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Hanoi Stop First time October 2013 Stop With DBS Stop

Ms. Procrastinator, at your service. Below is a record of events/experiences/people that made it to my ‘Memorable List’ for Hanoi. It’s not meant to be a recommendation of places you should visit, food you should try, and experiences that you don’t want to miss. In short, it’s not a traveller’s guide. It’s merely a record of personal experiences…personal musings, if you will.

One of the first emotions that hit me when I emerged from the arrival doors of the Noi Bai International Airport was relief. My first trip to Vietnam was to Ho Chi Min City, and the sight that greeted me when I set foot in the arrival hall of the Tan Son Nhat International Airport was enough to stop me in my tracks. Literally. To say that there had been a crowd would be an understatement. My friend and I felt like superstars come to town; there were waves upon waves of people in the arrival hall, all waiting for whomever they were waiting for. Perhaps they really were waiting for celebrities. It kind of freaked me out, seeing the sea of faces in front of me.

Noi Bai International Airport was a totally different experience. DBS and I came out pulling our luggage on its wheels, behaving and being treated just as we were – plebeian people. Nobody eyeballed us excessively, and we were happy to be part of the airport landscape. Hilarity ensued only when we started looking around for the driver sent by our hotel as part of our airport transfer deal.

There were about a dozen or so men standing around, holding up placards with names of people they were waiting for. We didn’t see our names at first glance, but upon closer examination, my eyes found this particular young man who was, well, different. I’d like to say that our eyes met and I heard music and fireworks in my mind and an imaginary soft breeze played with my hair like a lover’s caress and that we lived happily ever after that.

Scrap that.

He was holding on to a placard with our names all right, but instead of holding it up above his head or around chest level as all the rest of those waiting around were doing, his arms were hung down, and the placard was at hip level. I wondered if he thought he was picking up children. Now, you may think I sound sarcastic here, but I was actually pretty much tickled by the whole thing.

Enough dithering, and on with my ‘Memorable List’! In no order or ranking, they are:

1. THE NOISE

The buzz of traffic. Horns blaring, engines revving. The hum of conversations. The sounds of goods being peddled and prices being haggled. Human sounds. Animal sounds. It all just merged into one big cacophony of indecipherable, meaningless noise. Even when we returned to our hotel and turned in for the day, we could hear people belting out their karaoke numbers somewhere in the vicinity as we stared up at the dark ceiling, waiting to cross over to Slumber Land. By our second night there, however, we were so tired from walking about in the day that we fell asleep with no problem, karaoke or not.

When I came back to Singapore, I found her to be so quiet. Peace finally. I like Hanoi and her people well enough, and I’ll go back again to try new things and go new places. However, if it’s a trip to get away from the bustle of everyday life and everybody else, it’s definitely not my top choice. At least, not the Old Quarters of Hanoi.

2. THE BEEF

DBS found the information online, and we decided to strike out one late afternoon and look for this local, fuss-free steakhouse since people gave it rave reviews. We ventured a more unsavoury part of the Old Quarters to do so, and where should our map lead us to but an opening into a tiny street that was narrow, dark and relatively quiet. Don’t get your knickers into a twist yet. It was quiet because that tiny street was clearly a residential area, filled with tiny doorways and windows that led into mostly empty homes on a weekday afternoon.

It was a long street, and narrow enough to warrant walking in a single file. We were just about to lose our nerves and were debating whether to turn back or go on when a sign loomed up ahead, with the name of the restaurant and an arrow that indicated that we should turn right and then walk straight ahead.

Since it was only around 17:00 – 17:30 hours Hanoi time, we were one of the first customers. Now on with the beef.

At first glance, it wasn’t what one might call an appetising sight. In fact, the whole plate looked like a mass of brown vomit or something that came out from human bowels that had had too much dietary fibre. An epic fail on tantalising the palate through sight. But the smell was indescribably good, so good that it didn’t take much prompting for me to take a closer look, and to of course, dig in.

A thin slab of steak drenched in fragrant brown gravy, accompanied by fluffy thick-cut fries on the side. Haters of garlic and onion, you may possibly lower your resistance for this dish. The presence of both was all too apparent in the gravy, but…ooh…it smelt and tasted so good that despite her deep-seated dislike for both garlic and onion, DBS dug in and relished every bite. I had to stop myself from licking my plate clean. I even wanted to stand outside the kitchen and stare, misty-eyed, at the wonderful chef who whipped up this dish. He or she would probably be enveloped in little pink hearts in my mind’s eye.

And the fries! Ineffably moreish. I love potatoes, but these were really something akin to potato…royalty. Just plain potatoes and salt, but the rich taste that lingered on in my mouth told me that I had possibly reached the realm of potato heaven, or perhaps even gastronomy heaven.

My only grouse was that the beefy taste of the slab of meat was thin enough to make me suspect that we were eating something other than beef. I’m not sure I want to know what it was, IF it was not beef. That didn’t stop me from taking one of the name cards the restaurant placed by the cash register though. I will go back to the Old Quarters, just for the beef. Interested gluttons, you may hunt down this shop by referring to the address below.

3. THE SPA

This was my virgin visit to a spa. I’m too poor to visit one in Singapore, or more accurately, I just don’t think it’s worth that amount of money to have strangers touching me. Yes, I have trouble with people touching me, especially strangers or those I don’t feel a close emotional connection with. My mood takes a decided turn for the worse when that happens. I have yet to experience this problem with animals…

Anyway, the spa was an experience that I don’t regret. We even went back for seconds the very next day after our first appointment. Zen-like atmosphere that seemed as if all the noise of the past few days had never happened. Friendly staff who were generous with their smiles, and proactive in their recommendations without being pushy at all. We were served chilled lotus flower tea, candied lotus seeds, and refreshingly cold fluffy towels upon our arrival. All this fanfare before we even made a commitment to any of their services! In the end, our chosen package entitled us to each have a big bowl of chicken/beef pho after the massage, and a complementary jar of lotus flower buds as a souvenir. The head staff informed us that they regularly serve many Japanese customers, and so are trained to provide service geared towards standards that the Japanese are used to. Impeccable service with attention paid to the most minuscule details, really.

As for details regarding the services they provide and the corresponding prices, you may want to check this out.

This being my first spa visit, my mind was super busy (I’m the find-it-hard-to-relax kind of girl) throughout the entire session. I wanted to laugh when my massage therapist applied pressure near my shoulder blades and the sides of my ribs. During the wiping down of the therapy oils from my body with hot towels, I wanted to pump my legs and hurl the towels she placed on the soles of my feet into the corners of the room when they got a bit too warm for my liking. I restrained my impulses, but was utterly gratified when DBS told me later that she felt like doing the same thing.

Questions raced through my mind as I wondered about the benefits of this acupuncture point or that as my flesh was kneaded, pummelled, and stretched. And when the therapist actually laced her fingers with mine at one point during the massage, I wanted to clasp on tightly just to see what she would do. Yeah, I have a weird sense of humour, or so DBS often tells me. The first thing she said to me on the first day of this Lunar New Year was,

‘You’re strange.’

Can you believe that woman?

In any case, the spa visit was a very…thought-provoking experience, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself despite my very active brain waves throughout the ninety-minute session.

4. THE KIDS

Hanoikids, that is. A group of university students who conduct free tours for tourists to Hanoi. They speak English, and I know some speak Japanese and even French. I’m willing to bet that some of them understand Mandarin. Although they don’t collect any fees from you for guiding you to places and generally helping you move about in/learn more about Hanoi, you do need to pay for any expenses incurred during the tour. That includes entrance fees, meals, and transportation fares. It’s also polite to prepare small gifts from your native country for them. For more of what they do and how to contact them, click here.

Three girls and a guy. That was the demographics of the team assigned to us. All with distinct personalities, different levels of proficiency in English, but all fabulous in their own way. Sweet and personable, goofy and humourous, savvy and cosmopolitan, intellectual and eager to learn. One of them even e-mailed us to send us her good wishes for the Lunar New Year. So sweet, right? I’m quite curious as to how they’ll turn out after they graduate and spend a few years working.

Thanks, Kids, for showing us around and introducing us to great street food and desserts that we’d probably have missed if not for you. Thanks for sharing about your post-graduation plans and future aspirations as well. Hearing about them was a privilege. And should you NOT have any plans, don’t worry. You’re at an age where it’s normal not to know what you want to do. At least, that was how I was. Just go out, try hard at whatever you happen to find yourself doing, and somewhere along the way, you’ll find yourself. You’ll make mistakes…lots of them. But in time, you’ll come to be grateful for those mistakes because without them, you’ll never become who you’re meant to be.

5. THE COMPANY

We haven’t travelled together since our trip to Taiwan in August 2009, so this was way overdue. It took one of us to be self-employed and the other to leave her job before this trip could materialise.

DBS likes to plan the itinerary before her trips, whereas I just swing free and bungle along as best as I could. She hates packing. I’m honest-to-goodness fantastic at it. She’s good at anxiety while I’m good at being a steadying force. She’s good at research and foraging out information on the best hotels, the best restaurants, the best shopping streets, the best deals…you name it, she could probably find it if the information is legally accessible to the public. I’m a bit too easily distracted to do so. *Sheepish grin* I mean, I didn’t graduate from university without knowing how to go about looking for relevant and reliable information, and condensing them so that they’re more digestible for the reader…but I guess I like bullying DBS in this manner. If she enjoys it, it’s not considered bullying, right?

Despite our differences, DBS and I work well together. I enjoy the company of some friends, but I know that we’ll never make good travel companions for reasons that range from differing interests to a limit in our tolerance for each other. But DBS and I? We enjoy each other’s company and we make good travel mates. Oh, there is often some bickering here and there along the way, but we always find humour in our situation in the end.

Our experiences in Hanoi might not have been particularly special, but they were wonderful all the same because she was there with me. I’m sure this sentiment of mine would have remained unchanged regardless of our holiday destination.

And that, really, is all that matters.