Have a Cuppa
In case you're wondering whether we did any form of sightseeing while in Hanoi, the above picture is evidence of our diligence. St Joseph's Church to the west of Hoan Kiem Lake has been standing since 1886, which makes it at least 119-years old (definitely a grand dame not to be messed about). The Catholic church is a lovely example of gothic architecture, which I found to be very reminiscent of the Notre Dame in Paris, don't you think so? Heard that it has lovely stained glass within but alas, we did not make it in time for mass that morning and with the church doors locked, had to be content with some exterior shots. The church is an extremely old and gray stone building and I have desaturated the photo and tinted it slightly, in order to make a more dramatic statement and increase the 'gothic' mood.
With our 10-minute sightseeing completed, Robert (our local guide) brought us for a coffee-break. The Vietnamese love their coffee, an extremely robust dark thick liquid which is sweetened by large amounts of condensed milk. To the uninitiated, the dark-roasted local coffee is like a 'triple-shot expresso and hold the water'! 3 to 4 heaped tablespoons of ground coffee powder are placed in a stainless steel cup with a perforated bottom standing over another cup. Pour less than one small cup of hot water over the coffee powder, and let the drip begin its slow slow journey towards coffee heaven. If you're the highly impatient type, order something else as coffee prepared this way takes a minimum of 10 minutes or more - in any case, caffeine is probably bad for the likes of you!
For the daring and the fearless, try the Ca phe Chon. Forget Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee, which the locals would probably consider quite 'wussy' in comparison. Ca phe Chon (or weasel-shit coffee, "chon" in Vietnamese means "weasel") is top-of-the-line coffee and only found in a few specialty coffee-shops in this city. According to urban legend, the weasel (which happens to be a coffeebean connoisseur) eats the coffee fruit, and excretes the undigested coffee beans, which are subsequently collected by workers, washed and processed before being roasted. This may have been true at some prior time in history, but I seriously doubt that current-day 'weasel-shit coffee' is still sourced the same way - can you just imagine the armies of weasels required and the shit-load of coffeebeans to be consumed by these poor fellows to get the beans that are sold by the kilos in the cafes? Heard instead that nowadays, the coffee producer processes the beans with acids or enzymes to simulate the environment in the weasel's stomach in order to produce that special flavor.
Does Ca phe Chon really taste different? It certainly does not taste like Starbucks, Spinelli or CoffeeBean & TeaLeaf coffee, nor like shit (or more accurately, what I think shit should taste like). Instead, it's like a really thick chocolate-flavored version of our local 'kopi kao'. The coffee-beans which are roasted in butter, are fragrant and reminds me of our own local 'black' coffee roast (i.e. coffeebeans usually roasted with sugar and margarine or butter resulting in a darker roast).
The Cafe Mai we went to is at 52 Nguyen Du (and it has branches at 96 and 79 Le Van Huu). The coffee beans are sold by the kilo ranging from 80,000VND (approx. SGD8) for normal coffee, 140,000VND for arabica coffee, mocha goes for 160,000VND, espresso for 22o,000VND, and aliculi coffee (another name for weasel-shit coffee) retails for 180,000VND. This is cheap if you compare against the going price of approximately US$300 per pound for the Indonesian 'cafe luwak' (civet-cat shit coffee) - same modus operandi in production (but maybe, it truly is sourced from civet cat poop to account for that huge price differential).If you're in the mood for some 'capoopccino' or 'pooppresso', try Cafe Mai or the local Starbucks' equivalent, Trung Nguyen cafe chain. Having brought an entire kilo of aliculi home with me and savouring it every weekend (using a French-press plunger), I'm a 'poop' convert.
Hanoi is a city of motorbikes with apparently little or no traffic rules or if there are, the happy motorbikers are completely ignorant of them. Crossing the street for the first time is really daunting with the cavalcade of motorbikes whooshing past us on both sides with barely inches to spare. Looking left and right only served to confuse and scare the hell out of us poor souls. Eventually, we noticed that their brakes are in excellent condition, and figured that they probably had quicker reflexes than us and are unlikely to want to damage their bikes by hitting us. So, the trick is to step off the curb and walk purposefully and quickly in the direction of the opposite curb and pray hard that they will avoid you.
Qualifying Statement: This method does NOT work with cars, vans, buses or trucks, which unfortunately are not as nimble as the motorbikes.
Sidewalks in Hanoi are not meant to serve the pedestrians solely. They serve as parking areas for motorbikes, dining areas for the local populace with low tables and stools next to the food-stalls, and even as areas for a bit of entrepreneur activity (eg. setting up your own barber-shop). By the way, the above photo on the right is actually a Vietnamese-style 'valet' service for motorbikes provided by Cafe Mai - park your bike at the front of the cafe, grab one of these tags with corresponding numbers and the coffee-shop attendant will keep a look out for your bike while you drink your coffee in peace!