|Me and Snow after my cooking class.
Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum.
November 20, 2006
Today I am faced with the disadvantages of not reading my Vietnam guidebook in advance. For example, I knew I wanted to go to the Hoa Lo
Prison and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum today. When I opened my guidebook on my way out of the hotel, I saw that both of these places are closed
on Mondays. Today is a Monday. Crap.
Time to put a Plan B in motion (I just devised Plan B as it didn’t exist before a few minutes ago).
I am calling today ‘The Girl’s Guide to Hanoi’. I have devised my plan (the beauty of being by myself is that the democratic process is always on
my side - I always win by a vote of 1-0). I am going to take a cooking class. I am going to go to a spa. I am going to shop. Yup. This is what I am
going to do.
The weather is cool and breezy right now as I’m sitting on a bench at the lake. I am more than appreciative of this after the intense heat in
Thailand. I love this city. I really do. If there weren’t so many other places to see in Vietnam, I would stay here longer. This just gives me a
reason to come back.
Time to go to the cooking class. It starts in fifteen minutes…
Wow. What a day. What an incredible day. Well…being a girl, it was an incredible day.
Almost everything today happened by accident. Just 100 feet after I discovered that everything I wanted to see was closed, I stumbled upon a
restaurant with a chalkboard outside that advertised a cooking class that they offered along with what was going to be cooked up. One of my
priorities, after all, when coming to Vietnam was experiencing the different foods. I was even going to do a culinary tour but ended up balking at
the very last minute due to the $1400 price tag and the lack of freedom that comes with having somebody drive you around everywhere. So it is
up to me to find the culinary excellence of this country. And I just happened to stumble across something to help me do this.
This cooking class was held in a restaurant called Old Hanoi. Snow was my teacher (this is what she calls herself as that is what her Vietnamese
name means in English). We both put on our aprons and we were on our way to cooking up some Vietnamese goodies. All of the ingredients were
brought to the table and we prepped away. Chopped veggies, marinated the fish, made a dipping sauce, etc. Mini stoves were brought to our
table and we cooked up everything. The people at the tables around us were looking at us as they were practically drooling (probably because
they could smell the aromas while they were waiting for their food to arrive). And then it was time to taste what we made. Everything we made
was incredible. But no food course would be complete without some musical accompaniment. Not only would fellow restaurant patrons get to
listen to Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’…they would also get to listen to me and Snow belting out our rendition of ‘Hello’. Talk about good times.
I am now adding ‘Vietnamese’ to the list of themed dinner parties that I plan to have at some point. (They are going to email me the recipes and
then I will put a link to them – they were all extremely easy so anybody can do it!)
When I left the restaurant, I felt a slight sense of guilt that I am not going to see one ‘sight’ in Hanoi before leaving for Halong Bay tomorrow
morning. I figured that I could incorporate the One Pillar Pagoda into my girly day. I hopped on the back of motorbike (after negotiating down to
half of the original price that they quoted) and I chose to pay attention to where we were going. It turned out that even though it was outside of
the Old Quarter, it really wasn’t that far away.
I saw the pagoda. Is this really what the guidebooks urge people to come and see? It was nice and all…but I didn’t find anything extremely
special about it.
I decided to walk back as I felt confident that I paid enough attention on the motorbike to find my way back. Just across the street was Ho Chi
Minh’s mausoleum. Of course it was closed…but there was something impressive about the row of red flags with hammer and sickles and
another row of red flags with yellow stars. The whole scene screamed ‘Communism’.
I continued to walk and saw that Lenin statues don’t just exist in every city in Russia…apparently you can also find them in Vietnam. Well, at
least in Hanoi.
Now that I had my ‘sightseeing’ fix for the day, it was time to head to the spa. I had the address and knew the general area where the street
was. I ended up walking a bit too far. For once, it actually worked out to my advantage. I was at Hoa Lo Street. This was where the prison is
located. I figured I would at least walk by it…even if it was closed. But I saw something as I came up to it. Something that made me smile. There
were doors that were open. Hoa Lo was, in fact, open today. Why did Lonely Planet lie to me? If it wasn’t due to me getting slightly lost, I would
have never even walked by this place assuming that it was closed. I was happy and found it in me to get a bit more sightseeing into my day.
This prison was built by the French at the end of the 19th century. It was not very pleasant to see what the French colonists did to the
Vietnamese while the Vietnamese were trying to gain independence. In addition to the cells and the rooms where they were restrained, there
was also the guillotine that was used on them. I have heard the stories in the past of Marie Antoinette and people of the like. But those have
always seemed like stories instead of facts (though I know that it is factual). Here I was…seeing a guillotine right in front of my face. And
pictures of the French displayed the Vietnamese’s heads of the beheaded.
All of this being said, I also went there for another reason. My sister had told me that she saw this place on the Amazing Race. It was a former
American POW detention center. There were a couple rooms that were dedicated to this. One room showed pictures of the prisoners and the
living conditions that they endured. All I can say is that they paint a picture of the Americans lives that were imprisoned here to have been
puppy dogs and rainbows. They made it seem like it was a country club or something (though it was said that the American prisoners did dub it
the ‘Hanoi Hilton’). Call me skeptical…but I can’t really believe it was all that they cracked it up to be. I am sure that if an American POW was
asked, we might receive a completely different account of the experience. That being said…there is no doubt in my mind that the Vietnamese
treated them far better than…oh…let’s say the detainees at Abu Ghraib…
I went into the second room and this is where pictures of the American POWs were. One immediately stood out to me. It was a good-looking guy
wearing a CAL sweatshirt. It was crazy to see something from home represented on this wall. Not only that, the fact that it was my parents’
alma mater kind of struck a cord too. Then I looked at the name under the picture. John McCain. I actually knew he was one of the POWs here
but I had no idea that this picture was of him. After reading a few sentences underneath the picture, I found out that he was there for about 5 ½
years. While the conditions didn’t look too rough, you have to admire these people for how long they were able to stay in these confines.
Now I was on my way to the spa where I would treat my feet to a spa pedicure. I would get an additional treat of being able to read last month’s
In Style magazine that was there.
On my way into the Old Quarter, I came across the Sofitel Metropole – one of the nicest hotels in this city. I felt it was my duty to check it out
and see what it was like. And then I came across something else…an afternoon high tea that came with a chocolate buffet. For $14. Sold.
This was incredible. Simply incredible. I feel like I need to talk about it in detail because it was that good. Where to start???
Let’s start with the fact that I had an option of what I wanted to drink beyond just tea. Lattes were on the menu as well. And that was what I
opted for. I have tea every morning…it was time to change it up a bit.
Then came the three-tier platter of goodies. One layer was mixed tropical fruit. One was little delectable desserts. And the other were tea
sandwiches – but slightly different from the norm. There was the standard cucumber and an oh-so-good smoked salmon one. But there was also
a small Croque Monsieur and a small toasted sandwich with tomatoes, mozzarella and pesto. And there was another platter. This had a selection
of petite items like a Madeleine cookie, a scone, a crepe, a waffle and a piece of marble cake. And there was another dish with Devonshire cream,
strawberry jam and apricot jam.
Sounds good, huh? And I haven’t even gotten to the chocolate buffet yet…
How do I begin to talk about this heaven for Chocoholics? Imagine one of the most gourmet chocolatiers has showcased his efforts into small
chocolates and pastries/desserts. That can somewhat describe this. There must have been 15-20 varieties of pieces of chocolates to choose from
(and ‘no’, I did not try all of these). Every dessert that was offered was dainty and oh-so-appealing to the eye. Things ranged from opera cake to
chocolate crème brulee to chocolate cannelloni (where the ‘shell’ was white chocolate) to chocolate mousse with a vanilla sauce (served in a shot
glass) to chocolate and raspberry tartlets to mint marshmallows in a small bath of chocolate to molten chocolate cake to chocolate covered fruits
to a chocolate bombe to chocolate macaroons. And these were in addition to the chocolate fountain with fruits and homemade marshmallows and
the chocolate ice cream bar. Once again, I did not sample everything…but it was tempting.
While I was at the Sofitel, I figured that I might as well inquire about their massage services. In order to get to that area of the hotel, I had to
walk outside. It was at this moment that I was treated to something that was stunning. A lightning storm. There was no rain. No thunder. Just
flashes in the sky every few seconds that lasted for several minutes. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. When it concluded, I continued my walk.
I decided to treat myself to a Vietnamese massage. Before it would begin, I used the sauna which felt oh-so-good…but not as good as the shower
that came right after. Then I got to experience my third type of massage while in South-East Asia (in addition to Khmer and Thai). This was the
most like a traditional massage with the exception of the rubbing technique. Hard to explain but it was nice.
What wasn’t so nice was leaving the massage to see that it was pouring rain outside.
What was even worse was that I can now say with certainty that the Old Quarter of Hanoi floods when it rains like this. My savior was a little
Vietnamese lady who sold me a plastic poncho. Probably the best thirty cents spent all day (I negotiated it down from sixty cents which would
have still been worth it). I hiked my pants up and waded through the streets as there was no way to find a route that wouldn’t take me through
I had one shop I had to stop at before retiring to my hotel – a shoe shop. Lucky for me, ‘Shoe Street’ exists here where every shop on the street
sells nothing but shoes. Since I forgot both of my pairs of shoes in my sister’s suitcase I knew I had to leave one of these stores with a purchase.
The flip-flops are useful…but when a time comes that I need to do some serious walking, they probably won’t do the trick. I found a pair of
‘Diesel’ shoes (maybe I should say a ‘replica’ of Diesels) that I talked down to just under $10. Good enough for me.
I wanted to do some lacquerware shopping (as I have fallen in love with the stuff out here) but I was just too wet. I am hoping that when I get
back from Halong Bay I will have time to buy some of this stuff before heading to Hue. Fingers are crossed…