Day Trippin’

We like to explore Hanoi and the surrounding villages, especially now that we have 2 motorbikes. Yes, Doug bought a used bike and I rent one. A quick jaunt around town and the breeze can lower your temperature faster than you can say whenthehellwillmypersonalthermostatworkagainmaybeweshouldmovetoiceland.

It’s hot. Hote. Heh.

Recently we signed up for a guided ride as a fundraiser for a local organization that helps foster young girls, called Blossom House, part of Humanitarian Services For Children in Vietnam. It’s a good cause, and we would be escorted to places we might not find on our own. We took off with 20 others, and within 10 minutes, Doug and I were on our own, separated from the group. It’s funny; months before we moved to Vietnam I had a recurring dream. It stemmed from reading about the traffic here, that you enter the stream of motorbikes and swim along like a school of fish; these dreams always devolved to being trapped in the flow, getting parted from each other and not being able to stop or find each other for years (YEARS) because we were unable to exit the flow.

Can you say déjà vu?

We were headed down the highway in a giant glob of motorbikes and cars, aiming for the Nhật Tân Bridge, fondly called the New Bridge because it was finished 2 years ago and links Hanoi to the airport. We’ve never driven motorbikes onto this bridge before.

Turns out the onramp from the road we were on is a left turn, not a right turn. I got stuck in the right side of the mob and couldn’t maneuver over to the left. Swimming. There was a left-turn light for the onramp to the bridge (yay!) but alas, no way to get to it from the right side without cutting across 3 packed lanes of swift-moving traffic which never had to stop because that part of the road continues straight through. I finally did it (oh boy you should’ve heard the horns honking at me) and there was Doug waiting on the bridge for me. Swoon.

The Nhật Tân Bridge feels enormous.

This bridge is 2.5 miles long. After a thrilling, noisy ride across, we realized we had no idea where to turn, and no one was in sight from the group.

Luckily, we had a general idea of where we would rendezvous for lunch, so we spent the morning exploring the villages and their temples along the one-lane rural road. The road is similar to Seattle’s Burke Gilman bike trail except with cows, water buffalo, chickens and goats meandering along the way.

A few hours later, we found the Lại Đà Temple and waited for the group to appear. An enormous wedding surrounded it so the wait was fun. It’s impolite here to take people-photos without their permission, so you’ll have to believe us when we say it was loud, lively and beautifully colorful.

The Lại Đà Temple is in the center of the village.

Carved dragons adorn each corner.  The corners are up-turned to deflect evil spirits.


The back door to one of the buildings in the Pagoda complex.


The group finally arrived and we all enjoyed this delicious vegetarian lunch at the temple, prepared by the buddhist nuns and monks. Tempura seaweed-wrapped mushrooms, tofu spring rolls (fried and fresh), young bamboo shoot soup, noodle salads, mung bean rice, and lots more. My favorite condiment was a thinly sliced root, fried and spiced, that looked like beef jerky, to sprinkle on everything.

Our lunch sampler.


Afterwards we all cleaned up and went our separate ways. Our goal of getting out and exploring was a success.

We passed this mural project, about a mile from our house, on the railway wall. This wall surrounds portions of the Old Quarter.  The artist is holding a paper drawing as her painting guide.

Mural painting on the elevated train track wall.


Coffee shop sunset, with a fishing pole attached to the railing.


A simple dinner of fried rice, caramelized pork and garlic sautéed  water spinach at neighboring Mậu Dịch.

xe ôm (translation: motorbike hug) OMG

Hey, we got a motorbike.

We spent six weeks learning how to walk through the traffic and now we want to become part of it.  You ask what Hanoi traffic is like?

Here’s a video of the steady flow in an intersection in the Old Quarter on a typical evening.  Two perpendicular currents moving through each other without substantially stopping.

It took a while to absorb the rules, which are different from the law.  One way means one way unless you need to go the other way.  Stoplights mean stop unless there’s a break in traffic that your bike can get through.  Drive on the right side of the road unless you’re only going a few blocks and you have to cross over anyway.  Sound your horn to let them know where you are.  Don’t look back.  Concentrate what’s in front of you and don’t worry about what’s behind.  The traffic regulations are suggestions to be used or discarded as the situation develops and as you, the driver, need to shape it so that you can keep moving. There’s no screaming, no anger, no tantrums, and no loss of face.  Just a focused calm, constant beeping and an awareness of the flow:  pedestrians, children on bicycles, city sanitation workers who actually sweep the street gutters daily with their special hand-made brooms and toss the garbage into their rolling push-bins, vendors in conical rice hats with two baskets hung from a bamboo shoulder-yoke carrying anything from hot food to scrap metal, quiet electric bikes, the occasional ego-fortifying Ducati or Harley wide-ride, cars, taxis, minivans, city buses, huge touring buses, and utility vehicles.  And filling in the gaps is the eternal river of motor bikes.  U-turns that stop traffic on a major artery are okay.  If the road gets too crowded, traffic moves onto the sidewalk.  And, yes, it’s okay to take a phone call while driving.  The power of patience is remarkable.

It’s difficult for foreigners to get a valid license but the police don’t like to stop them anyway because their English is limited and they might lose face, so foreigners drive without a license. There’s a box on the rental form that says License and you write yes or no. You can answer either one but it doesn’t change the outcome. It does protect the leaser if necessary, proving that he didn’t break the law, you did.

We tried out three bikes before deciding what to rent; a Chinese Vespa knockoff, a new Honda scooter and a Yamaha automatic motorbike.

The fake Vespa model called Elizabeth, was definitely the cutest.  This is Doug not liking it.



This is Doug continuing not to like it.

not the bike


Here’s the winner.  A 2009 Yamaha Nouvo.  We rent it by the month so we can trade up.  The automatic transmission is definitely appreciated.



Vietnamese kids grow up on motorbikes, the family station wagon of the country.  It’s not uncommon to see mom on the back, dad driving, one kid standing between dad and the handlebars and the baby sandwiched between dad and mom, as they weave through the traffic. Kids ride bicycles during rush hour, completely comfortable.   Not me;  the first time out on a run to buy gas, I was acutely focused in the moment by the terror.

This is Beth liking it and hoping the white knuckle grip will soon relax.

beth bike


Tucked into alleys and nooks are these bike piles.  This one would be fun to clean up.  Right?!

bike pile


And for the foodies.  Since landing in Vietnam we have tried outdoor street food, indoor street food, average restaurant food and above average restaurant fare.  Most of it was good, some really good and a few were great.  The kind of food that is centered around flavor, where every bite is fun.  Nearby, down a small unmarked alley is a restaurant called 1946.  It’s based on the conditions in Hanoi and the food available in 1946 when the world war was over and the war for Vietnamese independence was gathering steam.  Fried salted field crabs, banana flower and marinated beef salad, grilled spiced pork, sautéed garlic and morning glory, sour pork soup, beer, and corn water.  $17 US.  Expensive for an evening meal but worth the occasional splurge.

dinner 1946



Here’s a 2012 article from the NYTimes featuring the traffic in Hanoi.



We’re legal.  Here’s the top of our lease.  For some reason, I love this piece of paper.

Here’s what it translates to.  A sweet, one-room studio apartment on the 2nd floor with a little balcony.


And a cool bathroom door.  Even more cool than the bathroom door is the bum gun.  Heh, heh.  Who knew we needed one of those?  If you don’t know what that is, you’ll just have to come out and visit us.

bathroom door

The outside of our apartment, with the  abandoned building next door cut out of the frame.

160 Tran Vu

We have our own little alley to get to the street behind us.  It’s the “good acoustics” alley.  Every day the same food stand is set up at the other end.  Each day we all smile and repeat, xin chao.  Hallo.



Our market run for the day.  The green leaves are morning glory, called rau (which translates as “vegetable”).  They’re stir-fried into everything, or sautéed as a solo dish.

The big purple thing is a banana flower.  Take the leaves apart, roll them up, then slice super thin.  Soak in lime-water, then toss in a salad and dress with lime, garlic, fish sauce, sugar and chili.  A little crunchy, like a cross between an apple and a daikon.

banana flower and carrot


This big dude looked too good to pass up.  Gac fruit.  Turns out, it cures pretty much everything.



Also new to us were the little, round, reddish fruits.  Fresh passion-fruits.  Their aroma is heavenly.

gac and passionfruit


Outside our gate a vendor walked by with the 2 baskets hanging from a pole, with these freshly baked sesame crisps.  The smell was as good as the crunch.



Just another day in the country of independence, freedom and happiness.  So far, so good.

Chợ Châu Long wet market

IMG_4385 5 minutes away from our apartment is one of the permanent established wet markets called Chợ Châu Long, taking it’s name from the street where it resides.  We’ve heard that grocery stores are starting to appear around Hanoi, but we haven’t seen them and most people still use the wet markets.  These markets have everything food-related, except fruit, which is sold outside the market from bicycle vendors. Just-butchered meats, offal, birds, seafood, frogs, all shapes and kinds of eggs (fertilized, goose, chicken, quail) fresh tofu made that morning, rice, sausages, pastes, patties, vegetables, herbs, spices and layers upon layers of fresh noodles.  It’s all available and all for sale.  The only priced items we saw were the rices.  The numbers here are 1000 VND per kilogram.  (1 kg of Tám Thai = 2.2 lbs = 18,000 VND = 80 cents)


Chau long wet market

See the shrine?  They’re everywhere.  The market wouldn’t be complete without a small shrine and the daily offerings and burning incense.

The market looks messy but is in fact totally organized.  With all the meat and fish laying around you’d expect to smell a certain aroma.  But no.  It’s a good smell (except for the scooter exhaust.)  The meat is fresh and sells quickly.  The fish, seafood, frogs, snails, clams and prawns are all kept alive until sold.  It’s impressive.  The tables and aisles get hosed down every night in prep for the next day, hence the name.  Super crowded every morning (scooters!  people drive their scooters in here!), it slows down mid-day after the meat and fish are sold and packed away.  Nap-time rolls around every day from 12-2, so most vendors cover up and rest, or hang in a hammock, or pull out a cot, while others played cards with each other.  If we time it right, we might be able to see what card game they were playing.

roast chicken


pig skin da lợn


skinning frogsSkinning the frogs.  Wow, she was swift.


Chau long market


banh chung Tet rice cakes

These banana-leaf wrapped bundles are appearing everywhere the closer it gets to Tet.  Modern folks are getting too busy to make them at home (it’s a 2-day process) so they’re buying them instead.  Bánh chưng.  Rice cakes for Tet.  The story goes that there was a family competition for their father’s throne.  The winner was the quiet, youngest son who created banh chưng based upon a dream he had.  In his dream, a genie had told him to take sticky rice (which symbolized earth), wrap it around a ball of mung bean paste (which represented the sun), wrap it in a square shape (at that time the ground/earth was thought to be square) then boil it for one day and one night.

The longer we’re here, the more we hope to figure out how to use all the interesting and unknown market products.  The vendors are friendly and willing to share their knowledge.  The weak link is our language ability.  We’re working on it.  Meanwhile, we’ll be getting some bánh chưng soon.

160 Trấn Vũ

We’ve moved.  We’re still in Hà Nội, along with 7 million other folks.  It’s been the capital of Vietnam since the 7th century.  From the outside, it looks like a jumble of chaos, noise and modern sophistication.  We know it’s much, much more than that.


Our home for the next 3 months is a studio apartment on a lake.  Hồ Trùc Bạch.  (Sounds like “chuck bok”).  We have the 2nd floor of the 5 floor building.  That is our balcony with the blue and white striped awning.  It’s an airy, spacious, high-ceilinged room.  Comfortable.



Looking across the street:

cross street


Looking south:

out our front door



We’re getting settled in and acclimated.  Today we looked for and found some useful things.  A shower curtain.  A kitchen knife.  Real honey.  We even found baking soda and vinegar, my hair cleaning regime for the past 2 years, a’la the ShamPhree method.  It’s the little things, right?

During the day, we duck and dive our way through the twisting streets.  At night we play fiddle, then study the language.  People have been kind and helpful as we practice our new words.  We’ve found a cooking school and will soon suss out language courses. We’re part-time tourists, part-time job seekers, and full-time explorers here in the City of the Soaring Dragon.

Can’t forget dinner… cõm tấm sũờm (broken rice with pork chop), nộm xoài banh (green papaya salad) and bia hà nội.

com tam suon


The best way to get better at wordpress is to post, right?  So here’s a few photos from today’s excursion.  We found a SIM card, noodles (pictured before the condiments came out), and other delights, including little pineapples that you can eat like corn on the cob.

menu          bun bo


We have an elementary school right behind our little studio.

No escaping Disney.


Hello, Hanoi

After hours of help from friends and family (thanks!) the house got packed and we were delivered to the airport.  20-some hours later, we made it.  Our studio is a block away from Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, a revered and busy site, in the Ba Dinh neighborhood.  It’s a place of non-stop movement and noise, beeping and barking.  We have figured out how to cross a street that is full of scooters and cars and bikes all in perpetual motion.  Lights exist but appear to be suggestive only.  We’ve navigated some alleys and dined on satisfying unknown street food.

We saw a griddle, a big pot and some little bowls of things, with this sign on the wall, and were ushered in by a friendly young woman.  We needed breakfast.  It turned out to be super thin rolled up rice pancakes with a savory filling of pork and mushrooms (ba ̉nh cuổn) and chicken soup (ga ̉ tân).  Herbs, limes, chilis and sliced pickled garlic were added.


Tomorrow we will do it all again.