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Hanoi, Vietnam

Dec 25 – 31

I arrived at Hanoi Airport a little after midnight on Christmas day. I was a little nervous about showing up in a strange city so late at night, so my dad and stepmom bought me a nice hotel room as a Christmas present and organized for a taxi driver to pick me up at the airport. When I got off the airplane, a taxi driver was waiting for me with my name on a sign! I have to say that was a new experience (well except the time my grandma did it as a joke).

At first I couldn’t find my taxi driver, but after a few times circling the many people with names on signs, I eventually found mine. He was helping his neighbor hold up about 5 other signs and he seemed to be having trouble holding them all up at the same time. It was about an hour drive and I struggled with a few awkward attempts at making conversation, but we didn’t get very far. Mostly I just stared out the window in awe as I watched all the motorbikes swoosh by piled high with mounds of every imaginable thing – flowers, large sheets of metal, bamboo poles, straw baskets, colored plastic buckets, bags of rice, cardboard boxes, mounds of noodles.

Eventually we made it to my hotel, Trung Nam Hai, which was fancy! For someone who’s been sleeping mainly in hostels or tents for the past 3 months, this was a welcome change. I had my own bathroom with a bathtub and hot water, TV, free wifi, a big balcony, fancy light fixtures, a tile floor, a large dresser for hanging up clothes, free breakfast and coffee, and 2 beds! As I threw my grubby backpack on the floor of the the giant room, I felt very out of place. The guy who showed me my room saw my surprised face and I could tell he also thought it was a bit excessive. He said: “It’s OK. You meet friends in Hanoi and then share your room.” Apparently “double” in Vietnam hotel terms doesn’t mean one double bed – It means a room with two beds. And while $6 – $10 will buy you a perfectly clean, nice room in Vietnam, $20 will by you the ultimate luxury, fancy pants room. Since my dad reserved the room online, we weren’t sure what to expect, but wow!

My hotel was located in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

Each street in the Old Quarter (often starting with the word “Hang”, meaning “merchandise” or “shop”), used to be designated for a particular type of product. For example, “Hang Bac” is a street for silversmiths, “Hang Thiec” is a street for tinsmiths. A lot of streets are now full of souvenir shops, restaurants, hotels, and travel agencies, but some streets still live up to their original purpose. Here you can read some history about Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

This street had lots of shops selling colored dye.

And this street is full of people selling bamboo poles.

Anyway, since I arrived in Hanoi so late at night, everything was pretty much closed and all I got to see was the lobby of my fancy hotel and a few teenagers milling around outside. This definitely wasn’t a very accurate first impression, because first thing in in the morning my street was transformed into a loud and crazy mess. The entire city woke up around 4 or 5am and then everyone marched out in full force to start their days, all the while proceeding to make as much noise as humanly possible. I woke up to the sound of car horns, motorbike motors, and eager sellers announcing their presence by screaming loudly about whatever items they had to offer.

This was clearly a very different place from clean, orderly Japan (where people are generally quiet and reserved; there is the most efficient train system in the world; traffic lights signal when pedestrians should walk and the direction traffic should flow; tourist help centers dispense English maps and free information; stores sell products that have fixed prices; and people wait patiently in neat little lines). I was obviously not prepared for what a culture shock Vietnam was going to be. Hanoi is place where people don’t really walk – they maneuver. And they don’t so much talk – they negotiate.

It’s a little weird writing about Hanoi so long after the fact, but I’ll try to recreate how I felt my first few days there. Hanoi was tough at first. The second you step out onto the street, you’re bombarded with people trying to sell you something: motorbike tours, cyclo rides, bananas, oranges, dough balls, maps, souvenirs. People are busy and if you step in their path, or don’t want to buy whatever it is they’re selling, they won’t hesitate to push you out of the way. There is no organized tourist infrastructure or designated help center. Signs do advertise tourist info centers, but you can guarantee they aren’t there for giving free information – they’re there to sell you a package tour (often a shitty one). And you constantly have to be on your guard, because many people view you as a walking dollar sign and if someone thinks they can rip you off, they will definitely try. Once this lady chased me for two full blocks trying to force me to buy a baguette. And I bought a phrasebook and a map from a sketchy dude on the corner who ripped me off quite a bit (I’m sure he could tell I was new). I remember retreating to my hotel room early each night to call Miguel and tell him how frustrating my day was.

Each morning I would hear the commotion outside and have to gather my nerves to feel ready to tackle the day. When I finally emerged from the comfort of my hotel room, I barely managed to cross the street when I panicked and went right back inside. It took me another few hours to feel ready to venture further than a block. And it took me several days to even feel ready to take pictures (there were so many sights and sounds to process, that just walking around and absorbing everything consumed all my energy).

But after a few days, the same things I found to be overwhelming at first suddenly became fascinating. To get anywhere in the old quarter, you have to navigate through a labyrinth of tiny alleyways and push yourself through a moving mass of people and vehicles. And while sometimes there are sidewalks, it isn’t ever possible to walk a long distance on them. Every few feet there is a new road block to avoid – a women sitting on a blanket chopping up chicken feet, a man welding giant sheets of metal together while sparks fly everywhere, a child squatting to pee in a puddle, a makeshift waffle stand, an old woman selling lottery tickets, someone mending clothes with an old fashioned sewing machine.

With the right attitude, walking around starts to become less of a challenge and more of an adventure (as you’re never quite sure what you’ll see around the corner).

Sometimes you’ll see fruit and vegetable sellers laying out the day’s produce pickings

or knobby old trees emerging from the concrete

sad mutts stretched full length in the middle of the walkway

men unloading giant bags from trucks

a clothesline for hanging wet laundry or a bucket for soaking dirty dishes

plastic baskets full of dried fish, squid, and shrimp, mushrooms, and bamboo (hard to tell what is what sometimes)

overeager motorbike taxi drivers pulling your arm

a construction zone

a giant heap of garbage

cyclo drivers awaiting tourists in need of rides

women balancing large baskets of baguettes on their heads

Most times you turn the corner, day or night, you’ll run into some sort of marketplace.

where you can buy all sorts of little odds and ends

And everywhere you go, there will be a tiny woman balancing two heavy baskets like hanging pendulums. Sometimes they’re very agressive and they’ll chase you down the street to buy some of their pineapples or mandarines or rambutans or nondescript items wrapped in banana leaves.

Crossing the street in Hanoi is definitely a skill that takes a little bit of time to master. Massive flocks of motorbikes, cars, buses, bicycles, and cyclos flow in all directions, weaving around pedestrians and assorted farm animals. At a glance, it looks like everyone is going to collide into each other…but the traffic just flows in a sort of organized chaos. After a few failed attempts at timidly crossing the street, I stood on the corner and observed how the locals did it. Once I started copying them, it became easy. Here’s the deal: Simply running across the street is suicide (that doesn’t give the motorbikes enough time to assess your position and veer around you). Stopping abruptly in the middle of the street is also a bad idea. Instead, you’re supposed to edge slowly and steadily through the mass of traffic, allowing everything faster than you to swerve around. It seems counterintuitive to launch your body in front of a giant stream of traffic, but the traffic is neverending so you just have to. It’s hard to explain but it all seems to work out somehow. Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty fun.

Of all the modes of transportation, motorbike is definitely the preferred method of travel.

I started to realize that I wasn’t going to have any fun in this city if I kept being so timid and guarded. I was gradually able to have a better sense of humor and be a little more adventurous.

My first step was to buy a bag of funky looking fruits (rambutan) from a woman on the street.

And instead of letting the ladies with their pendulum baskets push me around, I chased one down instead. She had random things wrapped in banana leaves. I hadn’t quite figured out how to ask what was inside and I didn’t have any sort of gauge on how much they were supposed to cost. I handed her a $1 bill and pointed to a triangular shaped one. She looked shocked and threw a few more into the bag. Clearly that was way too much money, but I wasn’t all that worried about it. I was learning. Luckily the things I bought turned out to be veggie – full of glutinous rice and mung bean paste.

Also, I was able to joke with a police officer when I saw him laughing at the way I cautiously crossed the street. I stopped to hang out with some little school kids screaming “hello!” And I chatted with the motorbike taxi drivers rather than running away from them. Everything felt like a small accomplishment.

One thing I really like about Hanoi is the old buildings painted in faded pastels. Many of them only have the front wall painted. The other three walls and windows are often made of contrasting colors and materials that look as if they were taken from bits and pieces of other buildings.

All the buildings are lined up along narrow alleyways.

And power is supplied by a huge network of cables strung across the streets.

Another nice thing about Hanoi is Hoan Kiem Lake, which is located right in the heart of the Old Quarter.

In the middle of the lake is a temple that can be reached by a red bridge.

Turtles play an important role in the mythology of Hoan Kiem Lake. You can read about it here.

Today there are probably many small turtles swimming in the lake because locals buy turtles and release them for good luck.

Hanoi has lots of cute coffee shops. Many are tucked away behind souvenir shops and up several flights of stairs. The upstairs ones usually have good views of the city.

Sometimes I did a bit of sightseeing.

I saw the Ho Chi Minh Masouleum

St Joseph’s Cathedral

The Temple of Literature

and the Water Puppet Theater

But the most enjoyable things were all the unplanned events that happened around the city.

There was a flower festival around the lake.

And an unexpected soccer celebration.

I met a guy named Tuan at the lake and he asked if I wanted to watch a soccer game with him and his friends. I told him “no thanks” (for one thing, I didn’t know that it was a really big game. For another thing, he had a pile of books in his hand and I had been annoyed endlessly by book sellers all day long. For another thing, I barely knew the guy and thought it would be a bad idea to go somewhere with him). He gave me his number in case I changed my mind. I walked back to the hotel kinda bummed about my decision because if I kept being wary of everyone, I wasn’t going to make any friends. But still, as a girl traveling alone, knowing what is appropriate (and safe) is always a constant issue. Within seconds of arriving at my place though, the entire city burst into excitement. People were screaming, dancing, hugging each other, banging pots and pans. Music stores pulled out all their instruments and started playing them. Thousands of people piled onto their motorbikes and circled downtown Vietnam waving Vietnam flags, wearing capes made out of flags, and screaming “Vietnam is Invinsible!” I didn’t realize that winning this game (Vietnam vs Thailand) was such a huge victory for Vietnam. The Vietnamese have been beaten at soccer matches numerous times in a row by the Thais and Vietnam has never qualified for the World Cup Final before.

That was it. I wasn’t going to sit in my room and miss this. I put on my raincoat (the only red thing I had) and I called Tuan. He was waiting at the lake with his brother and his friend. He had a huge smile and kept saying “noone in my city will sleep tonight. Everyone will wake up with hangover.” After watching the parade of people go by, I knew he was going to ask me if I wanted to ride on his motorbike and join the crowd. I kept telling myself that the smart thing to say is no. But after spending all day wandering around the city and being greeted with nothing but stern faces, it was amazing to see crowds of ecstatic people laughing and celebrating. Of course I wanted to join in on the fun…so I said yes. There was such a huge traffic jam, that I figured I could easily jump off if I started to feel unsafe.

Some girl in the mass of motorbikes handed me a flag – my favorite souvenir from Vietnam. This night marked a turning point for me. I could tell I was going to love this country.

We circled the lake a few times with the crowd, then veered off to follow some other large groups of people downtown. Entire streets were blocked off by kids lighting things on fire frighteningly close to power lines.

Then all of a sudden Tuan drove away from the crowd and took off on a dark, quiet side street away from town. We were going kinda fast at that point and I definitely couldn’t jump off if I wanted to. My stomach sank and I was mad at myself for being so stupid. I tapped his shoulder and said “Um…where are we going?” He said “To eat.” We pull up in front of a house. There are some women with a mobile food stall outside, but Tuan starts walking down the alley in between the two houses and motioning for me to follow him. There were no motorbike taxis in the neighborhood and I had no clue where we were, so I really had no choice but to trust him and follow at this point. I smiled at the women with the food cart thinking that if I end up screaming later, maybe they’d come to my rescue (assuming they weren’t all in cahoots). At the back of the alley, we came to a table with two older men talking and drinking. They didn’t seem to mind me being there, but they didn’t seem particularly thrilled about it either. Everyone was speaking in Vietnamese and I just sat there awkwardly. Every now and then I heard the word “American.” Even though I said I wasn’t hungry, the owner of the restaurant handed us two giant bowls of pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) with large chucks of beef floating on top. Awkwardly, I told him I was vegetarian (something Vietnamese don’t necessarily understand, but they respect due to the large Buddhist population). He apologized, handed my soup to the guy next to me, and immediately appeared with a “vegetarian” pho. I knew he just sifted all the meat out, but everyone was staring at me expectantly, so I just ate it. It seemed like this was just a pointless detour so I could pay a few dollars to support his friend’s shop,. Something like that would have made me so mad under normal circumstances, but I was feeling so vulnerable, that it was a huge relief.

Everything seemed to be going alright…but then the lights turned off and we’re all sitting silently in the pitch dark – me, Tuan, the two men, and the waiter. I thought: And this is where they attack me. My heart was pounding and I was just about ready to run away when the waiter comes with some candles and a lantern and explains to me that the power went out. Surprisingly, everyone seemed as nervous and jittery as I did. Maybe they could tell what I was thinking.

Anyway, everyone starts laughing again, the 2 men leave, and the waiter sits down with us to chat and drink some sort of homemade alcohol served from a coconut. I started to really like this man and felt stupid for being so scared at first. He was animated and put a lot of effort into acting and gesturing so he could communicate with me. Through charades, he explained how to use Vietnamese toilets and he gave me tips on being careful in Vietnam (which I had to laugh at because I had obviously already broken all those rules and put myself in a potentially really bad situation….which luckily turned out fine). I explained all that to him, he seemed to understand, and we all had a good laugh. The waiter said that if I was still in town for Tet, he wanted to invite me to celebrate it with his family. Tuan didn’t turn out to be a sketchy guy either. He paid for my soup, but I insisted on paying for the alcohol. Then he drove me straight to my hotel when I said I was tired.

Aside from book sellers and random men in alleys, I also made some great couchsurfing friends while I was there.

I met Tran, a sweet, smart girl with a bubbly, outgoing personality. She was so thoughtful and helped me with everything – whether it was planning my trip in Vietnam, inviting me to visit her grandma, helping me order black coffee, or making sure the waiter brought me a bowl of chilis when I said I wanted my food to be spicy. I’d love for her to come to the United States someday so that I can show her around. When I told her that, she said “Maybe I’ll make it there when I’m an old lady.” I really hope it happens sooner than that.

Tran and I met for lunch a few times at Com Chay Nang Tam, a vegetarian restaurant near her work.

This restaurant serves set menus and is extremely popular with Vietnamese. If you have a group of 6, you can choose between all the larger sets and share with everyone. But if you’re alone or with one other person, you can choose between 5 or 6 different sets and have your own plate. Here’s a review of this place.

Each set comes with several different things, soup, and rice. I wasn’t a fan of the soup (very bland), but some of the fake meat dishes were awesome!

I also met David, who picked me up at my hotel and took me all over the place. We went to cafes, bars, walked around the lake and near the stadium. He taught me a little Vietnamese and invited me to go to his Salsa class. Being from Texas, I thought it was hilarious that my first Salsa dancing class would be in Vietnamese and to American hip hop music. The class was tons of fun. Although I didn’t learn a lot of salsa moves in an hour, I was a pro at counting by the end of the class. I can still picture the teacher counting the eight steps while we moved to the music: mot, hai, ba, bon, nam, sau, bay, tam. Chin and muoi are 9 and 10. This little girl will teach you how to count to 10.

David also introduced me to my favorite veggie restaurant, Cửa hàng Nam An, số 1 ngõ 39 phố Linh Lang, and he spent many nights driving me across town so we could eat there.

Sometimes a little cat would curl up on our laps while we ate.

I especially liked the vegetarian mudfish. I’ve never had real mudfish, but the veggie variety is great.

Every night we ate at the restaurant, we ran into a vegan guy from Bangalore who was on business in Hanoi. He gave me his contact info and said that he’d teach me to cook vegan Indian food when I make it that way. Nice!

I also met Lia, who I didn’t actually meet until I returned to Hanoi, but I’m just going to go ahead and mention her here. Surprisingly she’s from Eagle Pass (Miguel’s hometown) and she has been living and working in Vietnam for the past 3 years. I got to meet her a couple times for drinks and dinner, where we reminisced about Texas stuff.

Notes:

  • Vietnam’s sacred animals are the dragon, turtle, phoenix, and the kylin (some sort of Vietnamese unicorn). Tigers and horses also play an important role.

  • Fake meat is a big thing in Vietnam. Mahayana Buddhists tend to favor foods designed to look and taste like meat. It seems to stem from the belief that people inherently crave meat, they just choose not to eat it. I’ve also heard that Vietnamese vegetarians don’t want to deprive their guests of enjoying their favorite foods, so they make imitation meats and that way everyone is happy. In any case, a vegetarian meal in Vietnam typically contains some sort of mock meat.

  • A great thing about Vietnam is that you can order freshly squeezed fruit drinks for extremely cheap. My favorite is carrot and ginger. The drinks always look so fancy – with umbrellas, straws, sometimes flowers.

  • Vietnam has deliciously strong coffee. I heard that the reason their coffee doesn’t have a good reputation in the world market is because they export all the crappy coffee and keep the best for their own country. Vietnamese coffee is usually served with lots of sugar and sweetened condensed milk. I always ordered my coffee black. And it’s so dark sometimes it feels like it’s going to strip the enamel off your teeth.

For some weird reason though, they still think all westerners want nescafe. I guess they figure that since it comes from our country, we must prefer it. Ew.

Here is another interesting coffee fact. Chon (or weasel coffee) is supposed to be the most delicious and expensive coffee. The idea is that the weasels eat the best coffee beans, so they feed the coffee beans to a weasel, collect them later from it’s poop, then roast them. ew!

  • Vietnam is the home to many sad animals. Black markets sell endangered animals to be used in tonics and medicines, cockfighting is a popular sport, frogs and soft shelled turtles wait in giant bags to be sold and cooked, sad dogs are delivered to the market everyday where they are slaughtered and eaten. In Hanoi, there is a place called Snake Village, a tourist attraction that only survives because tourists (with encouragement from their guide books) show up in masses to support it. I obviously didn’t go, but the hostel I stayed in for a couple of days was organizing daily group trips to visit it. If you’re curious, here’s an account of what it’s like. I’m not sure why that sounds fun to anyone.

  • The current exchange rate is about 17,000 dong to 1 dollar. It always sounds like such a large sum of money when you pay for a few nights in a hotel and your bill comes out to 500,000 dong or something like that.
  • Although Vietnam is a Communist country, it doesn’t always feel like it to the average tourist. Apparently you notice it more when you’re trying to live and work in the country. A friend of mine tried to organize a free English class in a village. But after a few weeks of watching locals all meet and organize at her house, the officials got suspicious and told her she had to stop.

  • Two books I read while in Vietnam (highly recommended) = The Girl in the Picture and Hitchhiking Vietnam. The author of Hitchiking Vietnam actually has a program on PBS.
  • It’s funny how many travel agencies piggyback off of a reputable travel agency and steal its name. Sinh Cafe is a travel agency in Saigon and it’s not uncommon to walk on a street in Hanoi and see 5 different travel agencies all named Sinh Cafe. Even one of the guesthouses I stayed in was a “Sinh Cafe” travel agent. Who do they think they’re kidding?

Kangaroo Cafe is another popular name that companies like to steal. Although I’ve heard some bad things about the real one (and how the owner is a foul-mouthed Australian man who treats the Vietnamese people really shitty), so I wouldn’t recommend supporting the real one either. The Kangaroo Cafe does have decent vegetarian food and before I heard all the bad stuff about the company, I went in there to eat a veggie burger. I did notice all the insensitive t-shirts for sale in the restaurant and it turned me off from wanting to go back.

  • The women on motorbikes, decked out with their helmets, glasses, face masks, and scarves, look like warriers.

  • White skin is a sign of beauty and Vietnamese women try very hard not to get tan. They wear long white gloves and use skin whitening lotion.

  • It’s interesting to me how romantic all the sculptures, embroideries, and paintings are. Classic images are children playing flutes while sitting atop water buffalo, immaculately dressed women with conical hats gazing at the rice fields, wise looking old men playing cards, the silhouettes of fishing nets thrown out in front of a sunset. Nowhere do they portray all the poverty and devastation that you see on the streets of Hanoi on a daily basis.

  • Some Vietnamese TV shows are a wee bit strange.

  • Based on this package, they seem to take washing very seriously. You had better wash….or else!

  • Huh? Sometimes the English on the notebooks is not so great.

  • Many Vietnamese people are more superstitious than they really are religious. It’s a common ritual to burn fake money for dead ancestors. This is because they need money for their afterlife and if you don’t appease them by supplying it, they may become resentful.

  • I’m not sure what these stamps are for, but they seem to be some kind of advertisement. They cover lots of walls in Hanoi.

  • Even in the heart of Vietnam, you can find stickers and flyers advertising veggie stuff.

  • I love how any grimy street corner or grubby alleyway is the perfect place to cook a stew, lay out mounds of fresh noodles, crusty baquettes, or chunks of meat, pile up mandarines, rambutan, or assorted leafy greens, wash your baby or comb lice out of your friends hair, snip off fish heads, sell lottery tickets, give manicures, patch bike tires, advertise a city tour, smoke a pipe, drink some tea, display large bags of live frogs, fry some bananas, and slap together some heart shaped waffles.

And with a cardboard box and a few plastic stools you can set up your own makeshift stand for any kind of business you want: eyeglass repair, laundry, shoeshines, haircuts, noodle shop.

  • And I especially love the way people carry everything imaginable on motorbike and maneuver effortlessly through tiny breaks in traffic.

Sometimes the stuff is piled so high, I can’t believe they don’t fall over.

It’s both impressive and disturbing knowing that the noodles in your soup were most likely transported in this manner (maybe even from someplace very far away). After see all the black dust that accumulates on your face and fingernails after only a few hours of walking around, you’ll understand why.

Another thing that fascinates me is the way they transport eggs. I can’t imagine how that the shells don’t crush into bits.

Most disturbingly, farm animals (cows, pigs, even water buffalo) are also transported by motorbike. They just tie them up and strap them upside down to the back of the motorbike. Generally they’re still alive. Here’s a photo.

This little doggie even likes to ride motorbikes.

The cyclists are quite resourceful too.

And this guy has the ultimate style mobile – a motorbike with a running fan strapped to the back. Wowee!

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1 Comment

  1. Alex Harmon

     /  March 18, 2009

    Cool pictures Cristen! Your adventures sound so cool and the commentary is great.

    Alex

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