Cassava (san luoc) is not too far from the potato in taste and structure. Very filling, yet not greasy, these steaming, white-ish root vegetables are found on the street as they come into season. During the American War it was thought to be an average substitute to rice. Hanoi resident Lan Huong describes it as “a good source of energy between meals”. VND10,000 — VND20,000 should keep you going until dinner.
The waiter dangles a two-metre king cobra snake by its head and waits for approval from a table of foreigners. This snake is viscous and feared the world over. Right now, though, it looks helpless. But its black, beady eyes scream defiance like Mel Gibson in the dying minutes of Braveheart, just before he gets hung, drawn and quartered.
Entering the United States Embassy is like going through upped airport security. The highly protected cement compound on Lang Ha is formidable. I’m told to remove all electronics from my backpack — essentially everything in there. I take out my computer, my cell phone and my voice recorder. I guess I’ll be taking notes the old-fashioned way.
The train track winds its way through the heart of Hanoi from the south along Le Duan, through the imposing Ga Hanoi train station, curving east in the Old Quarter onto Long Bien Bridge. For most of this stretch it runs parallel to a street — much like any other track. But a few times along the way, it breaks free from the roadway and dips, like a curious child, into the densely populated neighbourhoods of the city centre. When it does, the tracks become a kind of main street with striking hustle (but with a conspicuous lack of motorbike horns).
Though most guidebooks recommend visiting the capital in the winter because of its predictable, dry climate, locals know it gets cold and it certainly isn’t always dry. In fact, it’s during winter that the northeast monsoons hit, making the sky insufferably grey and coating the city in a chilly, constant mist that can make the roads slick and attitudes icy.