Monday, November 24, 2008

Tra Chanh Iced Tea

Tra Chanh - 31 Dao Duy Tu

It's hard to find a seat at Tra Chanh at noon on hot days, especially just after lunch. I'm not sure how it got to be so famous and well-patronised. Not that long ago, it was a standard kind of cafe. I finally got the chance to try this place recently.

Tra Chanh - 31 Dao Duy Tu

Most people who come here are young office workers and students. They come here during their lunch breaks for a drink and something sweet before heading back to work. Many conversations take place, ranging from lottery results to political scandals. I was sitting there for an hour listening to the customers' stories, which made me laugh, particularly the ones between girls about their boyfriends. Many of the young male tea drinkers were telling thier bad luck stories about missing lottery numbers from the draw the night before. It really gives a sense of what is going on in the minds of young Hanoians.

Che Chuoi- Consomme of Banana

Tra Chanh serves one of the most popular street drinks in the old quarter of Hanoi. There are few options to choose from iced tea, served with slices of lemon, to coffee to sweet comsomme of banana.

Tra Chanh - 31 Dao Duy Tu - Hanoi

Friday, November 21, 2008

Extra Extra

The streets of Hanoi are full of interesting characters, people not known to me personally but people I notice time and time again.

I have been intrigued by this boy for a few years but the other morning was the first time I was able to talk to him. He normally doesn't want to talk to outsiders about himself, his predicament or his family. He is a disabled boy who can't walk at all. He sits on a tricycle, using his hands to pedal and control the bike. He started selling newspapers from his bike about 8 years ago when he was 10. He really is one of Hanoi’s child entrepreneurs and even today he barely looks 18 with his baby face and contented smile.

He starts his day at 6am and sometimes ends up at about 10pm, though most days he has sold his papers before then. In the old quarter of Hanoi, that represents a really hard day’s work. The traffic chaos, the dust and pollution, the motorbikes parked every which way and the general hectic activity that he encounters there would seem like a pretty stressful way to make a living. He says he has a loyal group of customers along his regular morning route, mostly those having their morning noodles or coffee. A day’s pedaling – with his hands – brings in the rather meagre sum of 50,000VND. His custom-designed tricycle might require the occasional repair to a puncture or some grease on the chain so his operating expenses are low, thankfully. Even so, the profits of such hard labour wouldn’t leave much for the average 18 year-olds entertainment expenses.

Then, again, this boy is not the average 18 year old. I see lots of boys and girls the same age, who hang around, do nothing, constantly putting their hands out to their parents for money. This young man is the opposite. In fact, part of his earnings probably gets contributed to the family kitty to buy food and pay the bills.
Local identities like him exist throughout this city but few are as inspirational.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Here I Come

Nghi Tam village - West Lake

Every morning in my quiet neigbourhood, in an alley with no through traffic and low population density, where birds can be heard singing; I am awoken by a horn. Even here, the curse of Hanoi’s streets cannot be escaped. My neigbour, a 60ish woman who visits the market at 6.15 each morning, blasts her tinny, off- tone horn continuously as she exits our alley. At 6.35, shopping done, she returns for an encore performance…just to make sure I’m awake. There is no traffic. There are no pedestrians.

Like many Hanoians, I don’t think she realizes she’s doing it.

West Lake

Whatever the form of transport, drivers in Hanoi use their horns just as other people bite their fingernails. It is a bad habit, hard to break. Motorcyclists drive with their thumbs permanently poised over the horn, pressing it constantly to alert other road users of their presence. “I’m behind you” or “I’m going to overtake you” or “The traffic light is red but it will be green in three seconds!” are all valid reasons for using one’s horn. If a young man is riding extremely fast and dangerously, weaving in and out of the traffic, he will have his thumb permanently on the horn. In these circumstances, the horn means “I am young, stupid and invincible so get the hell out of my way.” Such a young man usually has an air horn so if he doesn’t run you off the road, the sudden piercing noise will jolt you off your motorbike.

Traffic in Hanoi

Car drivers, a growing minority taking up an increasing majority of the roads in the capital, are seemingly licensed to beep. In fact, the first rule of driving instruction in Hanoi is not stay on one’s side of the road but instead ‘Use one’s horn as much as possible… Blast the horn because your vehicle is bigger than a motorbike…blast the horn because if the motorbike gets close, it will scratch your car.’ Taxi drivers and small delivery van drivers are championship horn users. Their horns are usually ‘musical’ but worse than a bad pop-song stuck in your head. I have been known to swear particularly well and gesture threateningly when this ‘music’ is played too close to my ears!


Bigger vehicles, like trucks and buses, have the loudest horns of all. When a Hanoi bus is bearing down on you in the traffic with its horn blaring, it’s best to move aside. Their horns mean “If you don’t move, you’re going to be road kill!”

Traffic in Hanoi

For a simple boy from the countryside who learned to ride a motorbike on the sedate streets of Nha Trang, I still can’t bring myself to use the horn. However, when I saw a group of young teenagers with horns on their bicycles recently, I have vowed to add to the noise pollution.

If you can’t beat ‘em (and you won’t), join ‘em!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008



Santorini – in Greece’s Cyclades islands – is one of those places that everyone should see before they die. I know there is a book and TV series which lists such places. I haven’t read it nor seen the show. But I’ve seen this astoundingly beautiful landscape and my jaw dropped.


Also known as Thira, most travellers reach the island by taking a 10 hour ferry trip from Athen’s port of Piraeus. If time is limited, Santorini has a small international airport, reachable from Athens and other cities in Europe. The arrival by boat, however, rewards visitors with some of the most breathtaking scenes of spectacular volcanic landscapes rising out of aqua seas. From a distance, the white Cycladic houses on the island’s cliffs look, at one moment, like snow on a huge plateau and, at another moment, like white icing on a gigantic misshapen chocolate cake.

Red beach - Santorini

Formed after the world’s biggest and most destructive volcanic eruption in 1650 BC, Santorini and its smaller islets are largely barren of the olive and pine trees which thrive on other islands and over much of mainland Greece. Vines crawl along the ground but the landscape is mostly rock…of all colours. With a rental car, my friends and I visited Red Beach, Black Beach and White Beach. The geographic history of the cliff faces is also revealed in rich veins of colour. One sobering thought, which entered my mind once, is the fact that even though the volcano is considered at rest now, an earthquake in 1956 practically destroyed the main settlements and killed many residents.


The magnetic beauty of the caldera settlements of Oia and Fira quickly dispelled that thought. White washed cottages, many of which have been converted into very expensive accommodation for tourists, are seemingly carved into the cliff faces. The postcard scenes of blue domed chapels and church bells are even more pleasing to the naked eye. The cobbled lanes are vehicle free except for the occasional donkey. One highlight of many was a donkey ride down the 600 odd steps to Fira’s old port.


The highlight of each evening, except for one which was overcast, is the dramatic sunset witnessed from the caldera rim at Oia, a town of sights and scenes that words cannot describe. Hordes of travelers do gather for this ritual, lining the narrow paths of the town for a place to rest their camera. The sunlight against the town’s rustic houses and ruins together with the descending sun into the sea is well worth all of the hype.

Tu - Donkey

There is a mythical and aesthetic magic about Santorini, even a bit of fear. I really think it’s a place I’d better see twice before I die.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Iraklio, Capital of Crete


Most people wouldn't know of Iraklio on the Greek island of Crete, even though it is Greece's six largest city. The reason people know this city is because it is the gateway to the Palace of Knossos, an ancient Minoan ruin site.


But I actually like Iraklio not because it's modern and busy. I just like the look of it and there are lots of things to discover around the town. I loved walking down to the port taking photos in the afternoon then walking back to the city centre where so many people were shopping with full bags of clothes and shoes.


To get to Iraklio, we had driven from Hania further along the coast to the east. Of all the places in Greece, Iraklio was the most difficult to find accommodation. The one way traffic system didn't help as we couldn't actually stop to check out the few hotels in town. We ended up driving out the coast to the local beach at Gournes to find a hotel.


Knossos is a pretty amazing site, though I was more impressed by the Acropolis in Athens and the Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi. Unfortunately, there were too many tour groups at such a small place and they all arrived at the same time and were of different nationalities. I felt like I was in the middle of the market as I couldn't relax. The tour groups took over with their tour guides explaining the site and standing in front of the ruin sites. In fact, some of the rooms required us to queue in the hot sun to get in. Like some other places in the world, including Vietnam, tourism needs to regulated in Knossos. I've never seen so many busloads of package tourists in my life.