In London a friend told me that Hanoi is incredibly noisy. It would be best, she said, to stay out in West Lake, where it's quiet at night and you can sleep. I was almost ready to follow that advice, but after thinking about it on the plane, I realized that as a New Yorker, I've always lived where the action is. There are three things, they say, about choosing a place to stay (hint: "location" is one of them). I've also slept through some pretty amazing things just ask the people at work.
So when we got to Hanoi, we looked for a hotel near the lake. Hoàn Kiếm Lake is in the center of Hanoi, and you won't miss much if you stay around there. The place we finally found wasn't the Ritz, but it wasn't that bad and the people were extremely nice. In the five days that we stayed there we ended up becoming part of the family. The noise wasn't a bother at all, and anyway, who wants to sleep when there are things to do?
The neighborhood around the hotel was absolutely great. It was the old part of Hanoi, with businesses on top of each other in no particular order. Our block had paint and hardware stores, dress shops, motorcyle repair shops, a few tourist stores and food places. Whatever you couldn't buy in the stores you could certainly get in the street, from postcards and lottery tickets to pink gasoline in plastic bleach bottles. So easy was it to find things, in fact, that our hotel didn't bother to make phở for breakfast. You placed your order, and someone went out to look for it. The street started up at about 6AM, and finished somewhere after midnight. We couldn't have chosen any better, and it was a great place to get used to Hanoi.
Hanoi takes a bit of getting used to, but only if you think about it too much. Actually, if you've lived in any big city like New York or London, you already know what it's like to deal with crowds. Hanoi is just a bit smaller and much more concentrated. Businesses all spill out on to the pavement, and in the space where the indoor businesses haven't spilled out, there are outdoor businesses, or people eating their lunch or playing cards, so you have to walk in the gutter. As you walk in the gutter, there are people behind you and in front of you, and of course, there are people all over who want your attention. Someone is selling postcards, and follows you three blocks because you might get tired of saying no. At the same time you might be hounded by a cyclo driver. It's easy for cyclo drivers to hound you, because a cyclo is a bicycle with a cab in front. They pedal at a leisurely pace next to you in order to make sure you don't enjoy walking, while you keep trying to ignore them, refusing politely from time to time.
Of course, there are differences. Hanoi traffic, for instance, is a world, a galaxy, a dimension unto itself. You have cyclos, bicycles, motorcycles and cars sharing the road together, not to mention the people walking along the side. Each goes at their own speed and follows their own rules. The traffic lights, such as they are, are merely a suggestion value. In the West, crossing the street is unremarkable. In Hanoi, it's more like brain surgery it's a delicate skill that requires your full attention.
If you wait for everyone to stop, you'll live a very sheltered life on one side of the street. What you do is to venture out, very slowly. The point is not to beat the traffic, because the motorcycles, at least, are going way too fast for that. What you want do is to move slowly and predictably, so that everyone can see you, and hopefully, plot a course around you. If a car (or bigger) comes down the street, it's time to sound the retreat and go back to the curb, because all bets are off.
I preferred, and still do, either to walk or to be in a car. Everything else gets you where you're going, I'm sure, but there's a certain element of excitement to other forms of transportation. In a cyclo, the driver will make a U-turn at 8 kph while the motorcycles around him are going at 50 kph. Since you're in the cab in front of the driver, he's fairly sanguine about his own chances. The Hanoi company that rents these cyclos to the driver has its glittering logo on the pink, vinyl seat Sans Souci but somehow that doesn't boost my confidence.
The motorcycles, on the other hand, ride around like Valkyries, with two, three and even four people clinging to the driver. No one wears helmets, and everyone seems to be in the middle of a conversation. I managed a few short trips with one arm around the driver and the other hand in a vice grip behind the seat. I did start to relax, but only not to make things worse. (There was no great realization that I shouldn't worry). Since just about everything is a near-miss, it does tend to focus your mind on the here-and-now.
The one thing that did bother me a bit was that during the first few days people tended to come up to us. They made the most unusual offers, and I was surprised because that sort of thing never happens at home. In fact, at one point we were surrounded by a bunch of young guys opposite the lake. Luckily, this is where Hanoi is not like New York a moment like that in New York and your number is up. They were trying to sell us things or get what they could get, but innocently, if that's possible to say. We said "No, thanks" enough times and they went away.
At that moment I realized that you have to behave as if you're in New York, and we had no problems after that. You need to look as if you have somewhere to go and something to do. People on holiday always want to relax, and at the same time, they always choose to visit big cities. You have to make up your mind one way or the other.
The other thing about Hanoi that's different is where the street stops and the living room starts. If anyone in Hanoi knew the difference, I'd be surprised. People live in the street, and they do anything there but kiss. Families have picnic dinners on the street, and people sleep there when the weather is hot. Many families live in the store fronts and leave the doors wide open, so you can see their kitchens or observe people on the sofa watching TV in their shorts. In the West, people would be worried about their privacy and would think about crime. Here, the families are large and there are swarms of people, so privacy never occurred to anyone. As far as crime goes, the government has made it very clear that it's not worth it to rob houses, and the lack of luxury goods backs that up. In a place like Hanoi, you'll get much more out of walking around and seeing how people live than from going to historic monuments.
This is not to say that we're total philistines. Back at the hotel we booked a number of tours around the Hanoi area. There was the city tour, the Perfume Pagoda, and a trip to Hạ Long Bay. We had a tour guide, Mạnh, the kid who worked at the front desk, and a driver who kind of reminded me of Chuck Norris. It turned out that the driver had been a regular in the North Vietnamese army during the war and still had that style. He wore fatigues, a cap and aviator sunglasses, and probably thought that Duyên and I had it way too easy. No one ever told us his name, so throughout the tour we referred to him as "Chuck Norris".
On the day of the city tour we saw the Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum, the Hồ Chí Minh Museum, the Temple of Literature and the Ethnography Museum. Hồ himself, of course, wasn't in to receive me. At the museum I was impressed with Hồ's writings, since he was obviously very bright, but had a real humility about him. The writings talked a lot about seeing your own shortcomings and changing direction as you learn from your mistakes. It's something of a contrast to the way things turned out after his death. I liked the Temple of Literature, and I loved the Ethnography Museum. Vietnam is not one homogeneous country. There are 53 ethnic minorities, most of whom live in tribes. The museum was well-presented, and even had tribal houses outside.
Lunch was also entertaining. We were taken to one of those restaurants that has a deal with the tour guides. It wasn't a bad lunch. We had beef cubes with salad, fried squid, omelette, watercress with garlic, and to my surprise, crinkle-cut french fries that the driver and the tour guide ate with great gusto. They liked the french fries so much that we ordered more. I realized that this was an exotic treat. If I could eat Vietnamese food at home in London, why couldn't people in Vietnam order chips? Fair is fair.
There was one annoying part of this tour, and boy, was it annoying. After lunch the driver offered to show us life in a village. This sounded good. What we didn't know was that the village in question was Lệ Mật, which specializes in snakes, and other funky food like goose blood and dog meat. We pulled up to a place where they showed us some snakes in a fenced-in area. I thought that this was a part of the tour, but they bagged a snake, showed us upstairs and sat us down. The owner came over to chat with us. He proudly held up a half-an-index-finger; the other half was missing from poisonous snake bites. How attractive. Minutes later, out came a bottle of snake blood liqueur, and my incredible luck, as the guest of honor I got the beating heart in my glass.
I've had snake before, but to be honest, I didn't find it that interesting. This, on the other hand, was a little too interesting. Snake is one of those macho things for guys who have a bit of insecurity, if you know what I mean, but I took it in stride and nursed my drink after all, we'd be on our way in a minute anyway to see the village life we had talked about. Or maybe not.
Out came the first of what turned out to be ten courses of snake. I admire their ingenuity with a skinny little snake, but we had just eaten, and besides that, the food didn't taste very good. Food never tastes good when you're trying to prove a point. Mock duck doesn't taste like duck, so why mock the poor duck in the first place? If these people really wanted to prove a point they would have learned how to cook, and snake would be one of many items on the menu. The snake nems tasted a full 40% as good as the ones with pork how marvellous. The snake egg drop soup was egg drop soup, and the sticky rice gained very little from the addition of snake fat.
With each course I thought we were finished and then another one came out, and with each new course I muttered, "Oh, brother." Finally, they ran out of ideas and (more to the point) they ran out of snake, so at long last we got to leave. This wasn't a part of the tour, so we had to pay the bill, which was expensive. On the way out they offered to sell us a cobra embalmed in a bottle of wine, but we told them hand on heart that we'd buy it the next time we came back.
Duyên and I were livid. The only thing we could figure is that the driver wanted a bit of mischief, to show up these two clowns from London, especially that goony-looking Westerner. Or perhaps this was a special treat for him that he'd get us to pay for. Or perhaps he was being nice and sharing something special. Who knows. Our driver, Chuck Norris, wasn't a man of any words. The food was bad, it was expensive, and we felt mauled. It was late in the afternoon. We went back to the hotel, stuffed and ornery.
After a nap, we took a walk around Hanoi to get some night life. It's a great place. We walked around the lake, we went to the post office, and then we stumbled on something very, very nice. After a trip to New York I had given Duyên some Chinese dried beef, so he knew I liked it. Here was a restaurant that made dried beef salad. Actually, there were two. One was empty, and one was packed. You know which one we chose.
Dried beef salad is a famous Hanoi dish. The flat, dried beef is snipped into small pieces with a shears and thrown on a salad of carrot, shredded green papaya, onion, vinegar and sugar, and fish sauce, of course, since nothing in Vietnam can be made without fish sauce. In case anyone is wondering what type of diet this salad conforms to, the Vietnamese word for salad is gỏi. It was stunning, and more than made up for Lunch Number Two.
One other thing I need to mention. This was a streetside restaurant. Outside the restaurant were little, plastic children's tables, and little plastic children's chairs for the customers to sit in. What I learned in Vietnam was that the lower the chairs, the better the food. It's probably very comical to see a tall Westerner in a plastic child chair with his knees up to his chin and no place to put the rest of his legs, but so be it. And as I found throughout the trip, these chairs get easier to manage all the time. It was a great meal, and the hobble home was joyous.
We stayed up and talked to the guys at the hotel until very late.
Mạnh with Chuck Norris at the snake restaurant. The Marlborough poster says, "Come to where the flavor is." Not here.