Monday, 30 April 2012

Street Eating in Hanoi

We based ourselves in Hanoi to launch such adventures such as our tour around Halong Bay and our motorcycle tour around the hills of Northern Vietnam. But this was also to be our last city in Southeast Asia before heading to oh-so-much-more-expensive Europe, so we concentrated on big bangs for our bucks.

Our leisurely time (between blogging) was occupied by cheap and cheerful shopping, drinking coffee a variety of ways (filtered, with condensed milk, with ice, with yoghurt, with stiffly beaten egg white, out the wrong end of a civet cat - you name it) ...

Ca Phe Sua Da. Making Vietnamese Coffee - Step 1
Ca Phe Trung Da (Vietnamese Coffee with Beaten Egg White)
Ca Phe Sua Chua (Vietnamese Coffee with Yoghurt)
... and eating through as much street food as we could find.

Streets of Hanoi at Sunset
High on the list was to sample a good bowl of bun rieu cua (crab noodle soup). Trouble was, we had no idea what it looked like. So at first we didn't recognise what we were ordering when we hungrily stumbled across a popular stall overflowing with noodle slurping locals sitting on tiny plastic chairs. Different from the usual pho with slender, round rice noodles in a tasty garlicky, tomatoey, paddy-crabby broth, we breakfasted twice on this hearty dish.

Bun Rieu Cua (crab noodle soup) - Hanoi
Ben's favourite dish was a big bowl of bun bo (dry noodles with beef), which we ate at least three times at Bun Bo Nam Bo. A sort of warm noodle salad, the lettuce and rice vermicelli was topped with a juicy stir-fry of marinated beef and onions, and garnished with bean sprouts, fried shallots and green mango pickle. A squeeze of chilli sauce and a quick toss with disposable chopsticks amidst a crowd of other young eaters made for a good value meal at less than three dollars.

Bun Bo Nam Bo (dry rice vermicelli with beef) - Hanoi
Not sure if this was a specifically Hanoi thing, but this random corner bia hoi restaurant looked well patroned, so we sat down one lunchtime because we were hungry. The first item on the Vietnamese language menu was Goi ca diet hong (day duai nay chao, nay chua), underneath which the English language menu translated this to "The terms pink salad (first tail porridge, cooked tomatoes)". Yeah, we didn't understand that either, but after half a beer of deliberation we decided to find out. The meal came out in parts; but without assembly instructions, we just stared at the arrangement in confusion. However the non-English speaking staff came to the rescue by demonstrating how to cure the raw fish in the lemon juice, showing how much of each herb and pickle to use in each rice paper roll, and which sauce to dip the fried tofu into, overzealously helpful to the point where they almost started to hand feed us. Different, but very satisfying and very healthy.

Goi Ca Dieu Hong, lemon cured fish rice paper rolls at random restaurant - Hanoi
Apparently everyone eats bun cha in Hanoi, so of course we had to give this dish a go at least three times as well. Grilled (and wonderfully fatty) belly pork slices, together with pork patties and green mango pickles, were drowned in a savoury broth, but retained their slightly chargrilled flavour. We were given a huge pile of rice vermicelli noodles (which we could never finish) and a communal colander of fresh herbs to consume after dipping into the broth. If we were greedy, we'd also order a couple of nem, deep fried crab spring rolls.

Bun Cha (rice vermicelli, grilled pork, mango pickle, bowl of herbs) with Nem (crab spring rolls) - Hanoi
We went out to a water puppet show one evening, where we craved a light, snack-type dinner. Hanoi's streets yielded the perfect answer - nom thit bo kho, a finely shredded green papaya salad topped with vietnamese mint, at least two types of beef jerky, crushed peanuts and a tangy sweet dressing. Squatting on the ubiquitous tiny plastic chairs next to a hundred others, we devoured the contents of that small, simple plate, bursting with flavours and textures.

Nom Thit Bo Kho (green papaya salad, topped with mint, beef jerky and crushed peanuts) - Hanoi
Similarly, the water puppet show was beautifully coloured, light hearted entertainment. Traditional music from traditional instruments played by traditionally dressed Kinh Vietnamese filled the theatre as colourful, cleverly manipulated wooden puppets splashed about and floated around, in and above the water-filled stage.

Romantic Water Dragon Scene - Water Puppets, Hanoi
Planting Rice Scene - Water Puppets, Hanoi
And of course, we had to try a final bowl of pho bo in what appeared to be Hanoi's favourite pho bo shop. With thousands of contenders producing millions of bowls of this very Vietnamese dish all over the country, we could only judge this status by the long queue out the door and into the street. Besides the large number of surrounding parked motorbikes, what sealed the deal was probably the longing look of one man as he rode in for breakfast that morning, looked at the queue, looked at his watch, looked back at the queue, worried at his watch … then parked up his bike and waited patiently for his bowl of national pride, probably at the risk of being late for work. And a tasty bowl it was.

Hanoi's Favourite Pho Bo at Pho Gia Truyen
Having eaten through a couple of months in Vietnam, we could now head to Europe for something different.

Waving Goodbye. Clouds viewed from flight over Vietnam - Hanoi to London

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Rewarding Riding

We had another big day of riding ahead of us. We needed to get to Quang Uyen at lunchtime, eat a homestay lunch (read, big hearty meal), and then continue to Ban Gioc Waterfall, before riding back in time for dinner (another big hearty meal). Chung mentioned that the road was going to be quite rough, but after the ride between Bac Ha and Coc Pai, we were not as worried as we should have been.

It started out with a fun ride down the windy mountain road to Cao Bang. We moved on towards Quang Uyen, stopping at a locally renown blacksmith area, as Chung wanted to show us how local steel was worked.

Three men, all wearing light shirts and sandals, were standing around a single piece of hot glowing metal, beating it with hand-held hammers in a mesmerising, triplicated rhythm. It was fascinating to watch and listen, and at least two knives were made in the time we stood there, staring curiously. They used old truck leaf springs for their hardened steel properties, heated them up, beat them into the right shape and then sharpened them. We were impressed. Chung bought a cleaver for his home kitchen at a tourist price of 8 USDs, and we were tempted to get one ourselves but thought that Australian Customs officials may not approve.

Blacksmiths Beating out a New Knife - near Cao Bang
We continued along the smooth windy roads to our homestay in Quang Uyen where we met our friendly hosts, unloaded our bikes and stuffed down lunch. Pretty soon we were back on the bikes heading out of town.

Hills Towards China - On the road to Ban Gioc Waterfalls
Then the road surface disappeared. What remained can only be described as resembling huge uneven motocross whoops. It was incredibly rough, dusty and all formed by the hoards of massive trucks going to and from China. These we also had to dodge as we struggled over the rough terrain. But after over an hour of gruelling riding, beautiful Ban Gioc Waterfall just seemed to appear out of nowhere.

Grazing at Ban Gioc Waterfalls
It was a largish waterfall, where in the wet season it would grow to 300m wide with a drop of 30m. But what made it special was its photogenic qualities - the cascading falls of water dipping and flowing around shrubs, grass and moss, and beautiful contrasts of the white water against the shadows of the rocks. It is also interesting as the border between Vietnam and China runs right through it (Vietnam to the left, China to the right). We took a raft to get close to the falls, and there were plenty of rockpools and flat places around from which I could find many angles to shoot.

Man Fishing at Ban Gioc Waterfalls
Streaming Through the Forest. Ban Gioc Waterfalls
A Hidden Gem. Ban Gioc Waterfalls
All that was left was the bum-breaking ride back to the homestay …

Looking out the Door. Cute toddler at Quang Uyen homestay
Who Are You? Cute toddler at Quang Uyen homestay
The next day was an easy but hot ride through sunny, 37 degree weather. But we couldn't have asked for a more superbly appropriate destination - Ba Be Lake. Limestone cliffs surrounded a massive cool, clear body of water, which we happily dipped into before dinner. Add some photogenic rice paddies, what more could you ask for?

Laundry Day - Ba Be Lake
Rising early the next morning, I grabbed the camera and tripod to wander through the paddy fields. It was nice to be out there on my own. I found a spot and waited for the sun to do its thing.

Steep Cliff Panoramic - Ba Be Lake
I was there for about an hour and was able to catch this dragonfly that decided to land right next to me.

Catch of the Day. Dragonfly catching another insect - Ba Be Lake
It was another hot day and the planned boat ride across the lake was a welcome activity. It was butterfly season, and it was interesting watching rabbles of them flit between rocks and trees along the shoreline - there would have to have been millions.

A Sea of Butterflies - Ba Be Lake
When it was all too hot to bear we dived off the boat into the deep refreshing waters and relaxed, bobbing about in old lifesaving rings.

Ben relaxing at Ba Be Lake
It was an easy 50 kilometre ride to the next homestay. This one felt intimately genuine, as it was just a single family room; fire in the middle, kitchen just behind it, bed mats to the side, and a bucket bathroom out the back. We loved the place and our hosts welcomed us warmly with an amazing feast and many shots of home-brewed ruou (rice wine).

All in One. The kitchen, storage, wardrobe, guest bedrooms, dining and lounge room functions were all provided in the one, big room at this warm, friendly Tay family homestay - near Ban Chang
Grandfather helping with homework. Tay family homestay, near Ban Chang
After a good night's rest we packed up for the last day of riding. I was not looking forward to this. One part of me did not want this trip to end, and the other part of me really did not want to ride through Hanoi traffic again.

We survived the main highway of trucks, buses, fast drivers and dangerous overtakers. It was not enjoyable riding as we aimed to beat peak hour traffic, but we arrived safely, tired but happy. We really enjoyed our 11 day journey travelling over 1800 kilometres, and I would like to do it again someday in another season when the rice paddies change colour. Chung was a great guide and I would like to thank him for his patience, especially while I took photos.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Hanging Out with the Hill Tribes

Map 2 of our North Vietnam Motorcycle Tour

We arrived at Sapa early afternoon and settled into our almost-top floor hotel room boasting an awesome view over the valley towards Hoang Lien Son National Park, home of Vietnam's highest mountain, Mt Fansipan, visible in the distance. In the cool high altitude (1500 metres) air we decided to do the short but scenic 6km walk to the nearby Hmong village called Cat Cat, down steep hills and stands of giant thick-as-your-leg bamboo, past waterfalls and along bubbling rivers where young kids splashed about. On the way we passed a couple of elaborately dressed Hmong women who decided to tag along while persistently trying to sell us their trinkets. We attempted to shake them by turning off the main path and going down the steeper goat's track, but there was no way we could out-hike a pair of locals who climb hills as easily as say, we drive cars. Thankfully they let us be after several polite but firm no's, and we thoroughly enjoyed our walk.

Road to Cat Cat Village, Sapa
The next day we rode on towards some of the more remote areas of the Bac Ha District, via the steepest, roughest, and most winding dirt road of this tour. I had to lean as far forward as possible to make it up the hills without having to stop and walk, as Ben struggled to control the bike over bone-jarring bumps (I struggled to simply hang on and not get bucked off rodeo-style while the rear of the bike did its own thing), but in the end we revelled in the challenging dirt ride and we were rewarded with amazing vistas.

Resting with a vast view of the countryside after a bumpy ride between Bac Ha and Coc Pai.
The farmland here was significantly more arid, with rice terraces giving way to steep slopes of maize and corn crops. Life this high up in the hills was tougher, as a lack of irrigation meant that everything depended on the scarce rainfall of the dry season. We learned there was only ever enough food for subsistent living.

Waiting for Rain. Hill tribes in this region rely on subsistence farming for food. Dry season crops on the rough road between Bac Ha and Coc Pai.
Despite this, we got the sense that community bonds were strong here, as we saw so many groups out working the land together, chatting away while ploughing, planting or simply walking back home after a hard day's work. Everyone we passed waved and said "hello!" or "xin chao!" and seemed genuinely curious about us outsiders. This beautiful group of teenage girls (and boy) were shy at first, but loved seeing themselves on the camera screen.

Walking Home. Flower Hmong teenagers returning to the village after working in the fields - near Coc Pai
Its Not a Race. Flower Hmong teenagers returning to the village after working in the fields - on the road near Coc Pai
Beautiful Flower Hmong Woman - on the road near Coc Pai
After a bumpy day's ride we stayed overnight at an obscure town in the hills called Coc Pai, breakfasting the next morning on another batch of banh cuon.

As the road continued down along the rivers cleaving through the Vi Xuyen District the terrain became lush terraced rice and vegetable farmland again, with a smooth road that was a haven of banks and turns for the road bike rider (and cheeky kids for the photographer).

Beautiful Hillside Road - between Coc Pai and Ha Giang
Stones and Houses Among the Terraces - between Coc Pai and Ha Giang
Mischief After School - between Coc Pai and Ha Giang
We were supposed to stay at a home stay that night, but the word on the street was that it was going to be packed to the rafters with vietnamese tourists, including a mad woman who was causing trouble with other guests, so we settled for a riverside resort alternative with bungalows overlooking the river Lo - not bad indeed! After a typically hot, humid day a dip in the river was irresistible.

Wind Picking Up Before the Storm - Ha Giang
Storm clouds approached as we returned to our bungalow just in time to see the entire landscape overcome with blustery winds, lightning and thunder at first, followed by torrential rain, ending in a hailstorm which battered the grass thatched roofs and brought down tree branches. It was wonderfully exciting for us, but terrifying for most of the Vietnamese for whom this was the first time they had experienced hail. Luckily we had the sense to park the bikes undercover beforehand, and we didn't want to think about if we were still out there on the road riding …

Crikey! A rare hailstorm attacks Ha Giang
Just as we thought the landscape couldn't get any better, Vietnam upped the ante again with Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, the dramatic limestone karst range straddling the northernmost border with China. The approach was another steep rise of continuous switchbacks through slopes green with newly planted crops.

Tia enjoying the view. Road ascending the Dong Van Karst Plateau from Ha Giang
Cultivation - Dong Van Karst Plateau
A late morning stop at a village found us at a Saturday market in full swing, with hundreds of local hill tribe people coming, going and browsing the stalls. A taste of the Sunday markets to come, before continuing up the hills.

La Chi Woman at Saturday Market on the way to Dong Van
Hmong Woman at Saturday Market on the way to Dong Van
A quick peek at the famously voluptuous Co Tien (Fairy) double mountain near Quan Ba Pass, before continuing through to some of the most fascinating scenery I had ever seen.

Bends on the road - Ha Giang to Dong Van
Huge valleys and mountains were perforated with jagged black karst rocks, making for extremely rugged terrain.

Rocky Fields and Valleys - Ha Giang to Dong Van
But even as we stopped to take in this seemingly barren, harsh landscape, we heard the tap-tap-scrape sound of a hoe below us. Amazingly, even this vast, steeply sloped field of stones was cultivated, with every available bit of dirt having at least one food plant growing in it. With no way of getting a plough in, the soil was turned by hand, and from what we could see, mostly by women.

Planting Between the Rocks - Ha Giang to Dong Van
Hard Working Women - Ha Giang to Dong Van
Our jaws struggled to remain closed as Chung led us through the remote villages of mud houses, the palace of the former Hmong king, and mountain after steep mountain of limestone karsts.

Road through the mountains of Dong Van
Red Ride. Typical Mud Houses near Dong Van
Village in the Valley. Near Dong Van
We were overwhelmed by the toughness of these people who were obviously brought up as hard workers from childhood.

Children carrying heavy loads on the road to Dong Van
Minding the Buffalo. Young local boys dressed in traditional shirt - near Dong Van
Young Hill Tribe Girl - Dong Van Market
A landscape as dramatic as this probably wouldn't tolerate anything less.


The next day was our day of colour. We woke up early to start walking to the Dong Van Sunday Market at 6am. Naturally, many of the locals trumped our efforts by starting to walk to the markets the night before, seeing as they lived a couple of mountains away.

Market Colours. Haggling over Vegetables - Dong Van Market
Wry Smiles from a Hill Tribe Man - Dong Van Market
Although we were only there for a couple of hours, the Sunday market went for an entire day. These markets were not simply a commercial affair; they were full-on social events with so much colour and energy that one could not help but get caught up in the festive atmosphere. One lady convinced Ben to try on a traditional men's black shirt, which so amused the locals that he became an instant celebrity with everyone wanting a photo taken with him.

It was fascinating to watch as people haggled over cows and buffalo, chickens and ducks, pigs and dogs, young and old. Although I would be happy never to hear again the ear-piercing human-like screams of a pig being tied down to a scooter.

Fresh Eggs - Dong Van Market
Ducklings for Sale - Dong Van Market
This was the place where everyone caught up with friends and gossip, did their shopping, ate tong goh (stewed cow offal, complete with head and hooves, slow-cooked in a giant wok all day and all night, eaten with large flat rounds of riceflour bread toasted over hot coals) and drank local corn-based moonshine for breakfast. We opted to chow down some regional style pho scattered with delicious barbecued pork and aromatic herbs, settling amid the locals in a smoky eating area, slurping and watching the market get even more busy with hungry marketers as the morning progressed.

Kitchen Essentials - Dong Van Market
Pork Pho - Dong Van Market
Hill Tribe Boy Eating Pho - Dong Van Market
Wandering Through the Cooking Smoke - Dong Van Market
We jumped back on the motorbikes to catch up with the Meo Vac Sunday market, a few towns away. Brunch was in full swing, with the eating tables full of people slurping away at bowls of noodles produced en masse.

Waiting for the Soup. Fatty Pork Pho - Meo Vac Market
Even the kids were needed to help pump out noodles while everyone else ate.

Learning the Trade. Young boy assisting father with cooking noodles - Meo Vac Market
At this market colourful cloths used to make the traditional dress were for sale. Women tried on new embroidered skirts, while men sat beside sewing machines at the ready, to modify this or repair that. We thoroughly enjoyed these markets, since there was something interesting going on everywhere we looked.

Enjoying Noodles. La Chi Woman at Meo Vac Market
We stayed at Tinh Tuc that night, after satisfactorily avoiding a truck that had fallen off a cliff, and a painful karaoke session that was cancelled due to a well timed power outage. Our journey in this part of the world - the awesome landscape and its inspiring people - will stay with us forever.