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I spent a couple of weeks in Hanoi during the middle of February, which gives me plenty of time to experience the richness of their culture and tradition. Every day I strolled through the area, exploring the backstreets, watching people do their daily routine, experiment on food, and went shopping in the night markets. I would like to share some of my observations that make Hanoi distinct. My hope is to leave you with a stronger appreciation of Hanoi as it is indeed a charming city to visit.
The official currency in Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). For simplicity’s sake people often leave off the ‘thousand’ when quoting prices so we shall do so here. Vietnamese Dong comes denominated in bills of 500, 200, 100, 50, 20, 10, 2 and 1 thousand, as well as a 500 Dong note. It can be very confusing at first, In fact, I always felt like I am overpaying things because of all those zeros. But when you get accustomed to it, it’s fairly simple.
Where are the coins? Guess what, I didn’t get to see any for the duration of my stay! Apparently, there are no coins in Vietnamese currency.
At first, I thought, they are burning real money ha ha ha … but no they don’t. What they burn is actually fake money, ‘ghost money’, to send to their ancestors in the afterlife. Weird as it may seem, but its part of their tradition.
Spend any amount of time in Vietnam and you will soon notice that the houses are tall and super narrow. I was told that the reason for this is the way people are taxed on property – by the width of the front of the building. This is especially apparent in the Old Quarter of Hanoi where people buy houses with very narrow frontages so that they minimize their tax burden while having a place to display their merchandise to passersby. And since Vietnam has a strong culture of multi-generational families living together, houses are built from 4 or 5 storey, some can even be up to 7 floors!
During my trip to Hanoi in Vietnam last February, I have noticed that there were several tombs in the middle of the rice fields. It is because, if the family own rice fields then the departed family members are buried on the land, to look after the crop and ward of evil spirits. If they’re buried in graveyards then they are exhumed after 3 years.
Egg and coffee? It sounds fairly strange, right? But in Hanoi, it’s one of the best coffee mixes! The egg coffee is definitely unique and must try, even for non-coffee lovers. The drink is made by beating egg yolks with sugar and coffee, then extracting the coffee into the half of the cup, followed by a similar amount of egg cream, which is prepared by heating and beating the yolks. Definitely a satisfying snack on a cold day.
Yes, you read it right… poop… sounds yucky, I know. But it’s like this, the weasels eat berries containing coffee beans, and they have a natural inclination only to pick the best, ripest ones. The berries are digested, but the beans come out the other side whole, transformed with a new, richer flavor. Once dried and cleaned, the beans are then roasted to produce some of the world’s finest coffee. It’s exquisitely rich, so why not give it a try!
Don’t be surprised if you come across a couple of local guys in a quiet rural town slaughtering a viper in the middle of the street and draining its blood. The method of extraction appears quite brutal: the snake’s head is tied in a noose and then killed with a slash to the neck. The dangling tail is cut open and the snake’s blood drips into a bottle containing rice wine, to create “snake wine”. The still-beating heart is then cut out and consumed with glee. They say the wine tastes strongly like medicinal. Not a pretty sight – this is for the adventurous and brave heart travelers only he he he.
It’s common to see a large bamboo pipe being passed around after a meal, which is smoked with the aim of aiding digestion. Roadside restaurants, often have one which customers can help themselves to. Inside the water pipe is a very potent form of tobacco which sends even the heaviest regular cigarette smoker’s head spinning, heart beating fast and hands shaking. You may prefer to just drink the free green tea… 🙂
Water puppet show
The art of water puppetry is unique to the areas surrounding the Red River (Song Hong) – a tradition dated back a thousand years ago. The fascinating combination of many different kinds of traditional arts, from the colorful puppets made of wood dancing beautifully on the water surface to the orchestra playing traditional instruments that you cannot see anywhere else in the world, is sure to blow your mind away! This should absolutely go on the top of your list!
Walking around the streets of Ha Noi, you can easily spot street vendors. They are mostly woman, carrying a “quang ganh” (two baskets slung from each end of a wooden or bamboo pole), riding a bicycle or staying at a street’s corner. They are generally from different rural areas, who flock to the city to earn a living.
Once in Hanoi you will notice the constant presence of edible stuff on their strolls around the Old Quarter. I’m not sure whether there is any regulation as to where people can sell food. Most of the time the wandering vendors seem to simply set up shop where they want, and then move on to another spot depending on how busy things are. Food vendors offer a high-quality local street food with a cheap price, while it may be intimidating, dig in!. However, if you a foreigner, bargain is quite a must.
A cyclo is a simple bicycle taxi which is pedaled by a cyclo driver behind you. This is certainly the quaintest form of Hanoi transport but this is the best way to see the Old Quarter. The leisurely pace allows you to really see everything and it’s fascinating. Plus the open and clear design of the cyclo doesn’t provide you any hindrance while taking snapshots or enjoying the wonderful scenery.
All these look totally odd at first, but the longer you’ve been here, the less weird any of it seems.
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Happy travels everyone!
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