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After our first night in Hanoi, we looked at each other and decided that we hated it.  The streets were covered in filth and the endless motorbikes deafened us.  We were disappointed because we had really been looking forward to the food in Vietnam but we couldn’t identify any of the food from grimy street stalls, and all the restaurant food was terrible.  But after an amazing coincidence that led to us learning the secret to enjoying the city, it became one of our favorite places from the trip and we stayed five more days.

On our second morning, we were wandering the twisting streets of the Old Quarter, dodging an endless stream of motorbikes, searching for a Pho (Vietnamese Soup) restaurant that was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.  We were discussing the fact that in most countries we had visited, we either had the benefit of a friend or a local guide that could help us out with some of the basics.  We were sad because we felt like complete outsiders in Vietnam but we both had a suspicion that if we could penetrate the surface layer of tour offices, touts, and and terrible restaurants, that there were great things waiting to be discovered.  We finally gave up on finding the Pho place from the TV show, but we found a stall, (complete with tiny plastic chairs) that was clearly serving Chicken Pho, so we gave it a shot.  The soup turned out to be really good but the interesting thing was that halfway through the meal, a western guy with a Washington Redskins T-shirt walked up and sat down a few stall away.  As I was paying for the meal, I asked him about the shirt and we found out that his name was Steve and he grew up in Mechanicsville, a small town in Virginia that is 45 minutes from where Amanda’s Mom grew up!  Steve had lived in Hanoi for about 9 months and worked as an English teacher.  We were all really excited to meet each other so we exchanged numbers and agreed to meet up later.

Later, we met up with Steve at place called Backpackers Corner.  It’s an intersection at which each corner contains a few dozen tiny plastic chairs and they serve beers for about fifty cents.  Steve’s friend Chip (also from Mechanicsville) rode up on his motorbike a short while later.  Chip had been teaching in Hanoi for three years and was the one who originally got to Steve to move out there.  We sat on out tiny plastic seats, drinking beer and getting to know each other, when Steve brought up the idea of going to Snake Village.  I hadn’t heard of it before but it was a small village just outside of Hanoi where they have a lot of snakes and they serve them at restaurants.  It sounded pretty awesome so we drank a few more beers and Steve, Amanda, and I took a taxi out there.  The taxi got completely lost but we called the restaurant and they sent a motorbike for us, so the the three of us jumped on with the driver and went the rest of the way.

When we arrived at the restaurant we saw a cage with a few cobras and a few small bamboo huts sitting out over the river.  The owner showed us a male cobra with the hood, then we selected a female to eat because they were far cheaper and didn’t have as much (or maybe no) poison.  We walked over to our hut and before I knew what was happening, the were slicing the snake open from head to tail.  The blood all drained into a glass of rice whiskey and a greenish bile/poison was drained into another glass of whiskey.  They then held up the open snake to me and asked me to eat the beating heart…out of the snake.   I guess because I had been drinking beer all day it didn’t seem like that big a deal so I took a breath and went for it.  It turned out to be a bit more firmly attached than I anticipated so it took two tries but finally I got it down, and then washed it down with a nice glass of snake blood whiskey.  I tried the bile/poison whiskey too but it was pretty gross.  I still pretty high on adrenalin when they brought out the seven course feast that they had prepared from every part of the snake: ribs, ground bone patty things, skin, meatballs, and several unknown things.  It was all delicious.  We capped off the night by going back to the Old Quarter to Steve’s friend bar (Flow Bar), buying two-for-one Redbull/Vodkas…which turned out to be served in huge buckets…and playing pool with a bunch of Romanians.

We woke up pretty late the next day and went to get some Iced Coffees and parfaits at Highlands Coffee.  We spent a few hours recovering from our hangovers, enjoying the AC, and catching up on emails with the free wi-fi.  We had been texting with Chip and Steve and they wanted to took us to a small street with no real name, that was known as BBQ Chicken Street…because the whole street contained BBQ chicken stalls (it was close to BBQ Beef Street).  We met Ha (Chip’s girlfriend) and Num (Steve’s girlfriend) and had some incredible chicken, ribs, and grilled, flattened, honeyed frenchbread (way better than it sounds).  Then Ha, Amanda, and I jumped on Chip’s bike and went back to the old quarter for some cheap beer and semi cooked pig face parts in a banana leaf for a snack.  Then Ha took us to get some Che or Vietnamese Halo-Halo( tasty fruit mixed with Ice Cream) at her favorite spot.  Finally, we had been considering going to Ha Long Bay so Ha pretend to be our travel agent and helped us navigate the dozens of tour offices to get a great deal and good boat.

Suddenly everything had changed.  We were no longer outsiders.  Our new friends were so generous and they were helping us to get past the facade of Hanoi that most tourists only see.  They were showing us the local spots and helping us to discover what all of the different foods were.  Not only that but they were helping us to understand the Vietnamese culture.  It made all the difference in the world and we are so thankful for it.  A few days later, we went out to Chip’s neighborhood about 15 minutes out of the Old Quarter.  He lives at the school where he teaches but he is the only person that currently lives there, so he has a huge 4 bedroom, air-conditioned apartment on the fifth floor all to himself.  We hung out there for a while and played hallway baseball with tennis balls.  Then we went to a nearby local spot that specializes in vit (duck).

On our last day in Hanoi we asked Chip if he could give us some lessons on the motorbike.  We thought that a situation may come up in the future where we would need to ride and we wanted to learn how in a safe environment.  Chip was happy to teach us so he grabbed an extra helmet and took us to an wide empty street near his neighborhood.  We taught us the basics including how to switch gears, use both brakes, start and stop the bike and then we took turns riding around in circles in a big empty roundabout.  When Amanda and I were fairly confident we went out to a bit more populated area and practiced navigating though traffic and street lights.  After a few hours we both felt pretty confident on the bike so we went to celebrate by getting a fresh sugar cane juice from the side of the road.  Then we went to a local park where everyone hangs out in the middle of traffic and flies kites.  We even saw a baby learning to walk while dozens of motorcycles flew by him on both sides.  Then we went to go hang out at their friend Kaz’s new five story house.  It was getting late and we had a train to catch so Chip took as back to the Old Quarter where went to get the best Banh Mi (Vietnamese Sandwich) for dinner.

I wanted to get out some cash before we headed south so I ran over to an ATM.  When it gave me the cash, I turned around to complain to Amanda about how high the fee was, and while I was turned around, the 5-second time limit expired and the card was sucked back into the machine…permanently.  Nobody would help us but we eventually figured out that the bank was closed for the night and the next day and there was basically no we could get it back.  So, Amanda quickly called the bank and cancelled the card (I still had mine so we were basically still ok).  Then we said our sad goodbyes, and took off to catch our sleeper train to Phong Nha.  There were four bunks to a compartment so we shared the overnight ride with a woman and her sick four year old daughter.

  • Banh Mi Donor Kebab -- The Best!
  • Our friends in Hanoi
  • Four teenagers on a motorbike
  • Family Motorbike Commute
  • Vietnamese Woman on Bike
  • They Need a Few More Passengers
  • Getting Ready to Joust?
  • Amanda and Chip at the Park
  • Flying Kites in the Middle of Traffic
  • Father and Son on Motorcycle
  • Evening Commute in Hanoi
  • Preparing Pho Ga (Chicken Soup)
  • Pho Ga (Chicken Pho)
  • Sugar Cane Juice Man
  • Nailed it!
  • Apartment Baseball
  • Apartment Baseball
  • Grilled Vit (Duck) from Vit Street
  • Delicious Vietnamese Coffee at Tamarind Cafe
  • Amanda on our Hanoi Balcony
  • The Best Che (Vietnamese Halo Halo)
  • Semicooked pork face in a Banana Leaf
  • Adam buying oranges on the street
  • This bikes needs another rider
  • BBQ Chicken Street!
  • BBQ Chicken Street!
  • Cha Cha La Vong
  • Seven Course Cobra Meal
  • Provoked Cobra
  • Yummy Pho on the Street
  • John McCain's Suit
  • Uncle Ho's happy message
  • Hanoi HIlton
  • HanoiFlip-2

Posted: June 3, 2012

Author: Adam and Amanda

Category: Asia, Blog, Continents, Vietnam


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