History, Food, and the Holidays in Hanoi

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We arrived in Hanoi on December 23 to find the Old Quarter abuzz with people and decorations for the holidays. The energy was contagious, and we were excited to be in a new country and ready to try all the new things! New food, new sights, and a new language all waiting to be discovered.

We started off our explorations of the city with several museums and cultural landmarks. The Vietnam Military History Museum had old aircraft, bombs, and other paraphernalia from the Indochina Wars and throughout the rest of Vietnam’s history. We also visited the Hỏa Lò Prison, sarcastically called the “Hanoi Hilton” by American POWs from the Vietnam War. Most of the prison has been demolished, but the part remaining documents both the French use of torture on Vietnamese political prisoners in the first half of the 1900s as well as the Vietnamese detention of American POWs during the 1960s. The most interesting aspect was that they held nothing back documenting the French atrocities to Vietnamese prisoners, but emphasized how well the Vietnamese treated American POWs. Although American POWs have documented the torture and poor living conditions there, the museum only showed positive and humane treatment: prisoners playing basketball and volleyball, having Christmas feasts, etc. - living situations so nice that it was like being in a hotel!

A memorial to the American War (aka Vietnam War)
Murals of the tortured Vietnamese political prisoners
The entrance to Hỏa Lò Prison

While in town, we also saw the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the One Pillar Pagoda before heading to the Temple of Literature. Built in 1074 as a temple to Confucius, it also houses the country’s first national university. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place to wander around and learn a bit about the Vietnamese education system.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the One Pillar Pagoda
Laura: "That's a cool topiary." Vesper: "I think you mean dope-iary!"
The Temple of Literature
A kylin or qilin, one of the four mythical animals from Chinese mythology
Turtle steles honoring successful graduates

Apart from the cultural sights, our favorite part of Hanoi was the food. It was DELICIOUS! Since we were spending Christmas away from home, we signed up for a food tour on Christmas Day to meet up with other travelers and learn more about Vietnamese cuisine. It was an awesome way to learn how to eat certain foods and what the Vietnamese words are for things like beef, chicken, grilled, noodles, etc. Foods we ate included:

Phở: This beef or chicken noodle soup can be found pretty much anywhere, often at tiny plastic tables and stools along the sidewalk. Served up with limes, peppers, and chili paste, a bowl will run you around $1.
Nộm bò khô: A dried beef and green papaya salad, mixed with various herbs, chilies, and peanuts. It’s spicy, sweet, and delicious!
Bánh cuốn: Super thin pancakes/dumplings made from rice batter and filled with pork, mushrooms, and shallots eaten after you dip them into fish sauce.
Bánh mì: Made with rice flour in addition to wheat flour, these baguettes are much lighter and airier (and we’d argue better) than their French counterparts. While the bread is delicious, we’ve been a bit spoiled by the gourmet versions from back home and found the ones here to be a bit underwhelming - especially since many of them are served with pâté which we aren’t the biggest fans of. In addition to phở, this is probably one of the most common street foods.
Nem chua rán: Fermented and deep fried pork sausages. This might sound weird, but trust us: so good!
Bánh gối: A “pillow cake” or a deep fried pastry filled with minced pork, mushrooms, seasoning, etc. We’ve decided this is the Vietnamese version of an empanada.
Phở cuốn: Basically a rolled-up form of phở without broth. Instead of noodles, a rice paper is rolled around veggies, herbs, and beef and then dipped into a sweet sauce.
Cà phê trứng: Egg coffee is a decadently sweet drink made of beaten egg yolks, sugar, and condensed milk mixed with coffee. This can be found in cafes all over Hanoi.
Bún riêu cua: A tomato broth soup with freshwater crabs and tofu. This was the only soup in all of Vietnam we did not like. It was far too fishy, the tofu was soggy, and it was just not good compared to everything else we ate.
Bún bò Nam Bộ: Hands down the best meal of the country! Seriously. It’s actually a dish from southern Vietnam, but our hostel recommended a place to try a bowl of this amazing noodle, beef, peanut, bean sprout dish. We loved it so much we had it three or four times while we were in the city.

Side note: Vietnamese is a super hard language to speak! Despite us now knowing how to read a lot of different words, people stare at us blankly when we try and order in Vietnamese because a minor change in tone means we have said something completely different. There are six tones in northern Vietnamese, and they can entirely change the word. For example, the word “ma” can mean six different things depending on how you pronounce it: ma = ghost, mà = but, má = cheek or mother, mả = tomb or grave, mã = horse or code, mạ = rice seedling. Our untrained ears can barely hear the difference between these.

We ended up in Hanoi for New Year’s Eve, and our hostel had a huge (free!) hot pot dinner to celebrate. Hanoi also introduced us to bia hơi or “fresh beer.” This ultra light beer is brewed daily and is dirt cheap - about 25 cents a glass! There was even a “Beer Corner” near our hostel, which was packed with visitors perched on tiny plastic stools drinking this beer while music blasted from the stages set up for the holidays. It was a pretty great way to spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve!

The ever-crowded "Beer Corner" and its plastic tables made for tiny people.
New Year's Eve celebration with DJ Mari Ferrari
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Hanoi!
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