I Have Known the Rapture of Travel

Carrie-Anne Moss Trinity Matrix door with 3 people matrix_Door

I have known the rapture of travel.

The moments of waking up in a completely new city, new country, not knowing the language and having the whole day ahead of me to do whatever I want. Every moment is an adventure. Walking out of the hotel to find a cup of tea or explore what’s around the corner feels like a sci-fi movie.

Why science fiction? Because I realize in those moments everything is a choice. It’s all about my perspective how the day unfolds the way it does. So many options are available that I’m completely unaware of. Things happening around me I couldn’t possibly understand and have no way of knowing about through my intellect. Some experiences are beyond knowing, they are simply about feeling. They are beyond scary because I have no life experience to compare or give them context. I simply sit back and receive, get into the experience and for the first time in my life get very comfortable with saying,”I don’t know.”

I don’t know where I’m going next. I don’t know why I came to this country. I don’t know why I’m still here. I don’t know why I’ve haven’t been in love yet. I don’t know why I’m not married yet. I don’t know why I don’t have kids yet. I don’t know why I still don’t miss home.

In those moments I have to remind myself it’s all a choice. It’s a choice about how we look at the very next moment. When I’m in synch with that I’m in the rapture of life…and travel takes me there. Travel seems to be the portal to show me where my negativity can push me off course and where my trust in saying “yes” to opportunities that make no sense to me what-so-ever can somehow lead me to a greater, deeper connection with others. The experiences that show me how interconnected we all are around the world and even beyond.

Do other people have to travel to feel that way? I would love to wake up one morning in San Francisco and feel that sense of excitement about the day. That feeling of exploring life in that city. I had that feeling when I was a kid and I lost it along the way. What I remember now is waking up every morning in San Francisco with a deep feeling of dread. Dread of having to check email, dread of going to the office…again. Not wanting to talk on the phone and feeling there wasn’t anything worth talking about.

Life wasn’t working out for me the way I wanted it to. I thought it was just my life. Now I’m realizing this is a common feeling for people. Every day I felt like the day got away from me. My thoughts, time, money and energy were all going in so many directions that I allowed other people to choose and direct my life unconsciously. Other people were advising me. Other people were giving their opinions. I listened closely, (people told me it’s a strength) intently and mimicked them perfectly. I did what they said and things worked out just as they said. Then, one morning,  I woke up saying , “What the hell? How did I get here? This isn’t what I wanted …”

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Parachuting In – AJWS Global Circle in India

Bikharipurwa Village

Bikharipurwa Village

As a group of 12 young, professional women we arrived in Bikharipurwa village outside of Lucknow to volunteer for one day. Roughly 200 of the Scheduled Castes (Dalits), the lowest castes in India, live there. The day had been arranged by Sahbhagi Shikshan Kendra (SSK), an organization working to empower economically impoverished communities by promoting their participation in self governance and positive social change. In contrast to more remote villages, Bikharipurwa had access to water through pumps but they had no working drainage system. In June 2012 SSK had coordinated a group of AJWS (American Jewish World Service) volunteers to stay and work in the village for six weeks. They installed new drains, maintained the road and worked on the school house. When we arrived for a two day visit, I felt like we “parachuted in” just to maintain the groundwork. We smoothed over the school yard, laid bricks and planted trees. The village had asked for these minor things. In a few months another volunteer group was coming for 10 days to help them with more work. By the end of the day I began to see how our day of manual labour was actually part of a bigger picture. I began to understand how connected we were to the group before us in the hearts and memories of the people who lived there. We maintained their connections and hard work as well as smoothing the ground for the next set of volunteers to come.

Wearing Northface and Lucy style travel pants and cozy long sleeved shirts, our early morning conversations revolved around when to take Pepto Bismal or Imodium and using bug spray. By the end of the day, our conversation shifted to whether doing manual labour for one day was benefiting the villagers or whether we were just patting ourselves on the back trying to feel good. As we sat around a conference table with the SSK staff after we left the village, I began thinking about this idea of “parachuting in”. I recalled how each day after visiting AJWS partners, hearing their personal stories of courage and strength while facing, discrimination, poverty and even abuse, we’d find ourselves back in our comfortable air conditioned bus. At times I spaced out, staring out the window as neighbourhood after neighbourhood of slums, naakas (central meeting points were people can be recognized as day labour and pick up work), cows and water buffalo passed by. Those street scenes felt like movie sets. I experienced a disconnect between my perception of how I feel about my life and the way of life in India.  ” Productive Discomfort” is the jargon AJWS uses to describe the feeling. It means we’re uncomfortable with what we see and don’t know how to react. Most days after meeting with an AJWS partner we would talk about this as a group. What could we do with the discomfort and questions that came from these meeting? Did we have unrealistic expectations that we could make a positive impact after such a brief encounter?

Celebrity Alanna

Celebrity Alanna

When we arrived at Bikharipurwa we were given the warmest welcome, as if we were honoured guests. Little kids ran up to us yelling, ” Alanna! Alanna!”, and we were all confused why they were so excited to see our lovely Alanna. She was a celebrity. Then someone explained that in the last volunteer group a there was an Alana and she became like a daughter to some of the elder woman in the village. They cried when she left. Everyone assumed that because we were from AJWS, we knew their friends. They were excited to see us because of their perception that we were connected to those people they loved and trusted. If we were friends with them, we must be good people.

Sunita

Sunita

Sunita, our AJWS India country representative explained some of the social nuances and changes she noticed that day. With her wide, warm smile and her voice of years of experience she explained that even the moment when one of the elder woman from a higher caste joined everyone for lunch and sat with “the lower castes”because of foreign visitors, was a subtle yet significant shift. She described the attitudes people held that certain jobs were for the “lower castes”, such as cleaning drains. Seeing foreigners come and do menial jobs happily was creating a shift. Little by little attitudes were changing and people were feeling more empowered to maintain the drain system their American friends had installed, or sit and have lunch with the whole community when visitors came. She gave us a small insight into the long and difficult process of creating social change in India. It made me think how much we’re all connected and that showing up for one day, when it supports Sunita and SSK’s long term goals, was valuable. I left feeling respect and admiration for the change we were all creating, very slowly, very methodically, one day at a time, one activist group at a time.

Bikharipurwa Village

Bikharipurwa Boy

Ariel at Bikharipurwa

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Lily planting trees

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water pump photo

man on bricks

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48 Hours in Hanoi

Walking through the streets of Hanoi is like trying to read Braille. It’s a tactile experience of people selling anything, motorbikes honking and a constant barrage of the sounds of the streets. There’s a cultural code Hanoians have that tourists and visitors can only feel during their first experiences. Life happens on the streets.

Crossing the street

Crossing Hanoi streets is all about survival. To survive you must grasp “the politics of the pavement”. Vietnamese drive freestyle in Hanoi. The relentless sound of horns commanding, “Attention please – look at my nice motorbike” or “Get out of my way”. The rule of thumb is to keep walking forward, never step backwards. A native Hanoian explained, “You must keep walking at your natural pace but slowly so the traffic can go around you. If you go quickly and make sudden moves they can’t know how to get around you and accidents happen.” Never step backwards because chances are a motorbike will be behind you leaving only 20 centimeters in between. The sidewalks are fair game for motorbikes, so the same rules apply. Motorbikes zoom into oncoming traffic, cut pedestrians off at corners and seem to jet out from nowhere carrying a family of four. When in doubt, follow a Vietnamese person across the street.

Cyclos, XE OM (pronounced Say Om) & Taxis

Cyclos are only allowed in the Old Quarter because they create traffic jams.  The three-wheel bicycle taxi is a popular tourist attraction and drivers will take you around the Old Quarter and charge about 200,000 VND ($10 US) for an hour.

Both the motorbike and XE OM are safe and reliable ways to get around. The XE OM drivers are usually regarded as living maps. They know every street and every short cut of the city. Typically the cost is about 10,000 VND per kilometer and be sure to practice the art of bargaining. Taxis may charge the same prices as XE OM’s but with traffic in Hanoi it could take longer. Be mindful of Taxi meters that overcharge. It’s a well known scam to have meters that run faster and overcharge.

Check In

Hanoi has some excellent and reasonably priced hotels. The Hanoi Elegance Hotels are a group of boutique hotels in the Old Quarter. One of the best is the Hanoi Elegance 4 on 3 Yen Tahi Street, Hoan Kiem. (Rooms range from $45 -$80 U.S.) All the Elegance Hotels have exceptional staff, modern rooms with flat screen TV’s, free WiFi and an excellent breakfast.

The Angel Palace Hotel at 173 Hang Bong, Hoan Kiem is new hotel. The staff is knowledgeable and helpful, modern rooms with flat screen TV’s , free WiFi and breakfast delivered to your room. (Rooms range from $45-$70 U.S.)

Sights to See and Sights to Skip

You can spend a day wandering around the Old Quarter & Hoan Kiem Lake. The 36 streets of the Old Quarter still have the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi. The names of the streets originally correlated to the trade of the merchants.  Hang Bong was once “Cotton Street” and Hang Gai, one of Hanoi’s ancient streets, once specialized in thorny wire, hammocks and ropes. Today it’s known as “Silk Street” where over 75% of the shops sell goods and services related to silk. A reliable and reasonably priced tailor Yen, has a shop on 115 Hang Gai called Yen’s Boutique. She has a staff of quality tailors at fair prices. (Remember to practice the art of bargaining) The buzz and roar of Hanoi is constant in the Old Quarter. People sitting on miniature, plastic stools eating, drinking, keys being copied on street corners and women with coolie hats weaving in and out of traffic carrying anything imaginable. Turn down Ly Quoc Su off Hang Bong Street to the Nha Tho Cathedral and you’ll see throngs of young Vietnamese drinking tea in street corner cafes. From there you can rest and try good Vietnamese coffee at Moca Café,  14-16 Nha To with good WiFi and a comfortable atmosphere.

Legend has it that in Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the restored sword) in the 15th Century, King Le Loi, found a holy turtle during a cruise on the lake. The turtle requested the King return the sacred sword he used to defeat the northern Ming aggressors in battle. The King unsheathed his sword and threw it to the holy turtle who returned it to the bottom of the lake. Apparently there is still one turtle left in the lake today and on certain days he appears above water and crowds of people gather around to catch a glimpse of the turtle of the lake. Walking around the lake path you can see the 18th century pagoda, Thap Rua, at the center of the lake. On another tiny islet in the middle of the lake is Den Ngoc Son, or Temple of the Jade Mound. Cross the red Huc Bridge to the temple and for 20,000 VND you can take a look inside.

Take a look at the mural along the Dyke Road (Au Co, Yen Phu, Tran Quang Khai) because it is  something unique to Hanoi. It was constructed for the city’s 1,000 year anniversary in 2010 and is the longest mural in the world.

Another day can be spent in the Western part of Hanoi. From the old city it’s an easy motorbike or taxi ride to the West Lake area and then an interesting walk back to the Old City. The ride from the Old City is about 50,000 VMD if you practice the art of bargaining. West Lake and Truc Bach Lake are divided by Thanh Nien Street. You can see the Tran Quoc Pagoda and the area is humming with people as early as 5:30 am. Walk down Hung Vuong towards Dien Bien Phu Street and just before you get to Ba Dinh Square you’ll pass the imposing Presidential Palace, which is worth seeing from the outside. From there you can see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and if you arrive after 7am you’ll see a very long line of people forming for the 8am opening. One could easily skip the hours of standing in line to view Uncle Ho and see his house.  Just beyond is Chua Mot Lot (one Pillar Pagoda) one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples.

Continuing down Dien Bien Phu, you’ll pass the Army Museum and Flag Tower. It has some interesting artifacts but unless you are a real military buff it can be skipped.

Close by is the 11th century Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) and Vietnam’s first University founded in 1076. This is worth the 20,000 VND ticket to see the perfectly preserved five separate courtyards with pools, manicured lawns and the Doctors Stelae’s (stone scrolls). It’s stepping back in time.

Have some lunch at Koto Restaurant right across the street, 61 Van Mieu before an easy walk back to the Old Quarter.

Eating Out

Fantastic food lies at the heart of life in Hanoi. On every street someone is selling Bun Cha, Sticky Rice, Pho or fresh fruit. A tour of the street food alone would just scratch the surface. Tu Van Cong and Mark Lowerson have cornered that niche. They offer the “Street Food Tour” for $55 (U.S.) which includes all food and drink for 3 hours. If the cost sounds steep, truth be told, in three hours you get the best experience of what excellent, fresh, street food actually is. This is  Hanoi culture, so if you love food, this is the tour to take. They both write well known tongue and cheek foodie blogs that are worth checking out. Tu’s is The Vietnamese God, and Mark’s is called Stickyrice. They tell you everything you want to know but don’t know enough to ask about eating on the streets.

With 48 hours you’ll need to find some tasty Pho. Conveniently located in the Old Quarter Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su is just off Hang Bong Street. It’s a clean comfortable setting with adult tables and chairs and is packed early in the morning for breakfast.

At #18 Phan Boi Chau Street is Quan An Ngon, an experience in itself with excellent food. People sit at communal tables and order from a main menu. The restaurant is open air with canopies above giving it an indoor and outdoor feel. Friends sit together in groups, Vietnamese families sit alongside travelers, while various plates of Bun Cha (Hanoi style vermicelli with grilled pork) and Mi Quang (noodle dish usually with pork & shrimp) roll by. You can see the food being prepared in the open kitchens lined around the communal eating area in the middle of the restaurant

Koto Restaurant opposite the Temple of Literature on Van Mieu is different experience. It has more of a western atmosphere and the menu has Western and Vietnamese dishes. The story behind it is as compelling as the food. The restaurant has a 24 month training program for street kids to teach them life skills, health and personal hygiene, self-esteem, and an introduction to the hospitality industry. After being with the program and working at KOTO for 24 months they graduate with full time jobs in hospitality and are able to support themselves.

In the summer months ice cream feels just as much of a cultural experience as well as a foodie fav. Where do the locals go? Is there good gelato in town? Fanny’s 100 % Natural Ice Cream at #6 Quang Trung has real gelato, creamy and smooth, they call it the art of ice cream.

If you’re walking around Hoam Kiem Lake and turn left on Trang Tien you’ll walk about 5 minutes to Kem Trang Tien (Ice Cream), 35 Trang Tien. There you’ll find a barrage of motorbikes parked outside with Vietnamese folks hanging out. Walk up to a small window, pay 12,000 VMD and get whatever flavor they have that day in either a cone or a cup. Also good but different, it’s where the locals go.

For panoramic view of Hoam Kiem Lake and a coffee Café Pho Co on 11 Hang Gai is a unique, classic building in the back of a clothing and souvenir shop. Their unique egg coffee tastes like a blend of tiramisu and thick Vietnamese coffee.

Evenings Around Town:

Since walking the streets of Hanoi is a full time job, the night walking street offers a relief with limited traffic. Hang Duong (Sugar Street) has a night market on Friday, Saturday and Sunday where you can buy the usual market gifts and souvenirs. Shops also specialize in dried fruits and nuts, a favorite Vietnamese delicacy.

One night splash out for a cocktail at the classic Hotel Sofitel. The Summit Lounge on the 20th floor is known for having the best view in Hanoi.

Top off a short stay at a comfortable but gritty Bia Hoi place to drink some beer. You can try the  backpacker’s Bai Hoi Corner and places can be found in the Old Quarter, between Ta Hein St and Luong Ngoc Quyen St.  South of the Opera house is Bia Hoi Hai Xom, 22 Tang Bat Ho, Hai Ba Trung,  if you feel adventurous enough to leave the Old City and try a place filled with locals.

Just eating and drinking your way around Hanoi can fill up a short stay. Just be careful when crossing the streets.

Pick Pocketed in Hanoi

Part of the Great Staff at the Elegance Sapphire Hotel

Being pick pocketed during my first three hours in Hanoi started off my stay. From start to finish I experienced the roughness and generosity of Hanoians and I was grateful for the experience. It also reminded me that in the big picture I am always being taken care of.

Arriving in Hanoi from five fantastic days in Hoi An eating, drinking good wine and going to the tailor I was relaxed and enjoying Vietnam. After checking into my hotel I went for a short walk to check out the Old City. One of the guys from the Halong Bay Party Boat was meeting me at my hotel that evening to make the final arrangements for my overnight trip. The idea was to be in Hanoi for one night, then go on a boat to Halong Bay. After, I would come back to Hanoi, spend a night or two and fly back to Bali. I was only going to spend two or three nights in Hanoi.

Other adventures were in store for me. Walking around the Cathedral area I had my camera and my wallet in an outside pocket of my backpack. I remember seeing it, zipping it up and then a few minutes later thinking, “I better change that around”  and as I reached to put my camera away and move the wallet to the inside of my pack, I realized it was gone. It happened in five minutes. There I was in Hanoi, credit cards gone, cash gone. Luckily I still had my passport and about $10 U.S. dollars. I went through the stages of panic…disbelief…shock… stupidity and then into action mode.

What was going to be 48 Hours in Hanoi turned into about seven days. I experienced so much kindness, graciousness and generosity from all the people who worked at the hotel, the Party Boat company and anyone I talked to. The staff at the Elegance Ruby Hotel made signs in Vietnamese describing the wallet and what area I was in offering a reward and had me post them all over the Cathedral area. (As if someone was going to return it!) Quan from the Party Boat offered to let me come on the boat for two nights and pay for everything when I had my replacement card. The first thing Quan said to me was, “this is a sign of good luck in Vietnam. Now nothing bad will happen to you while you’re here.”

I had only booked one night with the Elegance Ruby Hotel. They were fully booked so they found another hotel to take me for a few days, they paid for it and when rooms were available they moved me to the Elegance Sapphire Hotel and put everything on my bill at the end. I felt like I kept getting upgraded. The manager gave me $100 in cash and told me I could have as much as I needed and he would just add it to my bill at the end. By the time I left the staff and I were sad to say goodbye.

I went on Twitter for things to do in Hanoi and that’s how I found Tu of the Street Food Tours. He tweeted that iPhones were being snatched out of people’s hands in the Old City, so I wrote back saying I had just been pick pocketed. He told me two weeks before he was in the old city talking on his phone and as he hung up someone came by and snatched it out of his hand from a motorbike. Phone gone.

I ended up taking time to write an article called 48 hours in Hanoi, and sent it to a magazine in Hanoi and the editor responded. He doesn’t need it but we’re staying in touch. I have some amazing photography that I’m proud of from my early morning walks. More creativity and feelings of generosity came out of my experience than I could have imagined. It was the level of kindness and concern I genuinely felt that made the whole experience worthwhile. There is something truly soulful about the streets of Hanoi.

The Street Food Tour of Hanoi

“ Don’t feel like you have to finish everything. We have a lot of food to try. You don’t have to finish it all.”

We’re sitting on the pavement at a low table with small, plastic blue stools. White, plastic containers holding chopsticks, toothpicks, soup spoons and napkins are in between us with the customary small plastic bowl that has chili, lime and salt. I’ve learned this little bowl of spices is the equivalent to salt and pepper in the U.S.. Especially on the pavement of Hanoi. It’s a wet, rainy day and I’m surrounded by Vietnamese people staring at me as I whip out my camera to take a picture of my bowl of Bun Rieu Cha (crab noodle soup). It’s steaming hot and I can smell the fresh spices and broth.

My guide’s name is Tu Van Cong.  He and his business partner Mark Lowerson have carved out a niche in Hanoi with their “Street Food Tours.” I met him on twitter and after reading his tongue and check blog The Vietnamese God I decided I had to try the tour. Having an insider experience of street food with a crazy Vietnamese tour guide sounded too good to pass up.

At 8:30am Tu picks me up on his blue Vespa. Wearing a big smile, aviator shades, and a green T-shirt that says, “Summer Hawaii”, he looks like a 30 something Vietnamese hipster.

Our first stop is just outside the Old City in the temporary wet market. As we settle onto our plastic stools on the curb Tu briefs me about the culture and culinary experience we’re embarking on for the next three hours. “ Ask me any questions you want,” he repeats a couple of times, “ We’ll handle payment for the tour at the end and I’ll pay for everything as we go along. You just have to sit back, taste everything and enjoy yourself.  I’ve eaten my way around most places in Hanoi in the 10 years so I know what to order and what my favorites are. Be sure to tell me if there’s something you want to try to or something you don’t eat. And again, don’t feel like you have to finish everything. We have a lot of food to cover.”

“Where are we?” is my first question, as I look around at various food stalls, noodle vendors and big green metal pods on the curbs next to every vendor.

“It’s a temporary wet market. Soon we’ll have a new warehouse space for the wet market that will be modern and clean. Apparently the government wants it to be more like Singapore.  Many Hanoians aren’t happy about this. The wet market is an ancient tradition and people have been coming to the same vendors for generations. With the new space the rents will go up and some vendors won’t be able to afford it. People feel like we’ll lose something of the soul of Hanoi when this happens, plus the prices will go up because of the rent. The wet market is the body and soul of life here.”

Taking in my surroundings I’m beginning to scratch the surface of what “the politics of the pavement” means in Hanoi. Leaving my bowl of Bun Rieu Cha half eaten, I realize we have another two and a half hours of eating and exploring in the streets of Hanoi. I need to pace myself.

Bun Rieu Cha

Our next stop is in an area where hotels and Hanoians buy sweet offerings and traditional cakes for weddings, ceremonies and holidays. I try my first young sticky rice cake. It’s green, sweet and very sticky.

Driving on Tu’s Vespa in the rain around the streets of Hanoi is an adventure in itself. He has no fear about turning into oncoming traffic and narrowly missing ladies on bicycles in coolie hats carrying produce. At one point I just close my eyes and keep breathing. By the time we arrive at our next destination, down some narrow alley, I am slightly edgy from the drive, the rain and the question constantly buzzing in my brain, “Where are we?”

We’re in another market and I look around to see motor bikes slowing down, an exchange of goods and money takes place with the vendor and the bike continues to roll down the narrow aisles of the crowded market.

“Why are people driving motorbikes through the market?”  after a week in Hanoi I already know the answer.

“For their convenience.” Tu laughs. “They have maybe 1 or 2 things to pick up and they can drive through in 5 minutes.  Park outside it takes at least 15.”

As we walk around looking at the produce, the cut open fish, snails, bags of live frogs and crabs Tu explains to me how easy and cheap it is to cook at home in Vietnam by shopping in this kind of market. The vendors do the slicing, dicing and preparation for you. You simply tell them how you want something cut or chopped, how much of it you want and they do it all. Once you’re home you just have to do the cooking. All the labor intensive preparation is taken care of when you buy it. Everything is fresh…you know exactly where your food is coming from.

After my morning Bun Rieu Cha, two market visits and a young sticky rice cake tasting we’re ready for coffee at Yen Phu Café. Dodging more produce laden women on bicycles with the Vespa we end up at a tiny, hole in the wall cafe (literally) with an interior that reminds me of a back alley. Tu quickly shuffles me past the tiny tables packed with Hanoians enjoying their mid morning brew, up a narrow staircase to another floor of tiny tables. The walls are filled with black and white photos, the floor is grungy and there’s one small window at the end of the narrow room. Light comes in from the staircase and you can hear the sounds from the kitchen below. I’ve become comfortable expecting nothing and being prepared for anything. Tu is chatting happily while I quietly take in the dark, dank surroundings wondering what I’ll be drinking next… which arrives in the form of a beautiful cup of Barista artistry accompanied by a tall thin glass of coffee infused frozen yogurt called café sua cha. This becomes one of my favorite desserts ever and I eat every bite. The coffee, with thick, fresh foam and a delicate flower engraved on top is almost to pretty to drink. The coffee is strong and smooth, but the café sua cha elicits a big smile and a photo opp.

Our next stop is the to Bahn Cuon Lady on Hang Ga Street . My first experience of Bahn Cuon was in Da Nang and it was delicious. Thin savory rice pancakes filled with wood ear mushrooms, diced pork, topped with fried shallots, mint, and coriander and nuoc cham dipping sauce. This experience does not disappoint in addition to the added bonus of watching her make the thin rice pancakes.

Bahn Coun

There’s a mild break in the rain as we get back on the bike and we’re heading to Diagon alley. As we pull up our miniature plastics stools Tu tells me this is his favorite noodle place. It’s the sauce that makes this place so special and he’s tried to get the recipe, he even wanted to write an article about her but no, she wasn’t giving up her secret sauce. She’s not interested in publicity, notoriety. Her unique sauce goes with her to the grave. This Pho Tiu was something special. Typically I don’t eat peanuts anymore. I could taste the peanuts immediately and I could not stop myself. The mix of flavors was just right. It was a completely unique tasting pho and this week I’ve been eating a fair amount of tasty pho. Pork, herbs, beanshoots, crushed peanuts and the indescribable special sauce.  Another bowl of pho finished. Research, I tell myself.

Just as we were leaving, across the dank alley was a woman with a wok of piping hot “crack-in-the-wall- balls”. Sound enticing? I believe this name comes from the fact that the lady who makes them is actually sitting in a spot in Diagon that is like a crack in the wall. There’s no table, just her pans and her shredded coconut and yellow mung bean balls. Some have sesame seeds. They remind me of something I tried the other day in the street when I bought a few from a vendor I wanted to photograph. They were hard and dry and I was not impressed. I asked Tu about them and he said, “No don’t buy those! Sometimes they are 8 days old! I only buy from here. They have to be fresh, hot and straight out of the pan.” Fresh, hot and straight out the pan indeed.  It burned my mouth when I bit into the soft mung bean center.  It was a completely different taste. One of my favorites. Hot, soft and chewy. I had to keep blowing on it so I could finish it before we got back on the bike for our last stop of the morning…

Crack-in-the-Wall-Balls

Fresh, Hot, Balls

An egg coffee at Café Pho Co. The egg coffee was my one request of the day. I had seen it on Tu’s blog and it looked yummy and if I was going off the coffee wagon for a day I wanted it to count. I wanted something different.  The entrance to the café is between a souvenir shop and a clothing shop. The café is tucked in the back above the owners house. It feels like you’re walking into a 1930’s speakeasy in Hanoi. We entered a narrow alley behind two shop fronts where people drive their motorbikes into someone’s courtyard. Red lanterns hang from the ceiling and another narrow staircase takes you up to an elegant room with intricately carved wooden doors.  On that landing is a spiral, iron staircase leading to another landing where the café begins. Following the staircase up one more flight and we were at the top of the building with a sweeping view of Hoan Kiem Lake. The perfect way to end a morning of zooming around back alleys and the narrows streets of Hanoi. The thick, creamy, egg white foam tastes like Tiramisu. It’s so thick you have to eat it with a spoon until only a thin layer remains that you can mix with the rich, dark, full bodied coffee at the bottom. Over coffee Tu tells me about a T-shirt that says “What the Pho?” (a play on WTF) and we agree I have to have one.

Entrance of Cafe Pho Co

So our last stop on the Vespa ride back to my hotel is to a little t-shirt place to pick up my souvenir of our adventures with street food. After a non-stop morning of eating, Tu goes back home and sends me photos and email listing all the places and all the dishes we had in the order we had them.  I don’t have to remember anything, it’s all there for me. Now all I need to do is fast for the next day and take it easy.

You can find out about the “Street Food Tours” on Tu’s blog The Vietnamese God and Stickyrice written by his tour partner Mark Lowerson. If you go to Hanoi and you love food, this is one tour you won’t want to miss.