One nearly missed flight due to a booking miscommunication, eight hours in the insanely luxurious Singapore airport, four more hours on a sub-par airline and before we knew it we were roaming the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam in search of some traditional Vietnamese cuisine to remedy our severe jetlag. And boy did we find some.
Our very first night in Southeast Asia did not disappoint as we slurped “pho” on the curb with a flock of locals…well, that is after a rousing round of ordering from a no-nonsense vendor in front of a ever-growing line of hungry people. (More of less, we decided we would just wait and see what we got.) Pho is the staple of Vietnamese dining…breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is a sort of soup with rice noodles and your choice of meat with a fish stock base. Served in a GIANT bowl big enough for both of us, we wound up spending a whopping $1.25 on dinner. Spendy! As we sat on the street on the kiddie-sized stools trying our hardest to model the Vietnamese eating their pho so gracefully with chopsticks (not my most honed skill surprisingly enough) it finally dawned on us…we are in Vietnam!
So, are you ready for the highlights reel?! Since we ended up spending the better part of a week in and around Hanoi we figured that it would be better to hit you with the cream of the crop rather than the full play-by-play.
1. Navigating the streets of the Old Quarter
The Old Quarter is in central Hanoi. It bumps right up along side of Hoan Kiem Lake, a beautiful lake in the middle of the city with small and serene pagodas setting the stage throughout. This part of Hanoi is always hustling and bustling with a frenzy of activity…and the traffic is insane! Motorcycles, taxis, and buses navigating every which way, honking their horns, and dodging the ever-present j-walking pedestrian…ourselves included. The thought process to in regards to traffic rules seems to run along the following guidelines. The big buses figure that they are the biggest and will therefore do as they please becauase who is really going to stop them? The little motorcycles and scooters are along the same vein, thinking that they are so small, what does it matter if they drive down the wrong side of the street? The taxis and other moderately sized vehicles see what everyone else is diong and just join suit. Basically, it’s total chaos. We found that the most effective way to cross the street is to do as the Vietnamese do…just start walking wherever and keep a steady pace. It works like a charm! It’s like the parting of the seas…people just swerve right around you and do not think anything of it!
The best and most unique part of the Old Quarter though is the streets and shops themselves. When the Old Quarter was first established each individual guild chose a street to set up on. Although to a much lesser degree, the streets are still arranged in this fashion. For example, there is a stationary street. There is a stainless steel street. There is a beer street. There is a block of belts at the end of shoe street. The list goes on and on! It was fascinating and so much fun to explore and totally lose ourselves in the maze of color, noise, and people everywhere! If only there had been an ice cream street…although we seemed to find plenty of that on our own.
2. Water Puppet Theater
Judging from everyone’s reviews, top ten lists, and recommendations, the Hanoi Water Puppet Theater was a must. A long time Vietnamese tradition, water puppets originated in the flooded rice fields and were used for entertainment and storytelling. The first night we ventured out to check this highly praised spectacle, we made the mistake of thinking it would be taking place on Hoan Kiem Lake. On the water seemed to be the logical conclusion, right? Silly Americans! Lesson learned, the following night we did find what we were looking for in a small theater next to the lake. Inside of the theater there was a shallow pool filled with water where the stage would typically be. Those tricky Vietnamese! As the lights dimmed and the live music using traditional Vietnamese instruments including everything from drums and bellowing pipes to hollowed out gourds and what we can only describe as a one stringed harp lying in the wrong direction, we knew we were in for a treat. The special effects and costumes were awesome! The puppets, controlled by people behind the curtains with long sticks, were so colorful and life-like! The uninhibited movements truly appeared to be there own. So crazy! This particular show was a story of the different tribes and their traditions which included everything from dancing to rituals. We left feeling both entertained and educated. A good night all in all!
3. Big foot shopping for flip flops
By and large, the Vietnamese are small people. (Pun intended.) We knew this coming into this country. What we failed to put together though was that their feet are equally little. Not something one would typically spend much time thinking about until he or she breaks their sandals and needs a new pair. Cue Ron Rod. We knew that both of our flip flops were getting pretty worn seeing as we had essentially been living in the same pair for four months day in and day out. Ron’s were the first to go. It was a long walk back to the hostel on the night of the flip flop casualty where he had to essentially stick his big toe through the hole where the strap connection should usually be and simultaneously drag his foot in order to keep his shoe on. Despite how hilarious it was to watch, we decided it was time to make an investment in new shoes.
Time to hit up shoe street. We asked vendor after vendor if they had a size 45 in men’s and/or a 41 in women’s. The reaction was typically one of disbelief accompanied by giggling and shaking of the head. “No way stupid! Why would anyone need shoes that big?!” The more and more we looked the more and more reality set in. We are never going to find sandals big enough to fit our monster feet here! Finally, at the last stall on shoe street we stuck gold. A size 44 for Ron and a men’s shoe for me! A tight squeeze and certainly not ideal, but we will take them! Small, ugly, and functional and by this point that is all we needed. Note to self: Next time you are in Vietnam, double check our flip flop durability before entering the land of tiny feet.
4. A lesson in cheap beer and Communism
After a delicious dinner filled with great conversation and helpful advice from Le and Christian, friends of Ron’s parents from their trip to Vietnam last December, we made our way to what Christian refered to as “beer corner.” With Bia Hoi in good supply, we can now say from experience that “beer corner” is aptly named. Bia Hoi is what the local fresh brew is referred to here and it is tasty! Cold, fresh, and shockingly flavorful compared to everything else we had tried up until this point. (However, that can vary greatly depending on the specific brew as some are quite watered down.) We took our seat on the packed curb on the plastic kiddie-sized stools we were becoming quite accustomed to by now and got our first round as the woman running the operation poured our beers straight from the keg for under $0.20 a glass. We thought we were in Heaven!
That is until the police rolled up with their convoy truck and blaring speaker system barking orders. As the troops piled out of the back of the trucks and the locals scattered, all of the tourists not speaking a lick of Vietnamese stood back watching with dropped jaws and confused expressions. The police efficiently canvased the street, confiscating all stools on the street, dumping out street vendors’ food, and pouring out beverages in thermoses. It was clear that the party was meant to be over for the night. However, ironically enough, as soon as the police had cleared the area everyone reemerged with drinks in hand. We are not so sure what the police really intended to accomplish by this surprise shut-down other than they have a crazy number of plastic stools now. But then again, I’m sure that speaking the language would have helped to clear a little bit of this confusion up. Either way, it was a window into a completely different lifestyle and political landscape than we have ever experienced. Life is never boring. (Plus, even with a extremely generous tip to help cover the loss of her stools, we made it out for around $3. Not bad for drinks and entertainment all rolled into one.)
5. Hanoi Hilton Prison
In our quest to find at least a handful of must-do tourist hot spots, we spent one afternoon at the Hanoi Hilton. While this was not the original name for this history-rich prison, it earned the nickname while holding American POWs during the Vietnam War. The bulk of the now museum focuses on the original use as a prison to hold Vietnamese during the French occupation. It was eery to walk the dark hallways and look in at both the torture and restraining devices used against the Vietnamese in their own country. We learned about the brutal treatment the prisoners endured as well as the many, not-so-uncommon breakouts that occurred
It was really interesting to learn more about the history of another country beyond that which includes American involvement. Most fascinating to us though were the displays featuring photos, testimonials, and items from the American POWs imprisoned there, including John McCain’s flight suit he was wearing during his crash. We had been warned ahead of time of the very skewed nature of this museum in reference to the Vietnam War. For example, showing only photos of the American POWs playing basketball and decorating Christmas trees solidified the fact that these displays hinged heavily on propaganda, making it appear as if the prisoners were at a vacation resort. For what it is worth however, I don’t think that this phenomenon is too uncommon in our own museums back home. No matter which way you slice it, this was a worthwhile experience and very neat to see first hand.
6. The Happy Honeymoon Cake
When you stay at the same hostel for nearly a week, you really start to get to know the staff. During our time in Hanoi, The Little Hanoi Hostel was our homebase. We got particularily close to one receptionist named Tony. He was helpful, hilarious and loved to joke around with us, especially when we were trying to practice our rudimentary Vietnamese with him. Our second to last night there, I was working on the computer in our room and Ron went to get some things done on the hostel computers downstairs…or so I thought. In reality, he had asked Tony where a good place to get flowers would be. Tony gave Ron a jumble of directions and then asked why he needed flowers? Ron told him that that day officially marked four months since we had been married. (Cute, right?! But just wait because it gets better.)
In typical Tony fashion, he got very excited. Ron went off to the flower shop and could not have been gone for more than ten minutes tops. When he returned, Tony was there with a cake. Somehow, within that short window of time he had managed to go out and buy a cake for us to celebrate with, but better yet he had it personalized to read “happy honeymoon!” The craziest thing of all however was the fact that above all else everything was spelled correctly! When Ron told me all of this, we were both in total disbelief! This was just too much! There was nothing we could do except to thank Tony and his staff and accept their generosity. The Vietnamese are some of the smiliest, warmest, and most genuine people. We hope to one day pay it forward, but for now we will just sit and enjoy our cake remembering that at the heart of it, people are good! Life…so rich!
7. Buying a motorcycle in Vietnam
In between galavanting around Hanoi and slurping pho, our biggest task was to find ourselves a trusty motorcycle seeing as that was to be our mode of transportation around this already phenomenal country. Like everything else in Vietnam, there was a motorcycle market and faithful Tony was just the man to point us in the right direction. We arrived to a street filled to the gills with everything motorcycle related. There were motorcycles, motorcycle accessories, motorcycle helmets, and motorcycle repair shops. It was nuts! Soon enough we found ourselves in Mr. Minh’s shop talking business. Mr. Minh specializes in selling secondhand bikes to tourists looking to ride around the country so we knew we were inn good hands.
Thanks to the copious amounts of research Ron had done, we knew exactly what we were looking for: a Honda Win. This bike is supposedly big enough for two people to ride comfortably. (Or at least as comfortably as is truly possible.) In a blink of an eye Ron is test driving a handful of Honda Win bikes. Well, let’s be honest. The only thing that is even remotely an authentic product of Honda on these bikes are the stickers. Everything else is a compilation of random bits and pieces coming together to make a functioning bike. But hey, when in Vietnam do as the Vietnamese do, right? After a few test drives around the block, Ron has found “the one.” After a little price haggling, we settle for $275 and Mr. Minh will throw in a luggage rack, bungees made of tire tubing, and two spectacular Mr. Minh Motor t-shirts and before we know it we are the proud owners of 100cc’s of adventure!
The next step to tackle is the paperwork bit. Now, it is not legal for a non-Vietnamese person to own a Vietnamese motorcycle. But judging from the huge number of people just like us who are doing this every year, it is not completely illegal either. Basically, the paperwork we are given to carry around with us has the name of the original Vietnamese owner on it and BAM! We are legitimate. Or at least as legitimate as we really need to be…we hope!
Now the real challenge begins. Somehow or another we had to navigate our way back to the hostel in the daunting Hanoi rush hour traffic. Gulp…Here goes nothing. We had our little, illustrated (and not so helpful) map from the hostel in hand and with a general sense of where we were, and off we go. I mean, it was only 9k back to the hostel. How bad could it be? Well, let us tell you. It could be 2 hours bad. Hanoi has this special way of looking exactly the same and totally unfamiliar all at the same time. It is utterly bizarre. We were so disoriented that we had to stop several times to ask for help, largely relying on sign language to bridge the language barrier. Yet again, the Vietnamese kindness prevailed and we were able to get on the right track! Chasing daylight the whole way, we finally made it back safe and sound just before dark. Great first day on the bike all in all. While we do not know much about Vietnam just yet, we do know that this is going to be a great leg of the trip!
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