As we walked through the old quarter with our friends, a light rain began to fall. Our first instinct was to stop and find some breakfast while we waited for Flamingo Travel to open but we had a hard time finding an open cafe. The only open restaurant seemed targeted toward tourists and as such was ridiculously overpriced. The girls stayed there for a coffee, while we continued our walk toward the lake where we soon found a couple of baguettes to purchase. We picked a bench and took a seat, watching Hanoi come to life. Residents jogged and did tai chi, while scooter traffic grew from a trickle to a river of commuters headed about their daily business.
As dawn came and the sky transitioned from black to gray, the rain started to pick up. Within a few minutes the downpour was torrential, and our lack of umbrella and poncho forced a dash under the covered gate leading toward the Tran Quoc Pagoda on an island in the lake. Camped out with us was a Chinese tourist with good English who explained to us the symbols that decorated the gateway. Before long, a poncho hawker came by and we paid the $2 for ponchos to keep us relatively dry in the downpour.
We pulled the plastic ponchos over the motorcycle jackets that we hadn’t yet returned, and headed out into the flooded streets with the water rising all the time. Within five minutes of being on the street, every inch of me that wasn’t covered by the poncho (which was quite a bit since my enormous backpack was really in the way of the poncho) was absolutely soaked.
I absolutely hate being drenched and cold, and more than anything, I wanted out of the rain. My jacket was saturated clear through and I was sure I was wearing at least a gallon of water. Gratefully, shops and restaurants were starting to open, so we ducked inside a restaurant for some eggs, bread, and smoothies for breakfast. We ate a leisurely breakfast and took advantage of the worlds most unreliable wifi connection waiting for the rain to subside. Although it never really stopped completely, it finally became nothing more than a sprinkle, so we ran down the street to Flamingo to turn in our rented riding gear and reclaim Ben’s passport.
Ben: With our errands complete and the rain subsided, we weren’t entirely sure what to do with our day so we wandered the streets a bit. Recognizing the Blue Butterfly restaurant, Bree went in to inquire about a cooking class that we had looked into, but they were already in session for the day.
A little disappointed at being too late, we started to make our way out only to be flagged down by the manager. He invited us back inside and asked us if we would wait just a moment. A few minutes later, he emerged again and told us that he had called another cooking school just across town. He had arranged a private lesson for us to take at the same price as his class, starting in an hour. He then proceeded to walk us several blocks over to the cooking school.
Bree: Things were working out so perfectly that my inborn sense of skepticism couldn’t help but wonder what was about to go wrong and whether we were about to be scammed or something. I kept waiting for there to be a catch, but there simply wasn’t one. The guy from Blue Butterfly personally delivered us to the new restaurant, Countryside Restaurant, and our private cooking class began. I can’t say it enough times- we have been blown away by the hospitality of this entire country!
Our instructor whisked us out the door into the Hanoi drizzle, off to buy our supplies at the market. We picked up green papaya, marjoram, cilantro, and a handful of other items.The speed at which he managed to buy the supplies made us laugh, it usually takes us forever to mime and negotiate a price on things here!
Soon, we were back in the beautifully appointed kitchen, charged with slicing, chopping, and grating our ingredients. First up, we worked on a green papaya salad which we were very excited about, right until our instructor ran the peeled fruit under the tap water and then grated the whole thing right into the salad. So much for avoiding the water. We exchanged some nervous glances but there was nothing to be done but smile and hope for the best!
Once we’d assembled the salad, our instructor helped us mash the filling for spring rolls together and instructed us in wrapping rolling the rice wrappers. Ours never looked quite as nice as his did, but we at least figured it out enough that we should be able to practice at home. Soon, we were frying them up and plating them next to the incredibly elaborate garnishes that the instructor was creating while we worked.
He took us downstairs to a table overlooking the city and set us to eating our creations. The view of the city block we overlooked was so beautiful I felt as though I might actually be in Paris. With the enormous pile of food in front of us, we pondered avoiding the tap water rinsed salad. We reminisced about my dad’s warning about the salad he’d eaten in this very same city a number of years ago that really didn’t end well. Even as he was telling us about the big dinner he’d attended, I couldn’t help but interject, “not the salad!” as he described what he ate. He spent his entire flight back to the US sick. Despite all this, we ultimately gave up and ate almost the whole delicious salad. (Now that we’ve been home for a week, I can safely declare that it turned out just fine, and neither of us ended sick!) The spring rolls were also divine.
We thought we were finished for the day, but soon we were shuttled back upstairs to begin work on the chicken stir fry. He instructed us in the art of tossing the stir fry into the flame from the stove and then catching the whole thing back in the pan again. We weren’t all that successful, but it did give us a good laugh. The end result was the best stir fry I’ve ever eaten, and we spent the rest of the meal discussing how food with so few ingredients could possibly taste so good.
By the time our course was finished, we were uncomfortably full but so cheerful at the lovely way our day had turned out. If we had been smart, we would have scheduled our cooking class ahead of time, but by throwing caution to the wind and winging it, we’d had yet another brilliant encounter with the warmness of the people in Vietnam.
We had a couple of hours until we needed to catch the shuttle to the airport, but we still needed to figure out exactly where and how to take the shuttle, so we headed in the general direction of the travel agency we were looking for, shopping and browsing as we went.
For anyone that doesn’t know me personally, I’m a little over the top about my attempts to avoid any clutter in my life, so we almost never buy things when we travel. With the legendary shopping in Vietnam though, we had to give it a shot. Our sleeping bag liners have been reduced to little more than shreds of fabric, so we were thrilled to pick up a couple of new, silk ones for roughly 10% of what a single one would cost at home. With that purchase made, we gave up on trying to find more things we didn’t need, but were soon won over by a number of beautiful items for our loved ones.
Before very long, we’d made it all the way to the end of the lake, where we asked directions to the airport shuttle. A friendly guy happily pointed us in the right direction, and sure enough, we were able to catch a shuttle to the airport for $2 a piece instead of hiring a private cab.
Finishing up our time in Hanoi made me kind of sad! We have truly fallen in love with this energetic, tree lined city and as we boarded the shuttle, we were all smiles. “What an awesome day!” I said to Ben, and with a bit of amusement, he noted that I’ve said that pretty much every day we’ve been here. On to Cambodia!