Blog // Tales from the trail
With less than a week to go on our visas and still so much of Vietnam to explore, we decided to enjoy our remaining time in one spot, the country's capital, rather than mad-dashing around trying to see a few places badly. We had given ourselves the gift of time, to slow down and take it all in. Slow, however, is not a speed that the Hanoins seem to be aware of; folk are in a mad-dash rush and they want you to know all about it, all of the time, horns blasting from every mode of transport going, often the smaller the vehicle, the louder the noise. The cacophony of horns is constant and filtering it out is nigh on impossible; you just have to try and let it wash over you if you can. I found that I didn't do this so well and often caught myself tutting as my thoughts were rudely interrupted by an aggressive beep as my ear holes suffered another intruding blare. You would think that almost a month of noise training in Vietnam would have helped us through Hanoi's initiation, but alas, it was still very confrontational.
Traffic is another challenge down the small gridded street of the old city. It was certainly very busy in Ho Chi Min City / Saigon, but there, the streets seemed more able to cope, being newer and wider. When wanting to cross a road in Hanoi, there is little point thinking about it, because you will come to the same conclusion every single time - 'now is not the right time' and so, you will be forever standing on the same side of the road in paralysis. The trick is to throw logic out of the window and caution to the window, take a deep breath and simply step out, head high and most importantly maintaining a constant, confident pace across until you reach the other side. You will start to feel a little like Neo in the Matrix, parting traffic as the surge of bikes swarms around you, at one with the vehicles.
As seems to have been par for course for the bigger cities we've visited, we've had some inside information to go on a bit of a foodie's tour. Hanoi was no exception as I had stumbled across a magazine a week earlier highlighting the most authentic places, and in some cases the original place, to samples Vietnam's favourite dishes. We happily sampled our firm favourites - Pho bo and Bahn Cuon - and made good friends with some new ones - Bun Cha being a Hanoian classic; a delicious pork and apple broth filled with rice noodles, herby pork patties, crispy crab and pork spring rolls for dipping and a pile o'fresh herbs for good measure. How could this be anything but delicious?! (Apologies to any veggies reading this.)
On our first attempt at finding 1 Hang Ga, the address of the best known Bun Cha kitchen (In Hanoi, the kitchens generally serve their one speciality dish, so you need to know an select your restaurants in order to fulfil your cravings), we were confronted with two establishments, both with the same address. Curious... We didn't have much time to observe why, before two sets of proprietors were walking across the road to attract us in. I emphasised with the female, whilst Keith was pulled towards the dude, however Mama Bun Cha had the edge and we were soon sat down with bowls of food in front of us before we could say Bun Cha. She had obviously done that before, much to the gent's disappointment. As we pondered why both restaurants had the same address, we saw the sign next door - 'The original Bun Cha restaurant since 1958! The kitchen next door is a FAKE!'...Oops. We felt bad, but I quite admired the tenacity of the ladies nest door who had seen an opportunity and weren't afraid to fake it.
Culinary Note: We ended up going to the Original place as well to see if we could tell the difference and because we felt guilty - both were excellent.
A visit to Ho Chi Min's Mausoleum is apparently worth a visit if you're in Hanoi. Well for 10 months of the year that is. Ho Chi Min died all the way back in 1969, however he remains forever-present, embalmed in his glass sarcophagus which on display within the Mausoleum, apparently quite an eerie sight with his wispy, white hair in the dim-lit room. We unfortunately missed him, as he was on his annual jollies! For 2 months of the year Uncle Ho goes to Russia for a bit of a touch-up and presumably to maintain diplomatic ties as well.
We begrudgingly paid a visit to the Ho Chi Min museum instead, more an excuse to escape the mid-afternoon heat. It turned out to be one of the most bizarre and surreal collections I've ever seen. The exhibits on the ground floor generally make sense, lots of photos and information about how Ho Chi Minh had played the key role in Vietnam's independence from colonialism. Fine, gottit. The mezzanine level is entirely dedicated to a statue of Uncle Ho, OK, fine. Upstairs however, is a completely random assortment of apparent influences on Ho Chin Minh during his revolutionary leadership, including a collection of 1970s Pop Art (he died in 1969), French satire, an installation about human achievement through the theme of the Global Space Race (David Bowie's "Ground Control to Major Tom" playing in the background obviously) and a cave feature made to look like Ho Chin Min's brain. Not to leave out a group of 5 street urchins running around causing havoc with the security running after trying to get them out. All in all, rather odd.
Note, an attempt at an explanation: Entire exhibits, documents, pictures are on display at the Museum is a skilful combination between handicraft and modernization, the harmonious linkage of life and revolutionary career of President Ho Chi Minh with the nation and era, in which the great dedications of the Personality were presented in the focusing and emphasized manner. The biographical part as a unified form, including: a profile belt and a combination of imagery space. The profile belt displays materials and exhibition reflecting the life and revolutionary career of President Ho Chi Minh
Unfortunately we missed out on watching a classic Vietnamese water puppet show; we had hoped to catch one at the Ethnology Museum but it was the only exhibit that wasn't open, and also looking much like it hadn't been in use for a while. The art of puppetry is taken very seriously and has been an established art since the 11th century, puppeteers using a complex systems of wires and rods concealed beneath the watery stage to act out a number of classic tales. Puppetry secrets are kept amongst the individual troupes and are passed down from generation to generation; if a secret is given away, the penalty for the troupe member is high, resulting in expulsion from the troupe and a high fine (such as the donation of a pig).
The museum was a bit of an unexpected highlight, full of information and interesting exhibits showing off the tribal and cultural diversity that makes up the 80 million-strong population. Housing structures vary greatly between tribes (from impressive individual huts to long communal homes) as do the social structures, colours and designs of clothes, rituals and customs. However, the common denominator between them is a community of people who know their traditional skills and handicrafts and are still very much in touch with nature. Wearing clothes doesn't start with a trip to the local shopping mall but by growing some cotton and buying a house doesn't start with a trip to the estate agents but with cutting some bamboo. Sometimes it's nice to be jolted into someone else's reality and understanding that objects should be fit for purpose, have what you need and don't live in excess.
Hanoi's old town is also worth exploring and we found for the majority of our time there, typically en route to finding our next eatery or ice-coffee (always served with a cup of refreshing ice tea on the side - Cha Daa). It is full of energy and vibrancy and a wonderful peep-hole into what goes on in Hanoians' every day lives. Recreation was also popular and there are lots of parks and green spaces that are generally busy with people playing badminton or the younger ones playing keepie-ups with a shuttle-cock looking device. Although as already discussed, it is a bit mental too and I'm not sure I would ever get used to the noise or the traffic, but the energy is a little addictive and the food alone is worth a visit.
Pavements are busy with random assortments of goods being sold or with plastic stools outside restaurants or bars. Our night down 'fresh beer street' was certainly an experience. Small, coulourful, plastic stools gradually filled up the pavements outside the bars selling Hanoi's fresh lager (Bia Hoi, apparently started by a Czech who knew about brewing beer). We were enjoying our pint crouched down almost on the ground whilst all sorts of snack sellers passed by with an array of salty snacks - delicious... Then, all of a sudden, the police turned up in their wagon, all sirens blazing. Having been alerted to their presence, the bar staff frantically started picking up the bar stools (with clients more or less still on them) that had edged off the pavements and onto the road, hastily stacking them back onto the pavement.
This presumably is a regular clean-up operation, fast and efficient, and for customers sat down near the road, one could suddenly find themselves stood up alone holding a beer and wondering what had just happened. These 'clean sweeps' happened throughout the course of the night; as soon as the police had passed through and the road had been cleared, more customers would reappear and the stools would come back out, littering the pavements and soon enough, the road again. If the bar staff are not quick enough when the 'busies' come back through, they can lose their plastic stools to the police wagon, as a fine for repeat violation of the rules of the game. The process was quite entertaining to watch, especially as we were some of those sat right outside the bar and far enough from the road, never in danger of having our seats taken away!
After a month in Vietnam, my first trip to a communist country, I am wholeheartedly no clearer on what communism is or how it works, although there are still plenty of propaganda poster shops around to serve as a reminder of the aims. In the city centres at least, local business appears to dominate over any chains - presumably these are not government owned? Vocations may be different in terms of government-influence - we did hear stories of people wanting to be on the police force, to the point of paying bribes, because it is a job that comes with some power.
There are the very wealthy and then there are the very poor, but unlike Cambodia, there is a social system. There is definitely the feeling of a strong work ethic amongst people; stuff gets done and efficiently or at least without fuss. Communism / capitalism? Who knows, not me. I guess one big lesson of travelling is that nothing is black and white. What I do know is that we have had a really good time in Vietnam, a nut that was a little harder to crack than Cambodia, but having a little language and local insight from the start was really useful.
Just to reinforce our culinary education and memories of Vietnam, our last meal before heading to the airport for Laos, was breakfast, and consisted of a steaming bowl of the Vietnamese national dish - Pho Bo, beef noodle soup - and by jove was it yum! We're practically local!
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