The humidity is suffocating as we ooze through the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. To our surprise, every shop we pass sells nothing but exhaust pipes. We pass Silk Street to our left, Zip Street to our right, Broom Street, Basket Street, Flip Flop Street – you name it and there is a whole street of people selling it.
It was not easy to extract ourselves from our luxurious bed at the Hanoi Backpackers’ Hostel (www.hanoibackpackershostel.com) this morning, a bargain at just £11 for a double room. But after a hearty breakfast of fresh French bread, jams, Vegemite and coffee and we are ready to go.
Today we are on the search for ‘Weasel Shit Coffee’. A legend amongst travellers, this Vietnamese luxury is said to be made from coffee beans that have been passed through the bowels of a weasel. In reality the coffee cherries are fed to a civet. When the beans pop out the other end they are cleaned, roasted and ground into this oh so appetizing beverage. A delicacy not to be missed. I think.
Coming to the edge of the old town, we join a throng of tourists by the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake. The Turtle Pagoda stands majestically at its centre, ignored by the majority of visitors who are buying cheap souvenirs and postcards from the stalls that spread out over the shores. Across the water we can see the colonial style buildings of the French Quarter, a reminder of the occupiers who dwelt here from the mid 19th Century right up until 1954. Old men enjoy a quiet game of chess in the leafy shade. They look as though they haven’t moved from their seats for hundreds of years.
Back on the search, we discover Football Street. Each little roadside shop has its doors wide open, some with huge TV’s showing premiership football, others crammed with PlayStations and teenagers playing Pro-evolution Soccer. We pull up two tiny plastic stools at a bar where Arsenal v Chelsea is just kicking off. The cool evening air soothes our hot skin. A group of street sweepers, all women, sit down with us and offer me some tea. They talk at me and I talk at them. We don’t understand a word but it doesn’t seem important.
The sun is all but gone, our feet are tired and heads fuzzy from Ha Noi Beer. We approach a jaded looking café and to our delight see a sign that exclaims, “Trung Nguyen, Weasel Shit Coffee sold here!” The drinks placed before us resemble Greek coffee, thick and dark. It is awful, like sweet tar. The waiter grins at us in that lovely Vietnamese way. “Very nice. You like?” He asks. “Delicious,” we both agree.
Exhausted, we climb wearily into the back of a pedicab that sails gently through the deserted midnight streets to our bed. We will sleep well tonight, ready for another adventure tomorrow.
Read 'Weasel Coffee Anyone?' as published by the Guardian.
Published: The Guardian Travel, 19/09/09, page 4.