Learning to Love ‘the People’s Food’ in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

By MATT GROSS
(The New York Times)

In the summer of 1996, fresh out of college, I moved to Ho Chi Minh City for one simple reason: I loved Vietnamese food. At restaurants in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, I’d grown fond of the staples of the cuisine — grilled meats, startling herbs, crunchy vegetables — and particularly of pho, the aromatic beef noodle soup that is Vietnam’s national dish. As graduation approached, I knew I wanted to live overseas, and Communist Vietnam, which had just opened its doors to the West, was the obvious choice. In fact, it didn’t even feel like a choice at all — it felt like destiny.

But as I quickly discovered, liking a cuisine is not the same as understanding it. My first sense of this disjunction came a couple of weeks into my stay, when I settled in for lunch at a downtown restaurant. The manic energy of the streets — the flood of motorbikes, the clanging construction crews, the gawking tourists — had dissipated in the midday heat. Time to eat, and nap and breathe and think, away from the tropical sun.

This respite is likely the only reason that I happened to notice the man with the gun. He was across the street, standing in the clear sunshine. He was Vietnamese, in his early 40s. He wore sunglasses. And at his side, he held what I assumed was an Uzi. Then he disappeared into a storefront. If the street had been full of 100cc Hondas, as it had been an hour earlier, I would’ve missed him entirely.

It was an odd sight, and I wanted to ask someone — anyone — about it. Was the man a gangster? A cop? Then my food arrived, and I forgot all about him. I hadn’t known what to order, but something on the menu caught my attention: luon nuong mia, freshwater eel wrapped around sugarcane (held in place with a chive bow) and grilled over charcoal. As I bit, I fell in love. The eel was rich and oily, caramelized from the charcoal heat, infused with the tang of garlic and fish sauce and the sweetness of raw cane. And the cane itself, when I gnawed it, released a burst of sugary juice tinged with the meaty slick of the eel.

This, I knew, was what I couldn’t get back home. This was why I’d picked up stakes and moved to Vietnam. The eel was so great that I wanted to turn to my neighbors and tell them that it justified everything.

But I had no neighbors. I was alone in this restaurant — alone and confused. After all, this seemed to be a quality spot; the eel was proof. So where was everyone? What was I doing wrong?

Those first months in Vietnam were full of such confusion. All around me, I was fairly sure, were amazing food experiences waiting to be had, yet I couldn’t figure out what to eat, how to order, and where, and when, and why. At lunch, for example, I’d often order pho at the renowned Pho Hoa Pasteur. But when I told my students in my English classes, they looked confused. To them, pho was breakfast, not a midday meal. I’d protest: Plenty of Vietnamese people were at Pho Hoa Pasteur! My students would backtrack, perhaps wanting not to contradict their teacher, or just to make me feel comfortable. Oh, sure, they’d say, you can eat any food anytime you want. Khong sao — no problem.

But it was a problem. And I knew its roots. At Vietnamese restaurants in America, all kinds of foods are served together — noodles, soups, stir-frys, spring rolls. But in Vietnam, restaurants are often devoted to a single dish: pho, banh xeo (a rice crepe stuffed with pork and bean sprouts), goat hot pot. Adapting to this was hard. Knowing only a small subset of dishes, and only a few words of Vietnamese, I didn’t even know what to commit myself to. I knew that I should just blindly walk in, point to whatever I saw on other tables, and enjoy the result, but fear and shyness kept me at bay. Is there anything more alienating than not knowing how to eat?

Too often I wound up at the non-Vietnamese restaurants in the backpacker and tourist districts. They were often good: excellent Italian fare, thanks in part to fresh tomatoes and basil; a devoted expatriate clientele demanded serious Japanese; and a century of French colonialism meant that pâté, red wine and onion soup were vernacular dishes. But these meals all reminded me of my ongoing failure to penetrate Vietnamese culture.

After a few months, I moved from my sixth-floor rented room to another on the fifth floor. The new room was larger and air-conditioned, but I took it for the simple reason that it had a tiled patio that was ideal for takeout alfresco lunches.

But what to bring home? Ham-and-brie sandwiches? Thai ground pork with holy basil? On a stroll down nearby Bui Vien Street one day, I spotted a man grilling pork chops outside a com binh dan, an institution that translates as “the people’s food.” Com binh dan are everywhere in Vietnam. For less than a dollar, you can have a plate of rice and a serving of, say, pork belly braised in fish sauce and sugar, water spinach (rau muong) stir-fried with garlic, or a soup of bitter melon stuffed with pork and mushrooms

But com binh dan had never appealed to me. Maybe their folding tables, plastic chairs and worn silverware looked too shabby. Maybe the pre-made dishes, sitting in the humid open air, turned me off. Maybe I needed to read a menu. Or maybe I was just afraid. My palate could handle a challenge, my fragile psyche couldn’t.

When I smelled the suon nuong, or pork chops, however, everything changed. Marinated in garlic, sugar, fish sauce and shallots, they gave off an intense aroma of fat and caramelization, one I couldn’t turn away from. So I ordered to-go — suon nuong on a mound of rice, with rau muong and sliced cucumbers — and carried the plastic foam box to my fifth-floor oasis, where I ate in utter bliss.

The com binh dan around the corner quickly became my go-to spot for good, unpretentious food. Usually, I’d get the perfect suon nuong, but the shop also had squid, stuffed with pork and braised until soft, as well as crispy-fried fish. And a fried egg could be added to anything.

Eating on my patio was nice, but more and more I ate at the com binh dan’s flimsy tables, noticing how other customers ate — with chopsticks, with fork and spoon, or with a combination. I studied the way they prepared dipping sauces, either by filling dishes with dark fish sauce and a few shreds of red chiles, or by pouring nuoc cham, a mix of fish sauce, water, lime juice and sugar, from the plastic pitchers placed on each table. (I’d thought it was iced tea — whoops!) People ate without much ceremony. This was good cooking, but it was also a refueling stop. As I watched and copied them, day after day, I didn’t even realize that, for the first time, I was eating like a regular person.

Nor did I realize that mastering this one meal would have collateral effects. Now that I’d locked down lunch, I could eat breakfast and dinner however I wanted. No longer did I have to feel guilty about starting the day with black coffee and fresh croissants; in a few hours, I’d be feasting on pork chops.

I could also experiment at dinner, testing dosas at the new South Indian restaurant, partying with friends in the Siberian Hunting Lodge, or feasting on braised snails and grilled mussels in a converted auto garage near the Saigon River. Whether these meals turned out delicious or dull, authentic or artificial, I knew that the next day I’d be eating a people’s lunch.

There was, however, one casualty of my growing cultural adeptness. Now that I better understood lunch, the restaurant that served sugarcane eel no longer fit into my eating life — by then I knew it was not a lunch spot, and come dinnertime there was so much else to explore. I never returned. The luon nuong mia, so fixed in my memory, seems like a heat-induced hallucination, almost as illusory as the man with the Uzi. Except it was all real, as real as the charcoal smoke that still billows forth from the com binh dan on Bui Vien Street, on a thousand other streets throughout Saigon, and wherever regular folks gather to eat.

(Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/05/travel/learning-to-love-the-peoples-food-in-ho-chi-minh-city-vietnam.html)

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Hanoi Youth Hostel – No.5 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hotline: (+84) 972004080

Email: kellyyouthhostel@gmail.com

48 hours in Hanoi

Written by Chris Richardson

When we decided to visit Vietnam, I got excited to immerse myself in the chaos of South East Asia again. The last time I was in this part of the world was in late 2009, so the idea of dodging scooters, eating street food and drinking cheap beer was well overdue. We arrived on a flight from hot and muggy Kuala Lumpur and were unfortunately met with a cold and damp Hanoi. Hanoi was my first experience of Vietnam, and I came in without any preconceptions. I was keen to check out Vietnam’s famous street food and drown my face in a bowl of Pho.

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The capital of the Vietnamese socialist republic and nestled on the fabled Red River, Hanoi is a bustling, noisy slice of South East Asia that I didn’t find as in-your-face as other Asian countries and is bursting with tonnes of local character.

Things to See and Do

With loads of tumultuous history, delicious street food and markets to get involved in, 2 days in Vietnam’s traditionally conservative northern metropolis is just the right amount of time to see enough of the city. Especially if you’re interested in historic sites and learning more about the North Vietnam side of the war.

Old Quarter

A mazes of alleyways, lanes, street eateries, bars and local vendors, Hanoi’s old quarter is where you’ll be dodging motorbikes and scooters all the while being led by your nose to find the best bun cha or pho. Street vendors, temples, counterfeit DVDs shops and all manner of other bits and pieces make up this never ending traditional heart of the capital.

Birdcages

The name of the game here is just wandering around, discovering what the city has to offer. Everything north of the Hoam Kiem Lake is the Old Quarter, and just following your inquisitiveness is the best way to experience it. If artwork is your thing, look out for the galleries dotted throughout the old town selling reproduced Communist propaganda posters.

Hoam Kiem Lake

Hoam Kiem Lake is really the focal point of Hanoi. It’s 100% mystical as far as the Vietnamese are concerned. Meaning “Lake of the Returned Sword” in English, the legend is that emperor Le Loi was boating on the lake when his magic sword was grabbed by a turtle.

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No one could find the sword or the turtle, so the emperor concluded that the Golden Turtle God had come to take back the sword that it had given him some time earlier during his revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty. The emperor then renamed the lake to commemorate the event, and the Turtle Tower standing on a small island near the centre of lake is linked to the legend.

Inside temple

Exploring Ngoc Son Temple on the island is a great introduction to Vietnamese religion, and the vast temple is filled with colourful statues and offerings are dotted throughout.

Military History Museum and Flag Tower

This was something that I was really keen to check out. I’m a big military and history buff, so the two together literally had be frothing at the mouth. It’s filled with Vietnamese war history going back centuries and does harbour a heavy bias towards the regime, but is an incredible insight into the Vietnam War.

Sculpture of Aircraft Remains

The grounds of the museum are littered with old military hardware includes lots of captured American aircraft and old Russian fighters and tanks.

MIG and Flag Tower of Hanoi

Military Museum

Chinook

Chinook inside

It highlights American imperialism in a big way, but I think that’s to be expected in the heart of what is traditionally the most hardline, conservative, Communist part of Vietnam. And getting to sit in the cockpit of a Chinook helicopter was pretty damn cool.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

For anyone that’s been to Moscow, you’ll recognise what’s going on here straight away. Like the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow, this one is for the hero of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. He’s responsible for the uprising against the French after WW2 and is effectively the father of everything Vietnam stands for socialism wise.

HCM Mausoleum

Entry is a convoluted affair like in Moscow also, with a long queue with no obvious entrance where you have to surrender all your stuff before they’ll let you in. To be honest, walking around the outside is enough unless you have a real desire to check out Minh’s embalmed body in a glass case.

Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo Prison)

The Hoa Lo Prison was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War when it was sarcastically known to American prisoners of war as the “Hanoi Hilton”. Known as Maison Centrale. the French used the prison to imprison, torture and execute Vietnamese dissidents.

Inside Hanoi Hilton

It serves as a dark reminder of political imprisonment and demonstrates how the French treated the Vietnamese and then how the Vietnamese treated their own people and the Americans they captured.

Courtyard of Hanoi Hilton

The prison which took up an enormous block of land was demolished during the 1990s, and the gatehouse is the only part that remains as the museum. It’s not a big museum, and you can cover the entire prison in about 2 hours or so.

Food and Drink

Now onto the tasty part – getting your face into some tasty Vietnamese eats. Everybody is familiar with the ubiquitous Pho, and the version you’ll most likely run into is Pho Bo (Pho with beef). You can literally get it everywhere in Hanoi, and each street vendor will have their own way of making it that’s been passed down through their family for generations. Consisting of noodles, green vegetables, beef and a soupy broth, it’s a cheap way to get fed. Make sure you slurp up all of the broth!

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You could literally have pho for breakfast, lunch and dinner here, but do save some room for the other amazing meals you’ll find in the city.

New Day Restaurant

Frequented by both locals and tourists, New Day Restaurant is a buzzing place to eat that’s a step up from the plastic stools and bare concrete walls you’ll find out on the street but with the same fantastic quality of food.

New Day Restaurant

Attentive, fast and friendly staff will help you navigate the extensive menu and make sure you order yourself a great selection of the finest North Vietnamese culinary delights available. Like this sweet and sour chicken and spring rolls.

Spread in New Day

Or bun cha, a Northern staple you’ll only find in and around Hanoi. It’s essentially BBQ pork, greens and rice noodles and it comes with a cup of broth that you drown the contents in before going in with your chopsticks.

Bun Cha

Or how about these great little beef ribs I had for a starter? They were definitely different to the BBQ ribs you get from Bodean’s here in London, but just as sticky.

Vietnamese Ribs

The locals next to us ordered half the menu I reckon; and when it came it was a big share-fest of rice and bowls of meat criss-crossing the table. I love the communal way people eat in Asia.

In New Day Restaurant

Located in the heart of the Old Quarter and near some well known hostels and hotels, you shouldn’t have much of a problem finding this place.

How to get there

Hanoi is served by Air Asia (from KL), Vietnam Airlines (from London) and Jetstar Pacific (from other cities in Vietnam) along with other Asian carriers. Noi Bai airport is about 45 km from Hanoi and the drive into the city will take 45-60 minutes (traffic is generally shocking). Try to organise an airport transfer with your hotel before arriving to avoid the rip-off fest with taxis at the airport.

Get around in Hanoi

Hanoi can mostly be covered on foot, especially in the Old Quarter and around Hoam Kiem Lake. For when you find yourself a bit far from where you’re staying, try to flag down a green Mai Linh orTaxigroup taxi only. These taxis have honest meters, and taxis from other companies will try to stiff you. If you do have to take a different taxi, agree on the price before you get in. A trip across Hanoi should cost about 50,000 dong.

You could also opt for for a cyclo, but do beware that these guys peddling around the city have their ways of extorting more money out of you once the journey’s over. This happened to us further down the coast in Hue, and we had to pay 50k dong extra to avoid a bit of a stand-off in a busy market.

Budget

The currency in Vietnam is the Dong (yeah, I know :)). I had so many dong jokes going on, it was hilarious. I had so many dongs. £1 converts to about 31,000 dong, so I was literally a dong millionaire the whole time i was there. Beers will generally run you at about 40,000 dong, taxis about 50k (like I said above), and meals are usually 80,000-120,000 dong.

Conclusion

Hanoi is a real mix of everything that Vietnam is about. From the proud Socialist conservative history, to great street food and a bit of dodgy weather, it’s a city that takes a day or so to get your bearings in. Daunting at first, it doesn’t take long to recognise streets you’ve been down, dodgy cyclo drivers or the best place to get some bun cha. From those that have been, I’m told Hanoi is very different to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, which is apparently more tropical and liberal.

Hanoi is very much “old school” Vietnam from what I read and subsequently found, but stay tuned to find out more about what I thought of other cities further south in Vietnam.

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Where to stay

Hands down, I reckon your best choice in Hanoi is Hanoi Youth Hostel is located in downtown of Hanoi, middle of Old Quarter.

========== Best Value for Stay in Hanoi ==========

This cozy hostel is packed with all the amenities you would expect in hostel including: clean, safe, and spacious dorm rooms.

DORM (balcony with city view)
* Free breakfast
* Free Wifi
* Free towel
* Free beer during Happy Hour
* Free security locker
* Linens including pillow, bed sheets and blankets.
* Air – conditioner in all dorms
* Hot shower
* Bed light
* Free luggage storage until 8pm on the day you check out.
* A bar with many games at the lobby.

PRIVATE ROOM ( en-suite, balcony with city view) 
* Free breakfast
* Free Wifi
* Free beer during Happy Hour
* One double bed
* Private bathroom
* Fluffy, clean towels
* Refrigerator
* Air conditioner
* Hot shower
* Television and DVD
* Clothes hanging unit
* Table and chair
* Reading lights

Relax and enjoy the leisure facilities of the Hanoi Youth Hostel which include a 24h bar with alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, a free Internet cafe and complimentary hot drinks (tea, coffee, hot chocolate), a flat screen TV with international satellite television channels.

To make your trip a memorable experience, we also have a vibrant staff with diverse backgrounds to greet you.They will give you the scoop on exciting events, restaurants and night spots in Hanoi.

========== The 24 hour front desk service ==========

* Taxi airport transfer 
* Laundry services 
* Motorbike rental/ sell / buy; 
* Visa extension and visa renewal
* Money exchange
* Bus, Train, Flight, Tour to Laos, Cambodia, Sapa, Halong Bay, Cat Ba, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Dalat, Mui Ne, Sai Gon. 

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Hanoi Youth Hostel – No.5 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hotline: (+84) 972004080

Email: kellyyouthhostel@gmail.com

A LAND OF NATURAL BEAUTY: TOP 10 PLACES TO SEE IN VIETNAM

As one of the most beautiful countries that you could ever see, Vietnam has a lot to offer the eager traveller. Mother nature has been kind to this land, blessing it with some of the most stunning landscapes you could ever imagine. Unfortunately, many travellers overlook Vietnam in favour of other more popular Asian destinations, such as China or Japan.

Ignoring the opportunity to visit Vietnam is a huge mistake. The country has survived many hardships over the years and because of this has a rich history and culture that is begging to be discovered and shared by visitors to the land.

Apart from the compelling history and culture, the natural beauty of Vietnam is reason enough to visit. Captivating, divine and inspiring, the landscapes are diverse and plentiful and offer a perfect destination for outdoor activities such as kayaking, cycling or trekking.

With an abundance of natural beauty to see, the difficult task is trying to see it all, or even knowing where to start. We have done the research (and the leg work) and have managed to compile a list of the top 10 places to see in Vietnam.

Cuc Phuong National Park

Located between Ninh Binh and Hoa Binh, the park is the oldest nature reserve in Vietnam. When visiting Cuc Phuong National Park you will be guaranteed extraordinary views of lush green mountains and forests and will witness a variety of rare and endangered wildlife. If outdoor activities interest you the opportunity to trek and explore popular trails of the park will no doubt appeal to you.

Ba Be Lake

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Ba Be Lake, the biggest natural lake in Vietnam, is located in the Ba Be National Park, home to an extensive range of flora and fauna including the endangered Tokinese ‘snub nosed’ monkey. Visitors can enjoy a relaxing boat tour in the calm waters of the lake, offering perfect opportunities to take photos of the stunning scenery.

Cao Bang

Located in Northern Vietnam, the province of Cao Bang is unbelievably stunning. Head out of the city of Cao Bang to witness and capture the remarkable and exquisite beauty of the area. Waterfalls, rice fields, lakes and mountains all combine to make an extraordinary visual delicacy for visitors that will renew their zest for life and exhilarate their soul.

Ha Long Bay

One of the most popular destinations in Vietnam, Ha Long Bay (also known as the ‘Bay of Descending Dragons’) is located in north eastern Vietnam and is recognised as a World Heritage site. Featuring a series of limestone karsts and caves amongst the amazing contrast of emerald green water, visitors to the area will no doubt have many photo opportunities. Boat tours, kayaking, hiking and volleyball are only a handful of activities, out of the plethora, that travellers can partake in.

Sa Pa

Trekking in Sapa(2)

A famous frontier land and home to some of the friendliest people you could ever meet, Sa Pa oozes with regal beauty. Located in northern Vietnam, Sa Pa features breathtaking mountain landscapes that roll above the lush green rice terraces that sprawl across the land. A curtain of mist blankets the top of the mountains and offers perfect opportunities for the budding photographer to get a few good shots of this natural wonderland.

Can Gio

The Can Gio district is definitely a must see area where you will be able to feast your eyes upon nature at its best! As it remains fairly untouched by developers, it is a nice relaxing place to visit if you need a break from the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City. While in Can Gio visit the mangrove forest and the museum to see a range of flora and fauna, including its cheeky occupants- the long-tailed masquades. The museum has many exhibits on display including a section dedicated to its local war history.

Phu Quoc

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Phu Quoc is the largest island paradise of Vietnam, and is located in the Gulf of Thailand. Featuring lush green mountains, welcoming white sand and the allure of crystal clear water, it’s no wonder that Phu Quoc is one of the main tourist attractions- it’s truly magnificent! During your stay enjoy kayaking, cycling, scuba diving, motor biking or simply sit back a soak up some rays while enjoying a tasty seafood banquet.

Cat Tien National Park

This huge national park plays an extremely important role in protecting one of Vietnam’s greatest areas of lowland tropical rainforests still in existence. Combining several different landscapes the park has a lot to offer visitors who wish to revel in natures wonder, offering an exquisite smorgasbord of flora and fauna to see, experience and capture on film.

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Recognised as a world heritage site, the national park was established as a way to help protect two expansive regions that is home to a unique karst landscape with over 300 caves and grottoes. Over 90% of the park is blanketed by tropical rainforest and therefore it’s restoration and protection is imperative to the survival of many flora and fauna species, including the Asian elephant, the Sao la and endangered tigers.

Pu Luong

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Pu Luong is rich in its natural beauty, however the people of the area are quite poor and are slowly welcoming eco-tourism with caution, so as not to lose the essence and traditions of their land. While visiting Pu Luong you will marvel at its limestone backdrops, flourishing green forests, rice terraces, and magnificent streams. Enjoy trekking and cycling or sit back and enjoy a drive or boat ride to see the area. Keep your eyes peeled for local wildlife including the endangered, and eye catching, Delacour’s langurs who you will see confidently swinging amongst the limestone backdrops of this beautiful region.

If you are serious about getting the most from your journey to Vietnam, you need to explore and enjoy all aspects of the land including its abundance in natural beauty.

(http://getawaytrekking.com.au/top-10-places-to-see-in-vietnam/)

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Hanoi Youth Hostel – No.5 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hotline: (+84) 972004080

Email: kellyyouthhostel@gmail.com

IN VIETNAM’S CAPITAL, OLD TOWN BRACES FOR MAKEOVER

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Tourists, hawkers and motorcyclists rub shoulders every morning in the congested alleyways of Hanoi’s low-rise Old Quarter, which seems generations away from the office towers and electronics megastores springing up in other parts of the capital. The quarter’s street grid, laid out in the 15th century, is still dominated by dilapidated shops selling everything from brass gongs to bamboo scaffolding.

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Photographer: Sam Antonio

It is now among Asia’s best-preserved urban hubs of traditional commerce — thanks largely to decades of inattention. The 82-hectare (203-acre) downtown area is crammed with Buddhist temples, pagodas and French colonial shophouses, whose original tiles and peeling yellow paint have become a draw for foreign visitors.

But with property values high, this neighborhood could change dramatically in the coming years as similar ones already have in Singapore, Shanghai and many other cities. Authorities want to begin gentrifying the Old Quarter by relocating 6,200 households between this year and 2020. New construction is likely a few years away, but some residents already have been relocated.

Some of them are nervous, though not necessarily over lost history. They worry about being exiled to the city’s dusty margins, and of being forced to accept a bad deal from a Communist government that has generated public discontent across Vietnam by forcing people off their land with compensation far below market rates.

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Photographer: 

Pham Dinh Tranh, a retired jeweler in the Old Quarter, has watched many of the traditional jewelry workshops of Silver Street slowly morph into cafes and souvenir shops. The 82-year-old wouldn’t mind a change of scene: The Silver Street home he shares with his extended family is cramped and the roof leaks. But he said Hanoi officials will need to make a convincing case for relocation.

“We’re willing to go, but not if they take this property and resell it for profit,” Tranh said.

Vu Thi Hong, an official with the Hanoi government’s Old Quarter Housing Relocation Project, said the main goal of the planned relocations is to reduce population density while preserving cultural heritage. With about 66,000 people, the quarter has a population density of 823 people per hectare (2.5 acres) — nearly eight times New York City’s.

One Silver Street temple — formerly occupied by long-term squatters — has been refurbished and opened to the public, with assistance from architectural consultants from the French city of Toulouse.

During an interview at the temple, Hong said compensation for relocations is paid at market rates determined by the government. City planners have not yet decided what will be constructed once current residents are relocated, she added, but new buildings won’t exceed three stories.

She said a few hundred Old Quarter residents have been moved in the last decade from weathered temples and pagodas, and authorities plan to build an apartment complex on Hanoi’s outskirts to house thousands of others.

“Most of those who have already been moved say they have a better life now,” Hong said, adding that the government pays up to 81 million dong ($4,000) per square meter at streetfront properties.

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Photographer: Sacha Fernandez

In Hanoi’s real-estate market, the average transaction price at Old Quarter properties is currently between $12,500 and $15,000 per square meter, according to Nguyen Son, a property agent in Hanoi. That exceeds the average price of $9,337 per square meter paid at luxury residential properties across Shanghai, as calculated last year by the London-based consultancy Knight Frank.

Pham Ba Bao, who was relocated from Silver Street in 2010, is not entirely satisfied with his new situation.

The retired bicycle maker used to live in the temple that has since been refurbished. He said he received 900 million dong ($42,300) and later purchased an apartment about seven miles away for 474 million dong ($22,278).

“We’re happy with this apartment, but we can’t make a living,” Bao said recently at his new place, down the street from some gasoline storage tanks.

He said he used to earn 200,000 ($9.50) to 300,000 ($14) per day selling tea outside the temple, but foot traffic in his new location is minimal. He now survives mainly on the 3 million dong ($141) per month his daughter-in-law earns as a hairdresser.

Scholars say vendors and artisans were among the first residents of the Old Quarter’s 36 streets. When some traders fled to the former U.S.-backed South Vietnam in the 1950s, the north’s Communist government seized their shophouses and divided them into apartments.

Romain Orfeuvre, an architect from Toulouse who works in Hanoi, said the Old Quarter resisted change decades ago because of stunted economic development during Vietnam’s wars against France and the United States, and more recently because authorities have been reluctant to evict squatters.

Hoang Thi Tao, who runs a newspaper stand near the Old Quarter, is cautiously optimistic about the impending changes.

“The project will help to make the Old Quarter prettier, improve its residents’ living standards and lure more foreign tourists,” Tao said. “But it’ll also require a lot of resources and determination on the government’s part. They’ll need to give big compensation offers to persuade those people to leave.”

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Hanoi Youth Hostel – No.5 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hotline: (+84) 972004080

Email: kellyyouthhostel@gmail.com

Same same, but different: 7 ways Hanoi is unlike any other Asian city

 By Bruce Foreman

Roadside breweries, moped madness … there are so many ways to fall in love with Vietnam’s capital.

Traveling in Southeast Asia can get a bit samey-samey after a while. It’s all temples, heat and tourist traps, right? Until you get to Hanoi.

The Vietnamese capital is like a breath of fresh air. The city is a graceful pastiche of cultural influences from the French and Chinese, while the Vietnamese have stubbornly retained their local ways.

Here are the things that we love about it most and that makes Hanoi stand out from all other cities in Asia.

1. Leap-of-faith traffic

Hanoi

Express faith in humankind; step confidently out on Hanoi roads.

Crossing the road in Hanoi is unlike anywhere else.

It’s a little bit like bungee jumping. You just have to believe it when people tell you “it’s going to be alright, just keep walking” despite all your instincts telling you not to take the leap.

Once you do take that first step off the pavement, there’s no turning back. You can only continue putting one foot in front of the other and hope that the mopeds will swerve around you instead of into you.

And it always works. The road traffic is crazy in Hanoi, but it is organized chaos and somehow pedestrians always make it to the other side.

On foot it’s a test of faith in fellow humankind as you step into moped madness, trusting scooters to avoid you as you cross the road.

On the back of a motorbike, it’s like jumping into a river and running the rapids. Precarious and exhilarating.

2. Very fresh beer

Hanoi

Bia hoi, Hanoi’s “morning brew,” enjoyed all day.

Hanoi is famous for it’s dirt-cheap, unpasteurized beer made fresh daily — bia hoi.

The official Hanoi bia hoi comes fresh daily from the Habeco factory. It ferments throughout the day, consequently tasting different at each vendor.

The flavor depends on the rate at which the beer is being sold and how much the seller has decided to water it down that day.

By day’s end, unsold beer goes off and is thrown away. But there’s rarely any left each evening.

The ridiculously cheap price and the fact that it is served out of plastic cups makes this the perfect anti-yuppie, anti-elitist brew, suited to the ideals of a socialist country.

Find it on every happening Hanoi corner, sometimes paired with food, other times with a television and karaoke machine offering classic tunes by Abba and Boney M.

The most famous Bia Hoi for travelers are right in the heart of the old quarter on
Bia Hoi Corner at the intersection of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien streets.

3. The ultimate old quarter

Hanoi

Hang Bac in the Old Quarter. Once the guild street of silversmiths, now home to travel agenciee, tourist cafes and tombstone carvers.

The Old Quarter isn’t just a figurative phrase in Hanoi.

A maze of at least 36 streets between Hanoi’s famed Hoan Kiem Lake, the Red River and the few walls that remain of the Hanoi Citadel, the Old Quarter is more than 1,000 years old and still going strong.

The oldest surviving neighborhood in Vietnam, the Old Quarter became a market place where artisans organized themselves into 36 guilds (the guild of silk, silver, bamboo rafts, conical hats, and sweet potatoes to mention a few), each occupying a street.

The craftsmen have since been overwhelmed by tourism, motor bikes, bars and zippo lighter touts. But small temples, pagodas and hidden communal guild houses still remain from the era of the guilds.

More iconic now are the tube houses, skinny and tall by force of a land tax on street frontage. Check out tube houses at 87 Ma May Street or at 38 Hang Dao.

To spot French colonial townhouses whose lower floors are often disguised by commercial facades, you just have to look at the roof of the house which is usually preserved in its original state.

The Vietnamese heart of colonial Hanoi, the Old Quarter is where the anti-French movement originally headquartered itself.

4. Pop war

Hanoi

The Vietnam War — most iconic war?

The Vietnam War is remembered as much for the atrocities that occurred as it is for the anti-war demonstrations abroad.

A pilgrimage to Hanoi is part of the catharsis sought by veterans of the Vietnam war.

Others who grew up hearing cool protest songs by Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, remain fascinated by a war that is associated with the rebellious 1960s and 1970s.

It is a war that influenced a decade of youth culture in the U.S. and continues to inform pop culture around the world.

For scars of U.S. bombings of Hanoi check out the Long Bien bridge which crosses the Red River and transported supplies from the port at Hai Phong. Or visit the Hoa Lo prison, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American GIs.

5. Shoulder-pole retail

Hanoi

Shoulder-pole vendors dance down the streets of Hanoi.

As a tourism capital, Hanoi is surprisingly devoid of mega shopping malls. Instead, there’s the rather more interesting one-(wo)man shoulder pole shop.

Whatever you want comes to you in rattan baskets looped through a rope and balanced in pairs on bamboo poles resting on the shoulders.

These are both shop front and transport for foot vendors who can frequently be spotted underneath conical hats, triggering the photographic instinct in tourists.

Buy something — bowls of pho, mangosteens, bunches of flowers, hair clips, household utensils — and the photos will be accompanied by a broad Vietnamese grin.

 

6. Body of interest

Hanoi

Ho Chi Min getting Twitpic-ed.

Hanoi is the only city in Southeast Asia with an embalmed leader on display. The real body of Ho Chi Min lies preserved in his mausoleum, much against his own wish to be cremated.

Such is the consequence of being the person in the middle of a personality cult.

Real emotion pours out of the thousands who come to view his body each day and view the man not as a dictator but as the hero of Vietnam’s independence from foreign control.

7. So French, but not

Hanoi

Joie de vivre translates well in Vietnam.

Whilst people from Hanoi are considered aloof by southern Vietnamese, they have nothing on Parisians.

The Vietnamese have not forsaken their French colonial heritage and it is a great place to enjoy French aesthetics with Asian hospitality.

Many wonderful French buildings remain, mostly functional and not a few sporting a fashionable bohemian decay.

However, the success of French-Vietnamese fusion is best experienced through Hanoi’s food.

French baguettes are stuffed with Vietnamese pâté and pickled vegetables to create the rich and tangy banh mi sandwiches.

Coffee is an obsession passed on by the French. In Hanoi, your espresso drips through a small aluminum filter into sweet condensed milk.

Cafés are still arranged in the French style, as if the street is a theater and the café is the audience section. But diners are usually perched on humble plastic or rattan chairs that are mere inches from the ground.

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Hanoi Youth Hostel – No.5 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hotline: (+84) 972004080

Email: kellyyouthhostel@gmail.com