Monday, September 8, 2014

Discovering Vietnam, Savoring Hanoi

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Vietnam - I had heard mixed reviews from both friends and travelers, warning me of the dangers of bag-snatchers and the insane traffic, but also raving about the incredible food, beautiful scenery, delicious coffee, and a bit more about the food.  Thankfully I never encountered any theft - in fact I felt quite safe within the Old Quarter - and while the traffic was indeed mind-boggling, there was a certain charm to it, once I got the hang of crossing the street (keep moving in a straight line at a steady pace, and traffic will magically weave around you).  The food was indeed incredible, and to this day I dream of again having a delicious plate of fresh Bun Cha Ha Noi in front of me.  And there was something about this hot, humid, old-feeling, dingy city.  Character seeped out from every tangled mass of power lines and every overloaded motorbike and every plate of food piled onto a tiny plastic table on a street curb and every conal-hat wearing lady.  I quickly became charmed by this country, these people, through my first days in Hanoi.


My time in Vietnam began fortuitously, as the flight attendants on the half empty flight allowed me to move up into the exit row, chatting with me about what to do in Hanoi.  After a brief wait for our visas, the five of us piled into a taxi for the late drive into the city, passing dozens of brightly lit karaoke bars.  Kate, Lydia, Sara, and Rob were all staying at a separate hostel, and we dropped them off first, the taxi driver taking me a few additional blocks for mine, dropping me at the edge of a walking street and motioning in the distance.  I started walking, pausing at the first intersection I came to, when a moto driver tried to flag me down.  I declined a ride, but he asked where I was going and I showed him the address, so he motioned in the direction I should go.  At the next intersection I paused again, and a family of three on a motorbike stopped to ask if I had somewhere to stay.  When I said the name of the hostel, they pointed down the road.  Finally I found the tiny alley the May De Ville Backpackers Hostel was located on, thankful for all the help along the way.

I set out to explore the middle of the next day, armed with my laptop and hoping to find one of the many cafes the city is known for, walking towards Hoan Kiem Lake.  I passed on Highland Coffee after it looked more like a bar, but hadn't gone very far when a massive downpour started!  As I pulled out my umbrella, I started chatting with a random English guy, and we ducked into the first cafe we could find - a very nice and expensive location, but with a great view of the torrential rain and the street below.  After coffee and spring rolls with my new friend James, the rain finally let up enough for him to lead me over to his favorite street food spot for Nom Thit Bo Kho.  There was a whole cluster of vendors serving the same dish, with little signs distinguishing each location - ours being Thanh Hai.  We settled in on the tiny plastic chairs, ordering bowls full of papaya, herbs, and meat resembling jerky, topped with peanuts.  It was outstanding.  We also shared a plate of slippery dumplings, also delicious.

After our meal, I wandered back through the streets until I found a cafe called Buon Dua le Cafe, part of the Artisan Hotel, a cozy spot with art on the walls.  I wound up meeting up with James and one of his friends on the beer corner just next to my hostel, which was jammed full of people on tiny chairs enjoying cheap local beers.  We wound up getting food at a mediocre restaurant, then wove through a long night market on our way back towards the beer corner.

I set out to Hanoi Backpackers, planning to meet the crowd I had arrived with, but through a miscommunication, actually went to the wrong location (they have two properties in Hanoi, go figure!).  I quickly ran into two of my roommates though, and though I wouldn't have normally stayed, an announcement about the upcoming Netherlands-Mexico World Cup game caught my attention.  The place was packed with Dutch people wearing bright orange and exactly two Mexican girls, wearing their jerseys proudly, and loudly singing along with their (very long) national anthem when it was played, to everyone's delight.  The first half was a bit boring, with Mexico clearly outplaying the Netherlands but with no goals.  I almost left at the half, especially after two obnoxious drunk guys basically squeezed me off the tiny bench I was sitting on.  But I found a decent spot to stand near the bar, and the second half proved to be far more exciting than the first, with Mexico scoring, Netherlands coming alive and answering very late in the half.  We all figured it would end in a tie, but Netherlands managed to draw a penalty during stoppage time.  He shoots.  He scores.  The crowd goes wild.  The sea of orange in front of me were standing on benches, hugging, screaming, leaping in the air, celebrating their victory, as the two Mexican girls quietly shuffled out of the bar, tears in their eyes.

The next morning I set out with my roommate Mark to check out a travel agency he had recommended to get information on Halong Bay and Sapa, then we wandered around a few street's worth of cafes, deciding to try out the infamous "weasel" coffee, which is apparently coffee beans which have been eaten and "passed" by weasels.  It sounds very strange and unique, and it tasted pretty good - strong and bitter, but nothing out of the ordinary.  I would later find much better specialty coffee options in Hanoi!  After our coffee stop, we met up with two local students that Mark had met earlier in his stay (he had broken a collarbone in a motorbike accident and was thus "stuck" in Hanoi, unable to put on his pack for a solid month!), who wanted to practice their English with two native speakers.  Given that Mark is from the UK and I'm from the States, it was also entertaining for them to compare how each of us spoke, and the different terms that we used for various things!  

We grabbed lunch, then walked around the lake area, deciding to stop and check out the small Ngoc Son Temple in the middle of the lake.  According to legend, hero Le Loi (who later became Emperor Ly Thai To) was given a magical sword from heaven, which he used to successfully to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam in the 15th century.  When he returned to the lake, a giant turtle rose up, grabbed the sword, and dove deep into the water to return it to its divine owners, signaling a time of peace.  The name of the lake can actually be translated into "Lake of the Returned Sword", and the temple itself is a sort of homage to the legendary turtle.  We crossed a long bridge across the water to reach the temple, which was covered in Chinese characters.  The highlight inside was a real giant turtle - preserved - who used to live in the lake.  We visited the strange animal, then took in the view of the lake from a small pavilion where older men played Chinese chess, a strange-looking game with tiles imprinted with Chinese characters.  Back on the mainland, we walked along the lake until we saw the statue of Ly Thai To himself.  He was also the emperor who moved the capital of Vietnam to Hanoi, at the time naming it Thang Long, or "ascending dragon".

I had wanted to find the famous egg coffee spot, and the kids tried to be helpful, leading me to a hole in the wall overlooking the lake that was just far too dirty and smoky to actually sit down in.  Instead we went to Highland Coffee for refreshing iced coffees.  Surprisingly, our friend Darrell was right upstairs and came down to join us with his new friend Felix, staying to chat for a while as we waited out another quick monsoon.  Later that evening, Mark and I met back up with my friends - Lydia, Rob, Sara, Darrell, and Felix (Kate was in sick) - at a spot called Gecko's for dinner and drinks, later making our way to one of the other hostels to set up in the lobby for an evening of card games.

I had planned to meet Felix the next morning to visit some of the tourist sites, but a quick coffee and photo editing trip to a nearby cafe was extended quite a bit when another major downpour hit.  Being the start of the rainy season, the weather was behaving very similarly to back home in the South in the spring - it would be bright and sunny all day, but with a major storm settling in for perhaps an hour or so, with the very occasional day where it just rained lightly and consistently.  Luckily this one was relatively short, and I met him that afternoon to visit the Vietnam Military History Museum.

The museum itself was something of a strange and fascinating experience, as most of the museum was dedicated to their war for independence, which encompasses the start of the fight against the French colonists in 1945, the winning of the north, and the subsequent fight to "liberate" the south, primarily fought against the U.S.  There were plenty of souvenirs on display, tokens taken from French or American soldiers, and outside was a massive monument constructed out of the wreckage of planes that had been shot down  The whole thing was surreal, but definitely fascinating to see the Vietnam War from the other side's perspective.  They truly viewed the U.S. involvement as just another group of "imperialists" trying to colonize the country.  And I can't say that I blame them.  The Americans were trying to establish a government that would have benefited the U.S., rather than allowing the government that perhaps the majority of the country actually wanted.  While there were plenty of countries where communist governments became terrible dictatorships that destroyed their own people, Vietnam has seemed to work out pretty well under "Uncle Ho" and their chosen method of government.

We left as the museum closed, crossing the street to see the statue of Lenin, then negotiating with a mototaxi to get us back near the lake.  We just happened to bump into Darrell as we made our way back, and we sat down at the same street food spot I had discovered with James a couple of days prior, enjoying the delicious plates of food.  Next, I finally got my egg coffee:  we met Lydia at Giang's Cafe, a spot I had discovered thanks to a wonderful review of Hanoi cafes by Nomadic Notes.   A tiny door off the street that led through a long corridor, opening up to reveal a spacious but cozy room within.  Finally, egg coffee.  As promised, it was incredible - deliciously sweet and frothy, a treat that we would return for numerous times, always dragging others with us!

The next morning, Lydia and I visited Dao's travel agency, the same spot Mark had recommended, where we looked more closely at the options for Halong Bay.  We wound up booking a trip for the two of us and Kate to leave the following morning for a three day, two night stay on board the Monkey Island boat cruise.  By the time we got everything sorted, I was already starving for lunch, so I sat down at a Bun Cha spot just a handful of paces in front of Dao's storefront.  It turned out to be one of the most incredible dishes I would try in all of Vietnam.  A delicious broth, full of pickled vegetables, pork patties that had been grilled over an open flame, tender and juicy, and bits of pork belly, with a rich bacon flavor, was served, alongside a massive bowl of mixed fresh herbs and another bowl of vermicelli noodles.  Mixed together, with just the right amount of fresh herbs, the mix of flavors was absolutely incredible.  To make this amazing dish even more insanely delicious, I got one of the best spring rolls I've ever tasted, also adding it to the mix.  Fresh lemonade was the perfect accompaniment and refreshment for the boiling humidity of the city.  As we ate, we chatted with Darrell and Adam, who had just arrived from Laos, and wound up booking him on our Halong Bay trip as well!

After my belly had been filled and we had gotten all our logistics taken care of, Lydia and I wandered to check out the City Gate, which was surprisingly small, and then I gathered up my work things and set off to another cafe I had wanted to visit, Cong Caphe, a multistory cement structure with a bizarrely cozy atmosphere, decorated with bits of war memorabilia, photos, and appliances that felt like stepping back in time.  I settled in on an open patio about three floors up, with a fantastic view of the swirling traffic patterns on the streets below.  This would become one of my favorite work and observational spots, and I would return again and again in my short time left in the city.  This was also where I had my first experience with yogurt coffee, a surprisingly delicious, refreshingly cold and sour beverage. 

That evening, Lydia, Kate, Adam, Felix and I, along with one of our new hostel roommates (Kate and Lydia had since moved to mine) set out for dinner and drinks at the beer corner, settling on a sort of fast food sort of spot, Bia 45.  Surprisingly, a girl I had chatted with at the street food stall the previous day with Felix and Darrell was there and recognized and remembered me, taking the time to chat for a bit and introduce me to her friends who were all leaving to study in Australia soon.  Back with my group, we ordered a few plates of food and sipped draught beer, a tiny dog befriending Adam and curling up into his lap.  We shared plates of ribs and I ordered a plate of beef and veggies.  As we wrapped up, Lydia and I spotted a plate of teeny tiny crabs at the table over from ours, happily accepting when the locals offered us some to try.  As strange as they were to bite into, they were crunchy, salty, and surprisingly very tasty!  I was sad that I hadn't had a chance to have a full plate of them!


After visits to both Halong Bay and Sapa, I returned to Hanoi for an overnight stay to recover a bit before heading south again.  I had most of one day, after arriving around 5 am groggy and disoriented from the long overnight bus ride, to hang out with Kate, Lydia, and Adam again before they headed down to Hue, where I would meet them later.  I paid return visits to all my favorites spots:  Bun Cha near Dao's agency, an egg coffee at Giang's Cafe, and a visit to the porch of Cong Caphe.  After waiting out a long downpour at the hostel, I reemerged for a Bahn Mi sandwich at a small streetside cafe, where a very drunk local man sat down across from me, at one point beating on his chest with one fist exactly like Chris Farley in the old "Da Bears" SNL skit.  Stuck somewhere between being absolutely horrified and finding the scene hilarious, I was relieved to see that the girls working were equally stunned / amused by the situation, and they swiftly moved in to shift me to a separate table!  After the shock of dinner, I sat down to an excellent foot massage, chatting with some ladies from Northern Ireland before returning to the hostel for the evening.

With most of one day left to spend exploring Hanoi, I woke up early and hopped on the back of a moto taxi, determined to visit Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum.  Except, apparently not only was it closed on Fridays, but also on Mondays.  So while I did get to see the outside of the massive military-style building, I did not get to see the pickled remains of Uncle Ho.  Instead I returned to the lake area, picking up tickets for the water puppet show that afternoon and doing some shopping along one of the nicer side streets.

I returned to the hostel to check out and store my bags for a few hours, but I wound up being trapped in the lobby during another massive downpour - as the rain started pouring, our little alleyway almost instantly filled up with water!  I stayed put until the rain and flooding subsided, the latter aided by much vigorous sweeping by the locals.  I finally set out,  paying one very last visit to my favorite Bun Cha spot and to Cong Caphe for a yogurt coffee and to watch the swirling traffic below.   Afterwards, I walked down to the lake for the water puppet show.  I was really pleasantly surprised by the performance - it was impressive how much they could manipulate the puppets, making the people wave their arms and do flips, having dragons circle around and through the water, creating smoke and shooting water, and even depicting the legend of the turtle reclaiming the sword. 

Bidding a final farewell to the lovely, hectic, Old City of Hanoi, I couldn't help but appreciate its charm - from the swirling rhythms of the motorbike-packed streets, to the winding alleyways lined with loops of wire, from the unique cafes to the incredibly flavorful offerings of the streetside grills, it's a city that I was surprised to feel so connected to, and one whose flavors and eccentricities I would miss as I made my way south.

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