27 Apr 5 Unexpected Things We Learned in Hanoi
Traveling to visit our friends in Vietnam was a completely new experience for us, especially since it was our first time to an Asian country.
It was also the first time traveling to a place where both of us had absolutely zero grasp of the language (unless you count the words phở and bahn my from our menu vocabulary- but even those, we found out, we had been pronouncing incorrectly).
There are a number of countries in the world that I would love to visit with the caveat that I’d only go with someone who knows their way around and can interpret the language and culture. Vietnam was on that list.
Fortunately, our friends had lived in Hanoi for a year already (they four more to go, with a possible extension). What’s more, they work with a cohort of Vietnamese counterparts who love to share about their culture.
For people with stronger ties to Vietnam, the following insights may not be much of a surprise. But for “newbies” like us, we learned a whole lot on this first visit.
We had heard about the traffic in Vietnam. And having lived in Dominican Republic, the crazy things people carry on their motorbikes was – yes, crazy – but not entirely surprising. However, before our “orientation” to Hanoi, we had no idea how to properly cross the street! We would have waited forever for a gap in the traffic and then tried to make a break for it.
Thankfully, our friends and hosts showed us the secret. Once we tried it with their help, it worked like magic. In case you missed it, here’s our post with the entertaining video of the first time we crossed a major street in Hanoi.
Exercise in the City of Lakes
There’s a whole world of activity that takes places every morning around Hanoi’s many lakes. We had no idea we would see so many people – especially senior citizens – taking advantage of the lakeside park near our friends’ home. Many of the exercises people were doing were familiar to us, like walking or tai chi, but there were some really interesting new variations (see the blog post Staying Fit in Hanoi for details).
We knew that Vietnam made coffee. What we didn’t expect was the number of coffee shops we would see on every block in Hanoi. They also have some creative ways to serve coffee.
Among the drinks we tried were: a coconut sorbet with espresso poured over it, yogurt and coffee, and egg coffee. Egg coffee, a specialty of certain cafes, was probably our favorite. It’s a bit like eggnog in its creaminess. Needless to say, we really enjoyed discovering the coffee culture in Hanoi.
North and South
Another thing we came to realize during our trip is that there are often some big differences between the northern and southern regions of Vietnam. For example, the language is spoken differently, such that the Vietnamese workers we met in Hanoi said they have trouble understanding villagers they meet in the southern parts of the country.
Apparently, many of the Vietnamese people who migrated to the States come from the central and southern regions. So the Vietnamese food we’ve been exposed to at home is not necessarily the same style as that in Hanoi (or elsewhere in the North). Fortunately for our own palettes, food in the North is not as spicy!
As with most countries, Vietnam is full of diversity, and each region is unique. It’s always important to remember that the things we experience in one particular town or region is not necessarily true of the entire country.
Many Kinds of Phở
Historians say that phở got its start in and around Hanoi at the turn of the century. It turns out that the Vietnamese noodle soup we’re familiar with from back home is just one kind of phở. The word phở actually refers to the noodle itself, and there are several ways to prepare it.
During our stay in Hanoi, we tried: Phở (noodle soup), Phở cuốn (rolls), Phở chien (deep fried squares), and Phở xao (fried noodles). You can see more about these dishes in our recent post.
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