Hoan Kiem Lake

The Hoan Kiem Lake is a lake near the Old Quarter area of Hanoi, Vietnam. The name of the lake means ‘The Lake of Returned Sword’, marking an occasion in the legend where Emperor Le Loi returned a magic sword called ‘The Heaven’s Will’ to the turtle god at the lake after a victory against the Chinese in a battle.

Today the lake is a scenic destination in the city of Hanoi. When we walked around the lake during our visit to the city, we saw some interesting activities. In one corner of the lake, there was an old lady doing exercise (looked like tai chi). Not far from there, we saw several couples (looked like they were newly weds) posed for photos with the scenic lake in the background. Then we also saw many people like us who are tourists visiting the city.

Another interesting thing to note about the lake is that it’s the home of a rare, endangered species of giant turtle. Some folks had reported sightings of the turtle (so it’s real, not just a legend), but considering the story about the lake and turtle as a revered animal in mythology, that made the rare sightings of the turtle more interesting.

The photo below was taken around the southern edge of the lake. It’s a photo of the Turtle Tower, a pagoda built on a little island in the middle of the lake.

Turtle Tower

Snails

When eating at a restaurant with very extensive menu, sometimes the difficult part is to decide what to order. There are so many choices, and only a few you can pick especially when you’re going in a small group. Such was the case when we were at Quan An Ngon restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam. We ended up selecting several dishes, all were dishes that we don’t think we would get at other places in the next few days of our trip in Vietnam. One of the dishes was one that may be considered as a bit exotic to some people: snails.

Though snails may not be common food to eat where I live in the United States, and perhaps is known as gourmet food, in many parts of the world it is actually commonly eaten in poor communities since it’s easily harvested in the fields and it’s a very good source of protein. First time I had snails was at a French bistro in the United States, in the form of the gourmet dish (escargot cooked with garlic butter and herbs). At Quan An Ngon, we noticed the various ways snails (oc in Vietnamese) were prepared — grilled, broiled, steamed, in noodle soup, etc. — and it seems to be pretty popular there. Later I found out that it’s considered as one of the popular beer foods, appetizers that you would have while you’re having drinks with friends. The dish that we decided to get, steamed snails with lemongrass, seemed to a common preparation method as well.

Below is the photo of the dish that we ordered. It came in a claypot and accompanied by several bamboo skewers to use to get the meat out of the snail’s shell. The snail meat itself has unique texture — chewy, crunchy, a little rubbery — that might be a bit difficult for some folks to enjoy. But I thought it was quite a delicious dish, and the broth was refreshing.

Steamed snails with lemongrass

An American Couple in Hanoi

One interesting aspect in travel experience is the people that you meet during the trip — sometimes the circumstance where you meet them were so unusual that it becomes a memorable one. During the Southeast Asia trip, Kristi and I had such encounters with a couple of travelers.

When we were about to leave Bangkok, Thailand, we had to wait in a line for security check at the Suvarnabhumi Airport for a few minutes. There were only us and a young couple in front of us waiting in line. As we waited, I figured out that the couple were Americans (from looking at the cover of the passport in their hands) and that they were going in the same flight as ours, an AirAsia flight to Phnom Penh (also easily spotted since AirAsia had the boarding pass that looked like sales receipt, and the flight number written on theirs was the same as ours). I didn’t think much about this, as we were among the passengers in a plane full of foreigners going to the capital of Cambodia.

Fast forward five days later. Since then, we spent few more days in Cambodia in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap before continuing our trip to Hanoi, Vietnam. In Hanoi, we visited the Temple of Literature, one of the popular destinations in the city for foreign tourists. As we reached the entrance and waited to enter the temple complex, guess who we saw also waiting at the entrance… the American couple we saw in Bangkok few days before. We didn’t talk with them, but both Kristi and I recognized the couple, and they seemed to recognize us as well. Again, we continued on with our sightseeing in the temple and didn’t think much of it.

After finishing with the visit to the temple, we decided to walk to Quan An Ngon for lunch. It was about 20 minute-walk or so; it wasn’t close, but still walkable. We reached the restaurant, waited for few minutes to be seated, and then sat at one of the tables in the middle of the courtyard. After spending few minutes looking at the extensive menu to pick our entrees for the meal, I looked around to take in the unique atmosphere at the restaurant. When I looked around to a nearby table, guess whom I saw… the same American couple again. That’s starting to get weird; hopefully they didn’t think that we were stalking them… Later on Kristi walked around to check out the food stalls on the way to the restroom, and she said she walk passed the couple. She said the wife looked at her, didn’t say anything, but clearly recognizing Kristi from the earlier encounters both in Bangkok and at the Temple of Literature. Kristi and I later joked that if we ended up meeting this couple again elsewhere during our trip, we have to at least say hi to them.

Here’s the photo of the couple, taken at Quan An Ngon. I sneaked this shot as they were looking at the menu to order.

American Couple in Hanoi

Quan An Ngon

Quan An Ngon is a restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam, that serves an extensive variety of authentic Vietnamese dishes. We went there for our first lunch in Hanoi after spending the morning visiting the Ho Chi Minh Complex and the Temple of Literature. The restaurant was mentioned in many travel guides and travel/food blogs on Hanoi, so we thought it would be a safe bet to try out.

We came to the restaurant around lunch time on a Sunday, so the restaurant was quite packed. But they had a large seating area, so it didn’t take long for us to get seated (sharing a long table with other guests). The setup of the restaurant was pretty unique; the seating area was mostly outdoors, surrounded by open kitchen set up like street food vendor stalls. Even though we were given menu to order from, we could walk around and see the food getting prepared. This was nice especially if the description of the dish on the menu was not enough to convince you to order the dish.

The menu was so extensive that we had a hard time narrowing down our selection for the meal. We ordered lotus rhizome salad with shrimp & pork, steamed snail with lemongrass and ginger fish sauce, and grilled beef ngon style. They were all very delicious.

I think this was an excellent restaurant to get authentic Vietnamese food especially if you’re new to Hanoi and not comfortable going out to eat at the street food vendor yet, or if you want to find a large selection of dished in one place, or if you’re coming with a large group of people. The best place to find Vietnamese food is at the street vendors, but most of them specialize only on a particular dish, and very likely they only have limited seating. So, as an alternative, Quan An Ngon would be a good place to go. The place seems to be popular among foreign tourists and locals alike, as we observed from the tables around us.

The photo below was taken from our table right in the middle of the outdoor seating. You could see around the courtyard there were stations with open kitchens where you could look around and order dishes as if you were finding street vendors selling a very specific dish.

Quan An Ngon

Street Vendors

When you read travel guides for Hanoi, Vietnam, you would likely find people mentioning about street-side vendors as part of the sights and sounds they experience especially when visiting areas near the Old Quarter part of the city. While this might be pretty common sight to see in many countries in Asia, it’s still an interesting experience to walk through streets and alleys lined up with the vendors as you can observe the daily life going on around you and giving you the feeling of being immersed in the local culture.

When we arrived at our hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, it was already pretty late at night, and on the next morning, we left quite early in the morning, so we had not had any chance checking out the area yet. After visiting the Temple of Literature, we decided to follow our map to go to a restaurant called Quan An Ngon that’s highly recommended for its variety of authentic Vietnamese food. The restaurant location didn’t seem to be too far from the Temple of Literature, so we decided to walk there.

As we walked a couple of blocks away from the busy city street in front of the Temple of Literature complex, we found ourselves walking through a street that’s probably more like an alley since it’s pretty narrow and is hardly passable by cars. There were motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians passing by, and here we saw our first street-side shopping scene in Hanoi. We could see stores lining up both sides of the street, and in front of those stores, there were other vendors selling a variety of goods, including food, fresh fruits, vegetables, and even medicines. And we also saw some of the Vietnamese ladies wearing conical hats and carrying double baskets with a carrier on their shoulders — the scenes you often see in photos and are associated with Vietnam. We also saw many street-side vendors selling cooked foods, and since it was around lunch time, there were folks stopping by, parked their motorcycles, and ate at the makeshift ‘restaurants’ on the side of the road with little stools that pretty much required them to squat instead of sitting while eating their lunch.

The photo below was taken on that street while we were walking through the area. There were quite a lot of interesting sights that would make an interesting photo series, but I felt a little self-conscious with my camera at hand, so I only took a few photos there.

Street Vendors