Asian Adventure: Hanoi Street Food

We spent the morning with Tu, actually Van Cong Tu, who is a food blogger and tour guide to the markets and street food vendors in Hanoi.  We went on foot through small alley ways and side streets getting a different view of daily life in this city.  Tu carefully vets the vendors he chooses and makes sure that the food he recommends is fresh and cooked very hot.  We took his word for it because if you were a fainthearted type you might be put off by the cooking environs.  Tu was a marvelously knowledgeable guide and the morning was great fun and filling!

In any case, we began with Vietnamese coffee and ended with a steamed green rice cake with mung bean in it as a dessert.  In between, we sampled crab rolls with dipping sauce washed down with beer (at 10 am no less!), fried shrimp cakes (a dough made from wheat flour and sweet potato with a shrimp with head that is deep fried) served with another dipping sauce, fresh pineapple from the market, and a wonderful bowl of pork with rice noodles and lots of cilantro stirred up with a bit of hot sauce.















We also walked through the market where everything is very fresh be it produce brought in from the countryside, fresh eggs–chicken, quail and duck eggs–fresh fish (live), live frogs, live chickens and other fresh meat.  You select your chicken or pigeon or fish and it is then killed and prepared for you.  The women vendors cut up and pluck all the feathers or hairs from the meat.  They will peel the garlic cloves for you too.  Bamboo was available in several forms as well.  Everything is prepared to your liking.  Quite a production and all very colorful.


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Asian Adventure: All about Ho


Our day began early with a 5:30 am pick up by our local guide Thuan.  It was still dark and we each boarded a cyclo—a bicycle that has a seat on its front.  The driver pedals and basically pushes you along.  The streets were quiet for Hanoi, but there was still some traffic.   Since we were low to the ground and going relatively slowly, it was a unique experience as we nipped in  and around scooters and cars playing what felt like dodge-em.  But what a way to connect  with the city coming slowly to life!  Street vendors setting out their goods–chestnuts, peanuts,  cabbages, cuts of meat—noodle cafes arranging doll-size tables and stools on the sidewalk,  group after group of people young and old playing badminton on a continuous line of courts  and nets.


Our first destination was Ho Chi Minth’s Mausoleum to see the flag raising ceremony.  Before sunrise, the building is lit with a rosy pink light.  The plaza was still and serene and we watched the guards in their bright white uniforms check that the pulleys on the 29 meter high flagpole worked and then clean the platform around the pole.  At just before 6:30 am, martial music blared from speakers up high and soldiers and a color guard marched out in perfect formation.  To the playing of the national anthem, the red flag with a bright yellow star in the center was raised.  By this time, a small crowd had gathered to watch.

From the flag raising, we went to a small restaurant where we queued up for some traditional pho–Vietnamese rice noodle soup with slivers of beef, scallions and cilantro sprigs.  Wonderfully warming and tasty.  The hearty ones among us added hot sauce and or slivered hot peppers.  This was our first food of the day!  Next we sampled some Vietnamese coffee at a small cafe.  It’s made with condensed milk and served in a cup over a small candle and tastes a bit like hot chocolate, unctuous and rich.  The green tea we tried was also bracing.



We were allowed a short respite at our hotel before setting out again. this time by car. to return to the mausoleum and the Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace Area.  The line to enter the mausoleum was very, very long, but moved quite quickly so the wait was bearable.  Ho died in 1969 and had wanted to be cremated with his ashes spread in 3 different parts of the country, but Vietnam was not yet unified so he was preserved instead.  A bit strange to see the body, but we did it.

From there, we toured the lovely grounds, a botanic garden really, surrounding  Ho Chi Minh’s house and also the Ho Chi Minh Museum which opened in 1990.  For the Vietnamese people, Ho is a real hero, the liberator of their country, and called affectionately in some exhibits,”Uncle Ho.”  For an American who remembers the 1960’s, he was the enemy.  But times change and nations revise their views; the U.S. has had formal diplomatic relations with Vietnam since 1995.

Other stops on our day’s sightseeing included the Temple of Literature, very Chinese in architecture with layers of gates leading in to a large statue of Confucius and slightly smaller seated statues of his four best students.  This temple dates back to 1070 and was, in effect, Vietnam’s first university which trained and gave exams to budding scholars.

After a very tasty lunch of fried rice with chicken and the beef roll sampler plate at Koto, which also runs a cooking school,  we then headed for the “Hanoi Hilton”  or Hoa Lo Prison where the French held and tortured Vietnamese political prisoners.  It is a dismal, depressing place to say the least.  It is also where American POWs, including John McCain, were held during the Vietnam War.  The two small rooms devoted to the American POWs portray how humanely they were treated—and, at least compared to how the French treated their prisoners, they were.  Senator McCain returned in 2000 to visit the prison.

The last stop of the day was the Vietnamese Women’s Museum which we chose partly because tomorrow is International Women’s Day (March 8).  The museum is only 7 years old and very nicely done.  It covers the significant contributions women made politically and on the home front during the struggle for liberation and the Vietnam War and portrays the other roles women play as wives and mothers.




There are beautiful exhibits on marriage, motherhood, fashion, and the worship of the mother goddess.  An upbeat ending to what was a very full day!




Asian Adventure: Hello Hanoi

We were pleasantly surprised by the international terminal at the Hanoi airport.  It’s brand new (just opened in January) and the arrival processing through immigration and customs was very quick and our luggage arrived even faster than in Singapore.  There is also a new road from the airport into the city and a lovely new bridge over the Red River, bridge designed by a Japanese architect.  The rustic shops and buildings on the outskirts of the city reminded me of coming into Annantanarivo in Madagascar.  Closer in, there were new residences, many of them 3-4 story narrow townhouses, like row houses, but separate.  They were a variety of muted colors and many had balconies or other decoration on the facades.

It is gray and drizzly and about 65 degrees–quite a change from hot and humid Singapore.  But, after checking into our hotel, we went for a walk to scope out the neighborhood. The streets are very lively with traffic, many motor scooters midst the cars and very few traffic lights. Crossing the street is an exercise in daring as the drivers will weave around you rather than stop.  With all this traffic, the air is polluted and a number of people, particularly women, were wearing cotton masks over their nose and mouth.  Close by is a small lake bordered on one edge by a park which provided a bit of respite from the swirl of vehicles.

We discovered several small streets of bookshops  and book stalls, several with books in English as well as Vietnamese.  And one street over, Ferragamo and Prada’s luxury goods were on display.  At the same time,  we noted women crouched on the corners or sitting on the steps in their coolie hats selling fresh fruit and chestnuts or small pastries. Shades of China in the 1980’s in a city of contrasts.

Asian Adventure: Singapore Gardens

Singapore is a bustling modern city with soaring skyscrapers and mega shopping malls midst a landscape that is lush and lovely and dotted with parks and gardens.  We visited two very impressive gardens, Gardens by the Bay and the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Gardens by the Bay 

IMG_8250Gardens by the Bay opened about three years ago and is on reclaimed land near the marina—unmissable due to the very tall supertrees that dominate the flat terrain.  We visited in the morning and toured both the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest.  These are indoor exhibits in dome-like structures and provide a welcome respite from Singapore’s heat and humidity.

 The Flower Dome purports to represent “eternal spring” and throughout there are garden areas with plants native to different parts of the world.  It is a wonderful riot of color and form made even more colorful by the addition of red and gold flowers, tassels, and balls in honor of Chinese New Year.

It is the Year of the Goat and there were several flower goats here and there in the beds.








I particularly enjoyed the special exhibit of all shapes and shades of dahlias.










The Cloud Forest is a swirl of mist and mystery.  There is a dramatic waterfall at the entry point and then you work your way around and up first by elevator, then on a ramp that loops around this seemingly high altitude mountain ecosystem.

You are up high in this dome and it is damp and there are marvelous views out the glass of the supertrees and the Singapore skyline, but you have none of the ill effects of real altitute.







As you come back down, you follow the ramp and then several escalators to a crystal forest which is made of real crystallized rock formations from caves and caverns around the world.










At the bottom there is a secret garden of greenery, ferns and the like.  As you might guess, it is pleasingly cool, almost cold, in this forest.  I loved it, but my spouse was eager to be re-embraced by the heat.












Singapore Botanic Gardens 

IMG_8430The botanic gardens were founded early in the 19th century and for many years had directors from England, often men associated with Kew Gardens.  During WWII when the Japanese occupied this country, there was a Japanese director, but fortunately, the Japanese had a high enough regard for nature that the gardens were untouched and well managed.  After the war and after Singaporean independence in 1965, the directors were no longer British, but Asian.  It is a bit ironic that the current director, Nigel Taylor, is a Brit.

The garden has a small new building that was built to be as green as possible and it’s the site of special exhibits such as this one on flowers.


We were fortunate to have a guided tour of both the gardens as well as the library, the herbarium and the heritage museum. Orchids are a big deal in Singapore and while almost all of the extensive gardens are free, the National Orchid Garden does charge admission.  We saw a display about the research underway here into orchids and the complex and time-consuming process it takes to develop orchids.  The library has a public reading room with reference books and sample specimens for individuals who want to try and identify the species they find in their yards.  And the library and herbarium have both been actively involved in digitizing collections. The herbarium has about 800,000 specimens from Singapore and other areas in Southeast Asia and about 7,000 type specimens.  Researchers come from around the world to view their collection when the online record and image are not sufficient.

IMG_8490The gardens themselves are lovely and green with many historic and unusual trees and plants and a cadre of dedicated runners who come early in the morning to start off their day.  We enjoyed our tour so much we returned early this morning to see the gingers, the bromeliads, and the orchids again in the early light.













After the gardens, we went downtown to see the Parliament buildings and the huge white Anglican cathedral and to survey Boat Quay, known for its lively restaurant row.  We stopped in the Asian Civilization Museums to learn more about the history of Singapore, but it was an abbreviated stop since most of the museum is closed for renovation.  On our way to lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in the Arts House, we were swarmed by a bunch of middle school students.  They were doing a class project and needed to interview tourists and we qualified.  Half surrounded me and the other half my spouse as they asked where we were from, why we’d come to Singapore, what we liked, whether we wanted to return.  To the last question, an emphatic yes!  They asked to take my picture with them and then, it was time to enjoy what turned out to be a very tasty set lunch.