we had the luxury of slowly deciding when to book our cruise to Ha Long Bay. (More on that later)
|Can you imagine if you were asked to untangle that?|
|More wiring genius...|
Not everything is as well organized as the streets in Old Quarter though. Take electrical wires for instance; almost a tourist attraction on its own. It's not uncommon to see a spiderweb of cables extending out of one solitary pole. Basically that pole is going to be there come hell or high water, because there is no way all those cables can be moved if the pole has to go! It was really fascinating, yet scary at the same time.
Traffic can also be very chaotic in Hanoi, for a first timer! Motorcycles are the common mode of transport for the locals and there is very little order on the roads for these motorists. Not every road in town has road lines or markings and even if there was, they were rarely followed! One thing that really surprised us was that we noticed that not every motorcycle had side mirrors, but one thing they all had in common? A honk that they use every 15 seconds or so. =P
Crossing the road was really a challenge, but soon we learnt to just ignore the bikes. They'll brake for you, but you'll probably just get honked in the process. Haha!
Now and then we'd pass a shop or a pushcart along the road with little stools lined against the wall. All those scenes you see in movies are true to culture; Vietnamese people really do squat / sit on those tiny little stools to eat! The consequence of sitting on small stools? It helps to be short and thin, so there's less chance of cramps, and no risk of breaking those tiny little stools. =P
We were wondering why they wouldn't evolve to the taller plastic stools and tables like what we get in our Malaysian mamak stalls but I guess it's such an inherent part of their culture already, that to suggest any other type of stool than a children-sized one would be sacrilege. Hehe.
Just like any other city, sales are never confined to the stores. Except in Hanoi, it's still common to see men and women (mostly women actually, now that we come to think about it) using the age-old method of carrying lots of things with just a pole balancing 2 big baskets of goods on their shoulder (otherwise known as a yoke. Took 2 of us googling to remember the name!)
Of course, some are doing it as a tourist opportunity, with nothing but fake fruits inside to lure in tourists for a picture and a subsequent fee! Never fall prey to such vendors. They'll even go as far as putting the pole on your shoulders without asking. I had to practically run away. =D
|Some interesting looking decorative items we saw.|
Another common sight in Hanoi - Baguettes! Around 70 years of French influence since the 1800s has resulted in leftover remnants of their culture amongst the Vietnamese, and nothing symbolizes this more than the humble baguette. Hamburger buns and hotdog buns are almost unheard of in this city. Instead, all manner of local roadside sandwiches are made with baguettes. Of course we had to try one of those sandwiches, which we'll talk about in a later post. =)
Finally after what seemed like quite a long walk because we were too captivated by our surroundings, we reached our first destination - Hoan Kiem Lake or Hồ Hoàn Kiếm! It is translated to mean the Lake of the Returned Sword, as legend has it that a Vietnamese emperor was sailing in the lake one day and had his magic sword stolen by a giant turtle from the depths of the lake. He then believed that the turtle was a sign of the Turtle God who had come to reclaim his magic sword and hence, renamed the lake.
This lake is not very big, and even in Hanoi there are bigger lakes, like the West Lake (Hồ Tây) in Tay Ho district. But Hoan Kiem Lake is a lake that is steeped in tradition, and is a central part of the everyday life of Vietnamese. Even when we were there on a weekday morning, there were plenty of locals strolling or jogging round the lake, or young couples just enjoying the natural scenery. Just imagine KLCC park, except more natural and not man-made. =D
A landmark of the lake is the red Huc Bridge, that connects land to Jade Island, a teeny island in the lake where the Ngoc Son Temple is located. We didn't want to walk all the way there in the scorching heat and so decided against it. Later in the evening we came back, but it had already closed by 5pm.
But our goal was not to sightsee the lake by walking around it. Oh no, our goal was to get a good view of the whole thing, up at one of the recommended coffee joints in Hanoi - Avalon Cafe! Getting there was a bit confusing, as we could see it from the outside, but couldn't find the entrance! Turns out the front door was at the back of the building facing away from the lake, while the main seating area actually is facing the lake. So yes, don't be too frustrated if you can't get in; just walk round the back. =D
Avalon is quite a nice cafe by Hanoi and Old Quarter standards. They do serve food, and in our time there we noticed people having business lunches there too. It's perfectly acceptable to just come for a cup of coffee though, enjoyed at the balcony outside for the perfect view of Old Quarter, though as hot as that may be! =D
|The gaily-coloured outdoor seats.|
|A better view of Hoan Kiem Lake & Jade Island in the middle|
|The Huc Bridge from up above.|
Anyone would tell you that with such a gorgeous view, rent and prices must be high! Thankfully Avalon's coffee is still very affordable to the regular tourist. What we had were....
... the Caramel Frappucino for me and the Mint Frappucino for Zhen Han, both at VND 49,000 (about RM 7 or US$ 2.30). If you had thought that Vietnamese don't take their coffee seriously, think again! Coffee is a way of life over there. These were not bad, with a distinct caramel & peppermint flavour respectively, with lots of froth on top. The caramel got rather sweet as the frappucino warmed though.
Wendy being the only non coffee drinker, ordered a Sinh To Dua (VND 69,000 / RM 10 / US$ 3.30), which was a coconut smoothie blended with fresh fruit, condensed milk & fresh milk. This was quite refreshing though also pretty sweet for our liking. We did like the bits of coconut flesh though.
Mel on the other hand was the coffee addict in our group, ordering a Hot Vietnamese Black Coffee (VND 35,000 / RM 5 / US$ 1.70). The stronger and the more 'kao', the better! If you're like her, Vietnam is the place for you, because black coffee is like part of their daily routine! And their black coffee is really pure, with a strong bitter taste. Those who love coffee will love it, while those who don't...well...just stick to other drinks or milk coffee. =D
By the way, way before everyone was all excited over that giant yellow duck that swam into Hong Kong recently, we had a duck of our own! May I introduce you to Ducky above. He was a pivotal member of our adventure in Hanoi, and you will see him popping up in lots of photos, so best I introduce him now. Mel's boyfriend Irvin did not come along on our trip, so she had Ducky for company instead. He was one lucky yellow duck indeed, traipsing all over Hanoi. =D
|Our little cozy corner at Avalon|
|The classier interior of Avalon|
The view and ambiance at Avalon was so nice, we didn't want to leave! In the end we spent longer there than we had expected I think. We had to make ourselves leave and continue the exploration of Old Quarter.
Turns out the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is also along Hoan Kiem Lake, so we also bought tickets to the show that night. The water puppet show is one of the highlights of Hanoi, and should not be missed if you're there.
Finally, I wrap up our first venture in Old Quarter with this picture of a very colonial-style building, which houses a few different shops and restaurants. Notice the KFC? I lusted after it for just about the whole trip, but only finally got a fix of it on our last day! More story on that later too along with more of our Hanoi adventures. =)
Avalon Cafe Lounge | Facebook
(overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake - Hồ Hoàn Kiếm)
No. 73, Cầu Gỗ,
Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, Vietnam
Tel: +84 4 3926 0801
Tel: +84 4 3926 0801
Opening Hours: Daily, 7am-11pm