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Back in Hanoi, Vietnam

Jan 17- 20

The night bus from Hue ended up in Hanoi around 6 or 7am. All of the tourists who had booked the bus tickets through travel agents or their hotels were told that the extra charge was because we would be dropped off directly at the lake in the city center (rather than the bus station many kilometers outside of town). I didn’t really believe this, but I didn’t have a lot of choice. Since Tet was approaching, all the tickets were more expensive and it was difficult to get a last minute spot on the bus at all…so I just took what I could get. I wasn’t at all surprised when the bus stopped outside of town and the bus driver started trying to herd everyone into taxis. I kinda had a feeling that would happen. A lot of people actually did go ahead with the taxi ride, but I was tired and annoyed, so I threw a big fit and refused to get in a cab. Eventually I was picked up and placed (literally!) on the back of someone’s brother’s motorbike and taken directly to my hotel of choice (The Red River Hotel). I kept insisting that I wasn’t going to pay because the price was already included in the ticket. He said – “It’s OK – the hotel will pay.” And I guess they did, because the guy left happily enough. That worked out much better than I expected. Perfect actually.

I ended up staying at the hotel for the rest of my time in Hanoi. And another surprising thing that happened was when I went to pay the bill, they informed me that my first night was free because it had already been paid for. Shocked, I said “By who?” They mentioned some tour company I’d never heard of and said “Yes yes. They paid already.” It didn’t make any sense to me, but I learned that it’s best not to ask questions when things work out in your favor. Just go with it.

So I had about four days to hang out in Hanoi. After a month of traveling around a place, I stop wanting to do touristy things. I just want to wander around and observe. Hanoi is a perfect place to do that. Only there were a few situations where I was terribly unobservant. Here’s an example of one:

I was chatting with a pineapple lady for a while and she asked me if I wanted my picture taken holding her baskets. I said “sure.” But as this was happening, a mob of pineapple ladies started flocking to me, thrusting bags of pineapples into my hand, and demanding money. I gave in and bought some pineapples from one lady (which upset all the others who didn’t get money). But before I could pay…the lady reached into my wallet and snatched out some cash. When I started yelling at her, she gave me some change back (not enough), but I didn’t fight her. I just walked (more like ran) away while a hoard of angry pineapple ladies trailed behind. As I was walking, I realized that they had made me so distracted and flustered, I wouldn’t have noticed if someone had taken something from my bag. I checked my pockets and my purse and luckily my wallet and camera were still there. It was a good lesson to learn without actually being pickpocketed.

Back at the hotel, the guys who work there were sitting around a giant feast and sipping whiskey…so I sat with them for a bit. I could tell they were deciding whether I would want whiskey or not. In the end they decided that ladies don’t drink whiskey, so I was served Sprite instead. They offered me some beef. When I said I was vegetarian, they offered me chicken. It’s a difficult concept for some people to grasp.

Aside from wandering aimlessly around town, I took care of domestic things (like getting my hair cut). This place seemed pretty popular, so I went in there. When I sat down, only one of the girls spoke English (She’s a tour guide for English and French speakers). She told me that the lady who works there was eating lunch and that they’d all been waiting over an hour. I didn’t have much else to do, so I figured I’d wait with them too.

But when the lady came back into the shop, everyone pushed me into the chair and said “you first.” I told them thanks but that I couldn’t possibly – that they had all waited so long and I should have to wait too. Then the English speaking lady said “Well you see – It’s interesting to us. We all want to watch you get your hair cut.” And so I went first – while they all stared at me in the mirror and giggled. I was happy with my haircut – especially the fact that it cost about $5. And they were happy that they got to watch an American girl get her hair cut. Everyone won.

When I was finished, I stuck around a little bit to watch some other people get their hair cut (although I can’t imagine why they all think it’s such an entertaining event).

As I was sitting, the lady on the right kept picking up my hand and examining it. I thought she was reading my palm or something, but it turns out she was just comparing my hand to hers to see if American hands are different from Vietnamese ones. She decided that they aren’t much different. And she seemed a little bit disappointed.

Anyway, regarding food (my favorite topic)…I managed to make it to a new veggie place, Viet Chay. I had veggie fish curry. It was just OK…but I don’t think you can ever judge a place too much after only trying one thing off the menu.

But since I only had a few days left in Vietnam, I preferred to just keep going to my favorite place. Over and over and over. When you find a great thing, why branch out from it?

Actually, this place was the real reason why I had saved a few days at the end of my trip to return to Hanoi. I was determined to take a cooking class in Vietnam. And while cooking classes are quite common, I couldn’t find any organized veggie ones. I figured I’d just have to create my own class and find a teacher. My second night at this restaurant, I had my friend David ask the owner (Hung) if she would teach me. It was suspenseful! I just stood there against the wall, staring blankly as I watched David and Hung work out some sort of negotiation in Vietnamese. After they talked about it a long time, he turned to me and said “Well, she says her kitchen is very small.” I thought that was a nice way of her rejecting my request and I kinda wanted to cry. After a long pause, he said “But if you’re OK with that, she’d love to teach you.” Yay! Mission accomplished! She actually ended up inviting me to join her at a vegan retreat in the countryside, but I had already committed to going to Ninh Binh with Tran…so I had to decline. I told Hung I would probably travel a bit around Vietnam first, then I’d return to Hanoi so I could meet with her and learn.

So, that’s what I did. When I got back to Hanoi, we made arrangements to meet at the restaurant. And I spent the next two days waking up early to catch a motorbike taxi to the place. Hung actually wasn’t around most of the time, so the grandmother ended up being my teacher. And since David wasn’t around to translate, I was on my own.

Ming was also there. Ming is from the countryside, but she lives and works with this family so she can make money to send back home. I really loved meeting her and I could tell that she was excited to see me too (since it was a break from her regular routine). She spoke a little bit of English and served as my translator when I didn’t understand what the grandma was saying to me. And she sang lovely songs as she cooked.

It was really interesting to see the whole process of running their restaurant – from cutting up the vegetables, to making the food, to serving the lunch rush that comes around noon, to preparing all the other dishes that can be ordered separately. I was so grateful that they let me invade their place and follow them around for 2 whole days.

First I helped them cut all the vegetables. They cut them either directly into their hands or on the floor.

And as we they cut, I asked Ming to tell me the names of the unfamiliar vegetables. But since she only knew the Vietnamese names, I just wrote them down and figured I’d look them up later.

An English speaking Vietnamese guy came in to pick up a take away order. I showed him my list and he helped me decipher my notes.

A lot of the food was prepared in their kitchen. It was very long and narrow, so you have to squish against the wall every time someone needs to walk past. It was too crowded to have three of us in the kitchen, so I just hung back for a lot of this part so as not to be in the way.

I was fascinated by the charcoal stove in the front part of their house. They used that to cook some things too.

As far as the actual cooking went…usually the grandma would make me watch her repeatedly before I was allowed to try. After a long observation session, I would try to imitate what she did (often to her disliking). If she was pleased with my work, she’d indicate for me to continue while she stared eerily over my shoulder. If she wasn’t pleased, she’d slap my hand away and shout “no!” This happened often. Eventually I’d get the hang of it and her slaps would turn into nods of approval. Once she felt comfortable that I could work unsupervised, she’d leave me alone to finish the rest.

The first thing we made was spring rolls. It was a little stressful making springrolls under the watchful eye of the grandmother. I could tell she was very methodical, particular, and difficult to please. I felt like I was undergoing some sort of test (which I was, in a way). And even though I was slowing her down in the beginning (as she’d often have to stop what she was doing to grunt at me and correct my wrapping technique), I think she was happy to have the help. In the end, she approved of my work and seemed impressed. I was invited to help out again if I ever make it back to Hanoi.

During my two days working there, we made many different things.

Like noodle rolls

Seaweed tofu rolls

Steamed rice (I can’t remember what this one was for, as they normally serve brown rice).

Mock beef soup

Lots of different leafy green dishes

And my favorite – fake shrimp (which we spent about 2 hours making). It actually took me a while to realize that that’s what we were making. I just thought we were making some sort of tiny spring rolls dyed red. I guess I should have figured it out sooner when she kept grabbing my hand and showing me to curl the tops over and twist the bottoms. Eventually I got it right.

When we were all done, she cooked a few so I could try them. They were really good (but didn’t taste much like shrimp).

And my hands were dyed red for the next week. The edges of my fingernails stayed red even longer.

Both days after we cooked, they served me a big plate with a little bit of everything we had made. Yum!

My last night in Hanoi, I met up with David. The animals (Goat from Texas, Kiwi from New Zealand, Kangaroo from Australia, Monkey from Japan, and Walrus from Peru) made a new friend too – a girl from a hill tribe in North Vietnam.

That night, we met up with a couchsurfer from China, Tran, and Lia. We all ate at Com Chay Nang Tam. And since we were more than 2 people, we were able to order one of the set group menus I was never able to try before. It was a perfect end to my Vietnam trip!

The next morning I had to wake up really early to catch a flight to Bangkok and I probably only got a few hours of sleep. It’s a good thing I had spoken to the hotel guys earlier about organizing a cab for me, because I slept through my alarm and didn’t wake up until one of them knocked on my door and announced that my cab was waiting. So it was a rushed departure, but I made it in time. Again, I didn’t want to leave just yet. And I probably wouldn’t have been too bummed if I had missed my flight. But this time it was different. I would be meeting Miguel in Bangkok in a few days – and I obviously didn’t want to miss that!


  • Read the first sentence and try not to laugh. I don’t understand it.

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  1. Grandma

     /  April 13, 2009

    WELL! Great blog! But how about the rest of the story?? What happened after Tiet Giao stole the pearl? Leave it to your grandma to want to know the rest of the story! Now you can cook Vietnamese for me when you come home. Love the pictures, too. our hair looks great!

  2. Mia

     /  April 17, 2009

    Look at you go girl!
    Such lovely dishes! and amazing experiences!Guess Youre just about ready to open an international vegan cuisine restaurant..cant wait to come and eat!
    Where are you now?? :)
    Lots of love,Mia

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