Hop Over to Hanoi

Hanoi is little over an hour and a half flight from Hong-Kong: making me ponder why I don’t make the journey every weekend.

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As I walk from the plane to Vietnamese immigration, I notice that this whole place smells like my favorite pho place back in Denver. Either they use the same floor cleaner, or the whole country is saturated with centuries of Thai basil and floral steaming bowls of soup. I think I’ll enjoy Hanoi.

Especially when great hostels are $6 a night, bowls of the most flavorful pho are $1, and crisp ice cold beer is $.60. Vietnam, you are a treasure.

My flight was easy going and, dare I say, relaxing. Hanoi, in general relaxing. This is something not a lot of people would agree with, but the rice paddies and little homes laying in front of a misty mountain backdrop on the bus ride into central Hanoi felt like true rural life compared to the constant high-rise and overpopulation of Hong-Kong. When I hopped off the bus, I instantly had a smile on my face. The sheer magnitude of chaos from all the buzzing motorbikes, honking away for no reason can do nothing but leave a silly smile as I walk across the street determined to make it to the other side in one piece. The bus drops me right near Hoan Kiem Lake, a hangout for locals and vacationers alike. Since it’s weekend, the roads are blocked off to allow pedestrians to take over the streets encompassing the lake, and people are gathering to watch street performers or playing with Chinese hacky-sacks in the dusk light. I walk around quietly and head into the Old Quarter towards my hostel.

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I’m staying at D’annam Hostel, just a few blocks away from the lake and right in the central part of the Old Quarter. For $6 a night, I got a non-party hostel in a good location with free breakfast. That’s my kind of place.

Hungry from the flight, I schlepped off my bag and went in search of one thing: pho. One of my favorite dishes, each bowl of pho is like a little bowl of love. Tender rice noodles, melt in your mouth chunks of beef, fresh green Thai basil, spicy green onions, and mouthwatering peppers. Every bowl of pho replenishes my soul a bit, making me feel happy and healthy for whatever comes next. I’ve eaten pho across the US and Eastern Europe, and now it was time for the real deal. And I was in for a treat.

My first stop was Pho 10, just a few blocks from my hostel. This was sort of ‘fancy’ pho, with waiters dressed in matching shirts and $2 bowls of beefy goodness. But it certainly did not disappoint.

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I never really have a plan when visiting a city. I merely wander and see what I stumble upon, and usually find something interesting. While walking down the street, a man sitting on the side of the road looked at me and shouted “Stop!” putting me in my place to look around. With me confused, he squirted super glue into the holes of my shoe lining, “There you go, I fix” he said behind a crooked smile.

“God dammit…” I muttered under my breath. I’ve encounters a lot of scammers, but this one was pretty clever…and I suppose helpful. At this point, he was too far in for me to escape now. He ripped my shoe off to finish the job, gluing up all the patches in my road worn Vans. I made him stop, and put my shoe back on, to which he asked for $5, which I refused to give him. He got upset and begged for $1, which I would have given him had I not been so confused by the money. I ended up giving him about 15,000 Dong, about $.50. But now, one of my shoes was fixed to continue walking (update: the glue has split and my shoes are back to normal). Soon, I came upon a moisture darkened French cathedral.

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St. Joseph’s is gorgeous right? The French occupation of Indo-China was rife with the horrendous consequences of European colonialism, but the French did certainly leave behind some beautiful works of architecture. Out front, new brides stood to take photos with their hubbies in the soft light. This seemed like a moment to enjoy, so I walked to a little coffee shop with locals squatting with juice, shelling and munching on sunflower seeds. I wanted to join the locals on the pavement, but the shop owners made me sit away from the storefront in a chair. I’m not sure if it was to keep me comfortable or away from the locals, but I can’t really complain when they can make a coffee as deliciously viscous and creamy as they did.

Thick, sugary Vietnamese coffee is all I needed to get enough start back in me to go the rest of the day. On couchsurfing, I started messaging with a Berliner, who said he’d come to meet me where I was getting coffee. About thirty minutes later, Nikitas showed up with a couchsurfer from France, Pamela, and another from Turkey (whose name I forgot, as always). Nikitas and Pamela hadn’t eaten yet, so we stopped by a little noodle shop on the side of the road for gorgeous glass noodles in broth. Some of the best restaurants in Asia are the simplest, and this was no different. It was only a woman on a little stool sitting next to a bubbling cauldron and a cabinet full of meat, noodles, and veggies. Nothing more is necessary.

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The Turkish woman, a fashion designer, told rumors of a bar that supposedly had “Free Beers”. I was suspicious, but of course, had to investigate. Along the way, Nikitas and I ponder whether or not to invest in Snake Vodka. Maybe it’ll give me more vitality, or something.

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I’m suspicious of anything free. Especially free alcohol. We arrived at a completely empty bar and asked “Where’s the free beer?” to which they seemed to suddenly remember, and between three bartenders hoisted a gigantic keg onto the bar. We sit for a while, drinking free beers, talking and dancing as the only people in the bar aside from a few more couchsurfers that show up later. Why is the beer free? Had it gone bad? Is this feeling I’m having the alcohol, or rats decomposing in the keg? All in all, I drank eight beers without paying a dime. I soon left, a little tipsy, expecting someone to run after me expecting for me to pay for the air. No one came.

A lot of the couchsurfers wanted to go clubbing, but Nikitas and I wanted sandwiches (Nikitas is 2 meters tall, and I’m 197, so we need a constant food supply). We stop a few doors down to engorge on Banh Mi, a French baguette spread with butter and pate, filled with fresh veggies and fried pork. Yes, it’s every bit as delicious as it sounds. Nikitas and I sat in a post-eight-beer stuppor, giggling our butts off at how unbelievably delicious this $1 sandwich was. So we bought another. And I would have bought a third, had the others not been tired of watching me stuff my face.

But after two sandwiches and eight beers, I was pretty tired. Nikitas was pretty dead too, so we walked back through the old quarter to our hostels, weaving through hoards of local and tourist partygoers enjoying the cool night air and delicious food and beer. It was eclectic but harmonious, insane, but organized. Perfect Chaos.

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The next morning, I wake up for my free scrambled eggs and toast, enjoyed on the hostels’ rooftop patio with some other interesting travelers and backpackers. One man reminded me of Paul Theroux, although long-haired and British and far more hippy. But he was doing a massive train tour through the world, detailing his trips through India in the 1960’s and his adventures on the Trans-Siberian through his quivering Bristol accent. Travel is about meeting people, and I’m always amazed by those that I encounter in every part of the globe.

After breakfast, I need to get out and explore. I walk for hours, in no direction, perhaps even in circles, just enjoying the beeping bikes and harmony in absurdity.

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I alight on a stool for a sweet creamy coffee, one of many, and people watch for a while.

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I’m amazed at how relaxed I feel in this city, especially compared to Hong-Kong. Hanoi is hot, humid, terribly polluted, and forever filled with the noise of a million bikes. Yet it feels calmer than the constant rush of Hong-Kong. I figure it must be the architecture, as no building is more than a few stories high, providing a far less looming atmosphere to the entire city. As well, for the fact that one can sit outside in Hanoi. In Hong-Kong, I don’t know of many places to sit outside with a coffee to people watch. In Hanoi, everywhere feels like a place to sit and drink a coffee to people watch.

My only plan for the day is to meet Pamela and Nikitas for a food tour. Pamela is studying here for a year, and a friend at her school does free food tours of the city. I meet with Nikitas at St. Joseph Cathedral, and soon a smiling Vietnamese guy not much older than 25 shows up with some other locals. We soon learn that our guide, Harry, is also an English teacher and these are some of the students he’s taken out for a Sunday English lesson and lunch. I can think of no greater way to connect than to share food, and this is no exception.

Soon, we’re in a dark alleyway being transported to who knows where. Sweet marinades fill the air as locals eating noodles from stools stare up at me. A man is barbecuing meat on a little fire held between to bricks while a woman cuts green onions next to him.

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It’s an array of beautiful smells and sights, and it all instantly opens on to a little house, with only a few tables and a menu for the drinks only. Soon, vermicelli noodles show up along with a plate of dewy greens, and then the main attraction: Bun Cha.

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A bowl of marinated pork, grilled to charcoaled perfection and served in a bowl of fish sauce and other magic juices. Raw garlic and chili peppers are added at will, and vermicelli noodles are dipped and enjoyed. Every bite is equally delicious, and equally palette covering. I’m getting a meaty saltiness, a fishy brininess, spicy pepper, and sweet crunchy carrots to create a little bit of harmony. The chaos exists in food here as well, from the fire and drama of the barbecue to the craziness of wet noodles sloshing fish sauce everywhere. But in your mouth, all is harmonious and easy, just like Hanoi.

It’s perfect. Always trust locals. I would never have found this place, and I will never find it again. We’re back on the street, chatting about life in Vietnam while Harry live streams everything for his facebook. Vietnamese are extraordinarily welcoming and friendly. These kids want nothing from us, other than to learn about our lives and practice their English. Getting some food helps too, of course.

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Next, we head to a cafe built in the colonial period. This is another hole in the wall, but it opens up into a cafe with old Chinese decorations and tilings, and a pet rooster (The Third Worlds sign of hospitality).

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We go to the rooftop bar, overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, for an egg coffee. I’m still not sure how it’s made, but what comes out is a hot espresso mixed with a bit of milk and raw egg. It’s strangely delicious and creamy. We linger a while enjoying our coffees and chatting longer. Soon though, Harry has to go teach a class, and his pupils have other places to be. So we part ways, thanking them profusely for their insights, guidance, and time. Back to wandering we go.

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Nikitas and I are soon hungry, so we stop at another roadside stall of pho. Happy tummies make happy faces.

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We wander quite far, to the Western lake, where we stop for a while at a little touristy temple.

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I know it seems like all I did was eat…and you’d be right. When food is as delicious and cheap as it is here, it’s impossible not to eat more.

Next, we went to dinner. We headed to the bar streets in the Old Quarter, stopping at a bar on the second floor with locals eating chicken feet and playing cards. Nikitas and Pamela split a cheap bottle of vodka, and I stick to beers which I paid for. Incredible.

We have a little plan of doing Karaoke, so we go for a long walk to a different side of town. Here, there were no tourists, no English signs, no signs of life other than locals eating on the street. It was a little bit sketchy, but I stopped for a sandwich beforehand.

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Karaoke’s a bit different here, and a group has to rent out a room and do it all privately. So no one really wanted to rent a room out for three people, and we experience a bit of difficulting finding anyone to consider our plea to sing off key. We can’t find a place with songs we like, or good prices. That’s life, sometimes.

It’s the final day of my Hanoi long weekend adventure, and I have a few stops in mind. But first: coffee and people watching time.

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I wander around Hoan Kiem Lake again, enjoying the breeze and happy atmosphere of people taking breaks from their morning routines, getting ready for a long day of work.

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The first must-visit stop for me was Hoa Lo Prison, more famously known as the “Hanoi Hilton”.

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Right in the downtown area, this prison served as the main prison for political prisoners during the Colonial era.

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Prisoners were held here for their communist beliefs, with their feet chained to the floors. But that did not stop their spirit, as it served as the teaching room for the communist ideals and philosophy lessons. The prisoners kept their spirits high through the socialist dream, fueling their desire for a free Vietnam. A perfect example of the will and victory of the Communist ideology.

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Yes, it was extraordinarily one-sided and biased, but I’m sure the French certainly were not easy on the Vietnamese. The portion on the American Prisoners of War was surprisingly short, as the prison has such a reputation in the US. But from what existed, the prison was made to look like a resort for American pilots. Photos displayed pilots decorating Christmas trees, feasting on ducks, and shooting hoops in the courtyard to keep up their physical strength. The exhibit proudly boasted on the medical treatments available for prisoners, and how, dare I say, luxurious the lives of the American soldiers were here. I’m sure the prisoners would have a different version of the story. But I suppose the victor also gets to tell the history, especially in a place like Vietnam.

After the heavy exhibit, I needed some more pho. This was followed by a wander around the Temple of Literature, the oldest University in Vietnam.

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The day is hot, but something keeps driving my feet forward. I wander further, stopping only occasionally in the shade to fan myself with my sweaty hands.

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Eventually, I make it to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and sit in the shade for a while watching the white-suited guards parade on the perimeter.

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Now, the rest of the night went as any night in Hanoi. All I wanted was to eat. I met up with Andrian, a Filipino staying in the dorm for some pho. This is his first time alone outside of the Philippines, and his first big trip alone. I love his lighthearted view on life, and he can’t believe I’ve been so lucky to have traveled as much as I have. Honestly, I can’t either sometimes, but I’m so glad to keep going.

I told him to eat his soup more seriously for the photo so he became stoic with his noodles.

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Mine was nowhere near serious.

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But his is certainly more beautiful.

We walk around to the Dong Xuan market, a huge marketplace selling whatever one may desire. It has that thick smell of plastic and mothballs like every market in the Third World.

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We meet up with Nikitas, Pamela, and her friend from university. We enjoy one last night of sandwiches and beers together for the last time. Nikitas has bought an awesome retro motorbike today, which he plans on taking up North into the mountains and then down South for as long as his visa will permit. Pamela and her friend are going South to Ha Long Bay, a beautiful looking mountainous area. Andrian is only on the first day of a week-long Vietnamese adventure, and what comes next only the universe knows. I, on the other hand, have a Japanese exam tomorrow and must go back to Hong-Kong.

I wish I could continue, into the beautiful chaos of Vietnam. I feel bad as well, for only coming for a weekend. But I know for sure that I will be back one day, and I can spend even more time in the country now that I’ve seen Hanoi so thoroughly. The beauty, warmth of its people, and flavor of all of its food will drive me back someday. Every time I have a bowl of pho, in Prague or Denver or wherever else, I will think and imagine myself on the Hanoi streets, eating $1 pho as motorbikes drive by honking relentlessly at nothing.

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