Hanoi, Vietnam: Vietnam Photo Diaries - Hanoi, Day 2

Hanoi, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi, Vietnam

My first day in Hanoi was spent learning how to confidently cross the road (stride steadily and determinedly across the path of never-ending traffic; don't pause, freeze, or turn back, and let the motorcycles drive around you). On my second (and last) day in this colourful, chaotic Socialist republic capital I woke up early and tried to take in as many of Hanoi's iconic sights as possible as well as a few local favourites. 

After a hearty breakfast at The InterContinental Hanoi Westlake I had the driver wait for me while I strode across Ba Dinh Square to visit the revered Uncle Ho in his final resting place in Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Interestingly, of the 8 embalmed world leaders you can visit most of them are communist - Lenin (the trendsetter), Stalin, Chairman Mao, and of course Uncle Ho. Most visitors to his mausoleum are Vietnamese who make the pilgrimage to pay their respects to the founding father of the free people of Vietnam, the liberator who threw off the shackles of colonialism and united North and South into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The pomp and ceremony of the changing of the guard outside Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is said to rival that of Buckingham Palace but sadly I saw neither that nor entered the Mausoleum as I was underdressed for Hanoi's cold weather, so I left the mile long queue and sought out a coffee to warm myself up. 

For a cafe with 15 branches across Hanoi, Cong Ca Phe has lost none of it's eclectic, down-to-earth, and homely charm. Find them at 32 Dien Dien Phu for a cozy little spot of coffee and a peaceful place to people watch on a cold, rainy day in hectic Hanoi. After coffee we paid a visit to The Temple Of Literature, a Confucian temple that hosted the Imperial Academy - Vietnam's first university. 

At over 900 years old, The Temple Of Literature is an exceptional example of Vietnamese architecture with strong Chinese influences - the layout mirroring that of the temple of Confucius's birthplace in Shandong, China. When the university was first established in 1076 only noblemen could enrol, but eventually the university was open to talented students nationwide - 82 of which have their names, places of birth, and exceptional achievements in Confucianism, literature and poetry inscribed in stone monuments in the temple grounds.

Crossing the road to the Vietnamese Fine Arts Museum I explored three floors of paintings and sculptures (including a room devoted to some terrifyingly realistic Buddha - and not the cheerful, corpulent ones; I mean the emaciated ones devoted to a life of enlightenment through deprivation) describing the history of Vietnamese art. It was all reasonably interesting, although it could have been better displayed with more descriptions. The highlight of this visit was a newly-opened group show of seven Vietnamese contemporary artists - Ngay Ve 1 - Returning Day 1st.

Hmmmmm, something is afoot...

I believe the artist was making a statement about the masochism of wearing high heels for a long day out and about. No, not really.

I'm rather pleased with this shot and the gradient colours of the greenery of Hanoi, the orange facade of the building, and the jet-black sleekness of my car. Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su is a local favourite for Pho - Vietnam's famous noodle soup and some would say national dish - in the heart of Old Quarter, Hanoi's shopping district. It's a no-frills, hole in the wall sort of place where service is brisk (some would say curt) and the menu is simple - just six or seven variations of pho. I had the classic (beef brisket with yau char kwai - fried Chinese donut) for 45,000 dong - £1.30 - delicious, down-to-earth, and so quintessentially Vietnamese.

After lunch it was time for a spot of tea at St Honore, a French patisserie on Xuan Dieu Street - Hanoi's wealthy expatriate district - where beautiful, delicate French pastries, rainbow rows of pastel-coloured macarons, and exquisite edible trees were the order of the day. 

I had a deliciously sweet yet tart mango and passionfruit cake, a pistachio macaron, and a mint macaron - just the sugary treat I needed for a hit of energy to continue my exploration of the city.

Having washed down the pho and cakes with more coffee, I headed back to Old Quarter with mummy for a spot of shopping and sight-seeing before dinner. Mummy bought shell and mother-of-pearl tableware for her new Borneo apartment while I came away with a gorgeous, wonderfully heavy, red silk dressing gown embroidered with gold dragons (just the thing to bring me prosperity and luck for Chinese New Year) with the softest black lining, also decorated with hand-stitched gold dragons, that I daresay I can also wear inside out. 

We crossed Martyr's monument to Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple. 

Legend has it that Hoan Kiem Lake - Lake of the Returned Sword - one of Hanoi's focal points in the historic centre of the city was renamed as such after Emperor Le Loi, while boating on the lake was visited by the Golden Turtle God who surfaced from the green waters of the lake and asked for his magic sword, Heaven's Will. The Emperor concluded that Golden Turtle God, Kim Qui had come to reclaim the sword that its master, the Dragon King had bestowed to him during his revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty. And so the lake, formerly known as Luc Thuy (Green Water) was renamed Hoan Kiem where the Turtle Tower stands in the middle of the lake on a tiny island, a living link to the legend of the lake. 

We crossed the famous red bridge to Ngoc Son Temple - The Temple Of The Jade Mountain - a Buddhist pagoda and temple for the cult of a deified Chinese warrior, Quan Cong, which later evolved into the temple for the Spirits of Literature and of the Soil. The shrine is now dedicated to Tran Hung Dao, a 13th century Vietnamese military national hero, scholar Van Xuong, and to  Confucian master Nguyen Van Sieu.

With a little time before dinner, and with darkness fast approaching on a winter evening, myself and my party headed, at my insistence, to nearby Cafe Giang to try their famous Vietnamese egg coffee. Egg coffee is a thick, sweet, creamy concoction of egg yolks, sugar, condensed milk and coffee, and has been a Vietnamese staple since the '50s. Cafe Giang's version, sometimes served with cheese, and always presented in a bowl of hot water to keep the coffee warm, is especially known in Hanoi for their inventive and unusual take on coffee which the cafe founder's son claimed was born from a shortage of milk in Vietnam, replacing dairy with egg yolk. Dense and sweet, this is a coffee for those who like theirs creamy and almost dessert-like - Buzzfeed have described egg coffee as 'liquid tiramisu'! 

Somehow I still had room for dinner, and just as well, for our last gastronomical stop of Hanoi was acclaimed French restaurant La Verticale. 

In an imposing four-story villa behind the French Embassy, La Verticale opened in 2007 to great acclaim and ranked one of the top 100 world best new restaurants by Conde Nast magazine the following year. Chef Didier Corlou creates exciting new dishes (curry ice-cream, anyone?) by marrying French flair with Vietnamese flavours; a nod to the French influence in Vietnam. 

Although I only ordered three dishes - a starter, a main, and a pudding - I was brought palate cleansers between each course that was exquisite and elaborate enough to be dishes of their own. And so my modest three course dinner turned into a six course affair. 

My starter - the 'Concentrate Shellfish': a roll of flower crab, prawns and lobster, and apple and pomelo grelette with cripsy green asparagus. 

My main - the pink lobster with Nha Trang rhubarb candied in orange juice Indochina vanilla and bisque. A showcase of contrasting yet complimentary flavours; from acidity to the sweetness of vanilla, and the crispy texture of coconut heart.

I polished off the meal with a winter dessert - a platter of pretty puddings; poached pear, sundae with caramelised biscuit, and pastries flecked with almonds and fruit. La Verticale was a lovely culinary experience - a perfect high note to end with, and quite the contrast to the traditional Vietnamese lunch and coffee that day. I slept like a baby on my second and last night in Hanoi, all the better to wake up bright and early the next morning for a cruise down Vietnam's picturesque Ha Long Bay. Photo diary of Ha Long Bay to come, tomorrow! x


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