Beer in Hanoi, Bliss in Cat Ba

Let’s start with beer. Vietnam’s capital is perhaps the loveliest in all of Asia, IMHO. Even as we approach it something felt particularly good. Air was fairly crisp, the zoom of traffic not to loud and there were mountains of fresh produce piled streetside, chatty people standing beside and enjoying a much. We were in a bit of a hurry to reach our Couchsurfing host, an Brit expat who has been teaching English in various Asia countries for years. But we did not have the heart to pass by so many stands selling the most popular and ubiquitous street foods in Saigon.

Turned out that Rachel, our host, was crazy about bánh mì as well. So, we asked her, with literally thousands of bánh mì vendors across town, how does she find the best bánh mì in Hanoi? Well, she said, you just keep eating and searching. It’s all in a life’s work. The next day, for lunch, she took us to one of her fav spots. A typically inconspicuous street food vendor smeared small baguettes with pâté, stuffing them with cold cuts and pickled vegetables, squirting in some soy sauce and adding a few chili peppers on top. And then, Rachel pointed to the secret move, the guy, toasted the bread. As I snapped the rubber band around my sandwich and unwrapped the assembly I realised that my hands trembled with expectation. It was a double crispy bánh mì, stunning indeed. To wash it down, we took our bikes to town.
Hanoi had a small town vibe to it: people walked around the lake, newlyweds smiled for photos, locals in flip-flops mingled with the many foreigners and expats similarly dressed.

Even the moped traffic, chaotic and untamed at first sight, was more laid-back than what I had expected.

The old town was visibly of colonial descent. Most restaurants looked like big houses, each with multiple dining areas, on two or three levels, with benches or tiny stool assembled around communal tables. The food choice was mind boggling: from the delicious bun cha — a traditional Hanoi dish that involves dropping vermicelli rice noodles, herbs, and sometimes spring rolls into a bowl of sweet yellow broth, along with charcoal-grilled miniature pork hamburgers and grilled pork slices, so good that even Obama and Anthony Bourdain had to have them…

…to the appalling. I name here the thịt chó, dog meat restaurants, often advertised with a depiction of a innocently happy pet. Such delicacies are believed to be beneficial for men.

For the next few days we worked hard to try as many dishes as we could, and yet by evening we would have to admit that our work would never be done. So we would sit down in one of the many bia hoi — traditional Hanoi joints and drank freshly brewed, unfiltered, 20-cent-a-pop local beer, cheering with locals until dozens of empty glasses sat indiscriminately on our table, or on the sidewalk.

To escape the food & drink bonanza of the capital, we planned a little escape towards east. Jon had devised a plan to visit the famous Ha Long Bay on the cheap. Just like the locals do. So we pedalled for a day, feeding largely on jackfruit from hawkers.

Then took a small boat…

And a second, even smaller boat…

…only to arrive on an empty pier on Cat Ba island. Knowing how the place should be swarmed with visitors, the calmness was surreal.

For 6 US dollars a night we checked into a clean hotel opening into this view of the bay.

And spent there a week of pure bliss: relaxing, sleeping, lazily cycling to the four corners of the island, almost crossing it on foot and people watching.

Despite its beauty, Cat Ba had a weak point. Great food was suddenly difficult to find. In the tourist spots it was expensive and often bad: seafood not fresh, coffee made from instant powder, soup tasting like dishwasher leftovers. The market was better, with several interesting dishes on offer during lunchtime, and a couple of hawkers by night serving rice balls in ginger syrup, or grilled chicken, or pho.

There was fine seafood for sale, but there was nowhere to light a fire and cook it. So by the end of the week we were ready to pack up and return to Hanoi, and then fly across the country to meet a friend further south.