The northern road to Hanoi

We were staying in Hue for a night to trim the train hours to Hanoi. Hue, pronounced as huwey, was once the capital of Vietnam, and a center of power for the French. It gives an air of imperialism with its mighty and historical citadel, with its forbidden city, meditative gardens and lakes fit for kings, it was a staging ground, a rallying point, a witness, and unfortunately, a casualty of many battles. There are also those larger than life tombs of proud feudal lords of the past.  Arriving here just after dusk, the city seems to be brimming with activities. There are night markets not unlike those we have at home. The riverside is lined up with expensive hotels, entertainment centers with bright neon lights, even one of the bridges here are colorfully lit and quite famous for young lovers. There are also some exquisite street food action, making this lane bright, safe, and fun to explore come night time.

Riverside bazaar

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Plan of attack

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Mighty gate to the citadel

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Imperial garden

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Lake fit for kings

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Tallest flag pole in Vietnam

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     The following day, our train wasn’t departing until later that afternoon. In preparation for our impending doom, we rented bicycles, explored the city on our own, tiring ourselves in hopes of sleeping out the whole train ride. Just as Hue was a staging ground for many battles of the past, it felt like one for us too. Come afternoon, we checked out of our hotel, had our last supper, drank minimal amounts of liquid, and headed for the station. The familiar sound of train coming in, we searched for our car amidst chickens running loose, and unreserved ticket holders elbowing each other for pole position when the train comes to a halt. Thankfully, we booked one of the best cabins you can get, a couchette of four. Upon finding our car and cabin, as expected, bed linens and pillows were not for the faint hearted, its exactly what my dorm bed looked like back in college after a whole semester has gone by and linens still unwashed. We were sharing this cabin with an old, friendly Vietnamese couple who looked like they started the trip from Saigon, you know what I mean. The toilets, sad to say, for 14 hours, we never ventured into the deep unknown. When the train started moving, we wore our rain coats for protection, like lab gowns are for laboratories, our packs for pillows, as we began our descent onto our beds. There was no standing up, no moving, no talking, no nothing. From my understanding of Einstein’s theory of relativity, time gets slower when a person is in motion, for those who disprove it, they have yet to try this 14 hour train ride for an experiment! Innumerable hours later, I woke up to the sound of our train breaking into a halt, to me, it might have been the sound angels singing. It was then that our friendly old Vietnamese cabin mates animately informed us we can now get off the train. Some ways of saying things are just universal. We have arrived in Hanoi.

Impending doom

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Rocky is not impressed

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Reminiscent of my unwashed dorm bed linen after a whole semster back in college

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     Getting off the train station, you get a different feel from all the other capital cities you’ve ever been, but you do get a feel that you arrived at the center of culture. Its not a backwards society, but its not over commercialized, pushed to its maximum potential. Instead, in the old quarter, you get streets of colonial style two story houses, its no surprise because it used to be the capital of French Indochina. The usual tells are the wrought iron balcony railings, and those chic French windows, and more architectural flourishes that contrast the later communist ideology.  Stores that are properly categorized according to their merchandise, as it has been hundreds of years ago. Brave a dark and narrow alley, if you’re lucky you can get to see functional communal houses. Loud PA devices installed on electricity posts from almost every corner of the old quarter, making announcements. Its early in the morning and there’s a community of joggers, and Tai Chi practitioners around Hoan Kiem lake, while close to it, shop keepers are dutifully opening shops, not without having that sweet but strong Vietnamese coffee or perhaps a Banh Mi, a sliced baguette with meat, greens and sauce inside, the inevitable child of French colonialism and Vietnamese resilience.

French colonial architecture in a photogenic state of disrepair

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Ladies getting in shape

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My company doing yoga around Hoan Kiem lake

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Barber street

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     After walking around the old quarter guidebook, in hand, visiting those historical sites, giving respect to one of the good hearted communists by visiting Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the opera house, and more museums, we’ve had enough history, propagandas and  boring bureaucracy. By now, we were starving. In Hanoi and much like the rest of Vietnam, the food they eat reflects their culture and their lifestyle. You will notice that there are thriving street peddlers selling food from a cart served on children’s tables and foot stools. Mainly because Vietnamese people have a dining culture. My theory is because the working population, including women,  doesn’t have much time left beyond their working hours to cook at home, its just more practical to eat out. And with a wealth distribution that doesn’t always equate dining out with eating in western style restaurants, or fast food chains, alas, street peddlers thrive.

Street peddler

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Street food action

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My company getting lost in the goodness of her pho from a street peddler

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      With fairly equal opportunities, making for a tough competition, only  quality street peddlers survive. The best guide will always be the number of locals who dine, or even queue. If street peddlers aren’t your thing, there are some long standing restaurants, barely meeting our ideology of what a restaurant should be, that serve some of the best meals I’ve had in the whole trip. Cha Ca La Vong at Cha Ca Street, serves only one dish for decades now, you simply walk in and order how many orders you want. The best bun cha, a perfectly grilled meat eaten with rice noodles, mixed with some fish sauce and light greens, served from an institution of a place aptly called Bun Cha at 1 Hang Manh Street. Glorious meat filled rice paper by Miss Ann from 72 Hang Bo. Although in general, you would be hard-pressed to settle for a bad meal in Hanoi. After our long and arduous journey through Vietnam, it taught us that food is better from carts than those cooked with roof above their heads.

Reusable wooden chopsticks. Yum!

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Bun Cha from 1 Hang Manh Street

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Meat filled rice paper by Miss Ann from 72 Hang Bo Street

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72 Hang Bo Street

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Street party in Hanoi

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We found Bobby Chinn

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      After a much deserved overnight cruise to the mystical Ha Long bay, we bid Vietnam farewell. When it was time to catch our flight bound for Manila, I reminded myself that just as all good things come to an end, the most underrated thing about traveling is coming home.

Ha Long Bay

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Ha Long Bay from our junk boat

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4 thoughts on “The northern road to Hanoi

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