Category Archives: Vietnam

Cat Ba Island

We chose to leave Ninh Binh, sun low and air thick with morning humidity. Everyone on the bus was asleep, or at least pretending. The driver’s assistant, black hair orange from bleach, switched on his mono-rhythmic Vietnamese pop music. I grabbed my iPod. We made it to Hanoi in two hours–our last night before 2 days in Ha Long Bay and a flight to Japan.

Hanoi transformed; it was familiar and comfortable. Our old hotel and a morning bowl of red fruit crawling with ants. Unlimited choco pies. The snaggle-toothed pug next door and her sidewalk puppies. The crooked streets around Hoan Kiem Lake untangled. We knew how to walk into traffic and survive.

More transportation. At 8 the next morning a minibus arrived to take us to Ha Long Bay. We spent hours threading traffic, my head on James’ shoulder, his eyes fixed on the road. And then the bus stopped. We scrambled out to the docs–the city of Hanoi was floating on water; motorbikes were replaced with small ships.

In sunshine and heat we waited for the boat. A boat that looked too tall and thin to float. Like the slightest breath of air would tilt it into the opaque green water. A boat of intimidating age. The dark wood stain, applied in thick layers over several years, rolled from the siding in lines, like neglected drops of glue left to harden on a repaired chair leg. Everything from the floorboards to the pull-string wall fans creaked and murmured. Welcome to the Christina.

Unguided we jumped on, throwing our bags in a pile on the deck. The dining room was set with white table clothes and wooden benches. Everything inside was covered in the same glossy wood stain. We sat down with three French travelers. Of the three, I only remember the name of one. Eva had the best English and was outspoken. She dressed in rugged natural colors, big silver jewelry clashing with her tanned skin. She was most concerned with matters of culture and authenticity. To her left, the second companion with flyaway blond hair and the wide-eyed short face of Emily Watson sat next to the lone male, who was tall and goofy and never changed from his red Hawaiian shorts printed with white aloha flowers. I’m not sure if he owned a shirt.

From the galley, in some hidden portion of the boat, lunch was served family style on stainless-steel platters. Fried squid parts and rice yellow from spices. Silken tofu and scallions. An entire fish so tender and juicy that our chopsticks were all we needed to peel flesh from bone. Grease and strong flavors and a cold beer.

Eva was shocked. Not by the squid or the whole fish staring up at her, but by the style of dining. Is this authentic? Is this really how they eat here? We are all supposed to take from the same plates? I began to assume the general absence of Chinese restaurants in Paris.

The boat was warm on deck and we each had more beer to stay cool. The Parisians stripped down to swimsuits and piled on sunscreen, while James and I regretted leaving our suits packed away in our luggage. Hundreds of limestone islands passed by and each formation of any acclaim was highlighted by the tour guide. “See that one? It is kissing rooster!”

Our Parisians counterparts lit up three cigarettes, lighter exchanged one by one for a cupped hand to shelter fire from wind. Their attention–or curiosity–turned to us. “What are you doing for the 4th of July?” It was August; I was confused. “What do you mean?” “Do you hang American flags all over? I think that is so cute. In France we would never do that. Not–how do you say–patriotic.” Realizing that Eva had confused present tense and past tense (but who cares, her English was better than my French), we continued to stumble through conversation about the celebration of French and American revolutions.

We passed floating villages and crossed streams of boat traffic. We snapped photos and drank more beer. And we drifted towards land, a dock in the distance. This was not our final destination, merely a stop along the way. A giant cave discovered by the French and lit up in reds, oranges, greens, and blues by the Vietnamese. Tourists were ushered through in a single file line, impressed by the wide open space and over-the-top lighting. James and I politely excused ourselves and worked our way through the cave. Organized tourism was keeping us from our final destination–Cat Ba Island. Waiting to get back on the boat, we watched food vendors throw 5 gallon buckets of waste into the water. Fish guts, juiced sugar cane, dirty water, fruit peels, motor oil. An UNESCO World Heritage Site well cared for.

Cat Ba Island

As soon as we docked on Cat Ba Island, a swarm of women selling food and drink surrounded us. Like the seagulls in Finding Nemo they sent up a chorus of “You buy, you buy, you buy, you buy.” Piercing, unrelenting–for 30 minutes while we waited for the bus to take us to town. A stocky man from Israel was irritated. No, he did not want to buy water from them… he already had a bottle of water, see? But, would they like to purchase his bottle of water? The women giggled, decided to give up, and sat down between us and the Israeli. They kept us company, even though we were only able to communicate through gestures and more giggles. Their oblivious husbands sat in a small house at the other end of the bus turnaround watching cartoons, drinking sodas, hardly working.

Waiting and waiting and finally another bus. Cat Ba Town was on the other side of the tropical island. Large banana leaves, exotic flowers, a symphony of bird calls–it could have been a deserted island, a Lost island, if not for tucked in lean-tos and the signs of new construction for high-end resorts.

Cat Ba Town was also deceptive. Pink and yellow and teal mid-rise buildings clashed against the moss-covered limestone cliff before us. Tourists–mostly Vietnamese–moved about with sand in their toes and sun on their backs. That thing about island time penetrated daily life. Slow and relaxed. The crescent bay cradled more single platform houseboats and floating restaurants, their phone numbers advertised in giant neon letters.  But when pressed further, the town revealed a lonely character. The buildings were all hotels. The tourists were temporary, the population was fleeing. A place to sleep while we dreamed about visiting the beaches and hiking in Cat Ba National Park.

Cat Ba National Park

We were the first visitors to the park that morning. It was silent and overcast and raining. Or was it just so humid that it felt like rain? Before the real hike began, the path was paved and flat. The overgrown field was full of strange butterflies. Our guide–a woman in her forties wearing flip flops–hurried us along, pushing toward the canopy of trees ahead. The path turned to mud and humidity soaked rocks. Large drops landed on our heads from the trees above. Mosquitoes buzzed in our ears and left pink welts on our skin. They were particularly fond of the blond French girl. Almost in tears, her legs lumpy from bites, she was helped back to the village by our guide. We were abandoned.

The path forked. A sign with a simple map gave us two options–the “easy way” or the “adventure way.” Choosing adventure, we turned into rock climbers. We lost the trail several times. We saw land crabs but no Cat Ba Langur. We ignored the mud covering our arms and legs. We made it to the top. Our Dutch companion suffered vertigo and lay horizontal on a rock to ease his spinning head. We snapped pictures, now high above the canopy, and listened to the park wake up. Birds and bugs and fellow hikers, way down there, imitating the howl of the langur.

We spent our last day drinking beer on the beach. At night we packed our bags for Japan and prepared for the bus ride back to Hanoi.


Ninh Binh

“That’s the bus station,” he said.  We paid the cabbie, and pulled our luggage from the trunk of the tiny green car.  He drove away, leaving us standing on a busy main street.  We looked around.  “Wait, where’s the station?” I asked.  “I’m not quite sure, is that it?” said James pointing to a parking lot behind us.  Just as we were about to turn around, a thin man across the street gestured towards us and yelled, “Ninh Binh!  Ninh Binh!”  Why yes, we are going to Ninh Binh.  How does he know?  Why is he yelling at us?

He ran across the street, giving us a curious look up and down.  “Ninh Binh?” he said again.  I nodded my head, and James and I made a silent agreement to take a chance and trust this man.  He grabbed one of our bags and pushed us across 4 or 5 lanes of traffic toward a minibus waiting on the other side.  Our bags were shoved under a row of seats in the back, and we entered the bus.  The windows were curtained to block the rising sun.  A TV above the driver was playing music videos and overhead speakers were blaring a dull drum beat topped by a passionate singer.  Each song sounded exactly the same.

We sat on the bus for 30 minutes before it began to move.  The driver backed up a few feet and stopped.  He moved forward and stopped again.  He turned around and pulled into the parking lot across the street and stopped.  He backed up, he pulled forward, he stopped.  1 hour later we were still in the parking lot.  The bus was only half full, and they didn’t want to leave until every seat was paid for.  Finally, they pulled out of the station and headed south for Ninh Binh.

Van Long Resort and Nature Reserve

Was I dreaming?  Had I been placed in a horror movie full of kitschy nostalgia, a quiet tribute to rundown theme parks?  Plaster statues of lions, tigers, bears, giraffes, and monkeys lined the once elaborate brick driveway, their sun-worn paint chipped away revealing gray innards.  I felt like I was looking at an old color photograph–everything was muted.  The restaurant was empty except for a few Korean tourists on their way out.  The food was set out on long buffet tables.  Sticky white bread covered in flies.  Dry buffet noodles unstuck with watered down soup broth.  Burned spring rolls with hard fried eggs.  Crunchy undercooked rice.  Sickness still fresh in our memories, we took a few cautious bites and did not go back for seconds.

What else could we do?  15 miles away from town, no car, no buses, no cabs.  No motorbikes.  The only time I would have considered hopping onto the back of a bike and clinging to a complete stranger.  Where were they? The power flickered on and off.  It stayed off.  Escaping the heat of our room, we left the compound style resort and walked a minute or two down the road to the Van Long Nature Reserve, a stretch of wetlands surrounding limestone cliffs.

Bamboo boats manned by women sat waiting at the entrance.  The size of a large dinner table, their woven bottoms were protected from leaks by a layer of mud.  Each woman had two canoe paddles and a long bamboo pole.  James and I sat on the perch-like seat with an umbrella to block the sun.  James was in full birdwatching mode.

The boat moved through the water lilies and swamp grass.  We saw blue kingfishers with red bellies, small brown birds with legs longer than their bodies, a bird that looked like a crow with red wings, and a flock of something white in the distance.

The boat turned a sharp corner and a cave appeared before us, etched into the face of a limestone cliff. The woman rowed closer. I hoped that we were just going for a quick look around, but she moved us into the cave. What a nice cave. I like the stalactites… they’re pointy. Can we turn around now? The ceiling lowered and she continued to row. It was almost completely dark. We could sense the ceiling and stalactites descending closer to the water and the tops of our heads. The woman put down her paddles and grabbed the cave roof with her hands, pulling us along. James and I slid off of our seat and sqautted, heads tucked, into the hull of the boat. Just when we thought our flat backs were going to be crushed by the weight of the cave, a stream of light showed the room expanding. We sat up again. The woman reached for her bamboo pole and pushed us through a tangle of grassy reads as we exited. She rowed in a circle around a small island buzzing with locusts, bringing us back through the cave one more time.

We spent the rest of the night in our room with the power flickering on and off. We couldn’t go anywhere. There were no other people around. A heavy rain began, followed by thunder and lightning. We stuffed towels under the door to keep the water from leaking in. A lizard had managed to sneak through a crack in the window and was eyeing our suitcases. I had wanted to escape from the intensity of Hanoi and the constant sales pitches of Sapa, but this solitude was too much. With no options, I felt trapped. We checked out the next morning, paying a guy to drive us to the bus station. One more night in Hanoi–just one more.


Night Train

The train station was chaos.  We had been dropped off in the middle of a block party–travelers waiting for the night train to Lao Cai.  The main lot of the station was cornered by two yellowing concrete buildings with rows of wooden benches.  Most people were outside seated at makeshift restaurants drinking, eating, and waiting.  Sticking to the outskirts in large groups, young European and Australian backpackers on organized hotel tours observed the scene.

James and I were on our own.  He was still sick and struggling to stay present.  I was loaded up with a suitcase and two backpacks.  We tried to figure out what was going on, how to redeem our tickets, where could we sit, was the train here yet?  We were exhausted and finally settled for two empty spots on the crumbling cement steps.  No matter where we waited, we were in the way.

A voice from the loud speakers.  Mass movement.  We followed a herd of people through one of the long buildings into the rail yard.  No platforms, no signs, just a tangle of rusted tracks and several stationary trains.  Which one was ours?  The crowd had split up, and there was no clear destination.  As if we were back in NY at Penn station, a man glanced at our tickets, grabbed my suitcase, and ushered us onto the correct train.  In this case, I was happy to give him the equivalent of $5.

Our cabin was a small room with two sets of bunk beds.  Our cabin mates were two engineers from China on their way back from a business trip.  They were quiet and polite, and despite the hard mattresses and startched sheets, we both fell asleep as the train pulled out of the station.

City on a hill

Just south of China, at the base of Mt. Fansipan, Sapa clung to the side of a steep foothill.  The surrounding mountains reminded me of the spiked peaks I had seen in photos of Matchu Pitchu.  They went from green to blue and were veiled by a constant layer of low hanging clouds.  After the heat and stagnant humidity of Hanoi, the mountain air cooled my lungs and caused small goosebumps to raise the hair on my arms at night.

The hotel had a panoramic view.  Mountains, farms, terraced rice paddies, and the French architecture of Sapa.  We spent mornings in the rooftop hotel eating thin pancakes with chocolate and bananas or local honey and lime.  We swallowed our malaria pills with hot Vietnamese green tea, enjoying the view and avoiding large black mosquitoes.  After an early morning rain, a faint rainbow extended from the village, ending mid-arch in the clouds.  At night we fell asleep under a canopy of mosquito netting that we had fortified with an extra layer.

The streets were lined with the Black H’mong and Red Dzao people selling brightly colored bracelets, bags, earrings, hats, and tours of their villages.  The Black H’mong wore deep blue clothing made of hemp and dyed with the indigo plant that grew in the area like a weed.  Sleeves were embroidered with the same neon thread used for bags and bracelets.  The Red Dzao women shaved back their hairline and wore elaborate red head pieces.

On our first walk around Sapa, we were overwhelmed by the persistence of the Black H’mong and the Red Dzao to sell us things.  Especially the very old and the very young.  One wrinkly old woman with skin like leather tried to tie a bracelet to my hanging wrist.  Children surrounded larger groups of tourists holding out embroidered ornaments and more bracelets.  Politely saying “no” was not enough to break free.

At one point, we accidentally made eye contact with two teenage girls.  “Hel-lo!  Where you from?”  We tried to ignore her.  “Where you from?”  I just couldn’t.  “We’re from New York City,” I said.  “Ah, how long you here?  You come in this morning?”  Her English was much better than my Vietnamese, or any other language that I have partial knowledge of for that matter.  I told her that we had arrived in the morning, we were going on a hike the next day, and leaving the following night.  “You come to my village?  I take you to my village?”  We declined.  “I meet you tomorrow morning.  Where you meet me?”  We declined.  “I have two baby.  You married?  You have baby?”  Again, we declined and started to walk away.  They followed, and followed, and followed.  This was the first of many times that we were stuck in a similar situation.  We learned to keep our eyes to the ground and answer firmly “No, I am not going to buy anything from you today.”

Cat Cat Village

We were not looking to collect culture.  I really just wanted to see a waterfall on the other side of the village.  But at the bottom of a steep hill about a mile outside of town, we found ourselves in the middle of an ethnic Disney Land.  We were required to pay a small fee to enter Cat Cat village, which I should have known was a bad sign.

The dirt road leading to the village was cracked with deep trenches from periods of heavy rain.  Butterflies landed on the bright flowers around us, and dragonflies controlled the mosquito population above us.  Turning the corner, we passed a six year old boy in charge of three waterbuffalo.  He was perched on the back of the largest buffalo urging it on with sharp whacks from a thin stick.  The large buffalo was followed by it’s baby and an awkward looking sunburned buffalo with white hair, lacking the normal dark protective skin.  Thinking of my beef cows in Vermont, I reached out to pat the baby, but the boy jumped down and moved it away from my outstretched hand.  I was embarrassed and in the way.

The village itself had a clear entrance set up for tourists; a set of stairs with hand painted signs in English and French.  One read, “Please do not give money for children.”  Two long huts with just a roof were set up demonstrating traditional crafts such as embroidered pictures and woodworking.  We traveled further into the village, feeling more and more uncomfortable.  Naked babies and dirt stained children.  Puppies, chickens, pigs, ducks.  Late afternoon naps and small snacks.  From the safety of the path, I watched the lives of the Black H’mong.  This was where they lived, worked, played, and it was all on display.  Their private lives on display.

And how can I criticize tourism?  We were there–we were a part of it.  I had wanted to pet the buffalo and take pictures of the children.  Tourism has given the Black H’mong and Red Dzao extra income, but they have to sell their culture, their dignity, and their privacy.  Through tourism they had learned basic English and French, but most of them never had the opportunity to finish elementary school.  Nearing the end of our walk, James and I were followed for ten minutes by a five year old girl with her baby brother strapped to her back.  She was selling bracelets and continued chanting “You buy, you buy, you buy” no matter how many times I refused.

“Probably” the best hike ever

The word used was trekking, not hiking.  I imagined an expedition or pilgrimage extended over several weeks.  My widgets dictionary described a similar idea: a long journey on foot; a nomadic life.  And then, scrolling down, one small bullet point simply defined trek as “a tourist hike.”

That morning was damp and overcast.  It wasn’t really raining, but the threat was there.  It was always there.  We stepped into one of the many French cafes and ordered two cheese baguettes to go.  We found what can only be described as a convenience store, despite the cluttered mess, and bought bottles of water and a bag of sweet potato chips for the amazing English translation on the back.

Trekking around Sapa would have been impossible on our own, so we decided to hire a guide, choosing Topas Travel for their apathetic slogan: “Probably the best view in the world.”

The 7 hour, 14 kilometer hike was just what we needed.  For the first time, we were away from people.  No one asked us to buy anything.  There were no motor bikes or bus horns.  No tourists.

The rain had stopped, but it left behind a muddy trail that was especially dangerous on the downhill portions.  We walked along the edge of rice paddies with views of a river that looked like coffee.  Our guide taught us about the growing season for rice, and the control of irrigation systems.  He told us about snake wine, gracefully insinuating that he had never tried it because of its reputation for decreasing sperm count.  “Snake wine is for old men,” he said.

We climbed uphill and downhill, not without falling in the mud.  The trail narrowed and eventually disappeared.  The sun brightened as we descended toward the river.  The heat became unbearable, so we jumped to a large rock on the edge of the river for a lunch break.  I pulled out my cheese baguette and within 5 minutes, it was gone.  Large ants carried away any discarded crumbs.

For the next half hour, we hiked straight uphill.  James was lagging behind, and like a 5 year old kid in the back seat of a car, he continued to ask, “are we there yet?”  His face was red, and he was on our last bottle of water.  At the top of the foothill, we found a small village and fell onto the porch of the school house.  Even our guide was tired.  James could barely move–maybe this was a mild case of heat exhaustion?

The rest of our hike was downhill.  We passed several amazing houses built on stilts and took another short water break in a cafe hanging over the swollen river.  There were more signs of civilization here.  Motorbikes pushed us out of the way as we crossed a narrow suspension bridge.

Finally our guide brought us to the home of his friend to wait for our ride back to Sapa.  The house was a large open area with a roof supported by stilts and a concrete floor.  We sat at a round table sipping strong green tea, listening to conversation in Vietnamese.  An energetic puppy was begging for attention.  I asked his name.  “He doesn’t have a name.  Sometimes we call him Meat.”

Hanoi Food

It happened in sixth grade.  I looked down at my partitioned plate of food, and without righteousness or visions of activism, I stopped eating meat.  When asked to justify my decision by boys waving sliced lunch meat in my face at the school cafeteria, I answered without bother, “I just don’t like the taste.”  James has been a vegetarian his entire life, and no doubt had to endure the same scene.  But in Vietnam, we had agreed to try everything.

We usually ate breakfast at the hotel, finding comfort in the familiarity of yogurt and cereal, fried eggs and fruit.  James and I would use this time to plan our day.  We would make fun of the terrible movies on the tv.  Obscure movies like City of Ember starring Bill Murray and Tim Robbins.  Dated movies like Teen Wolf and Con Air.  We would spend a few minutes checking various email accounts while sipping on a cup of tea.  In a city where we were so out of place, this was our morning ritual.

While we were chatting and typing, the Vietnamese were taking their breakfast seriously.  One day, we decided to join them.  Early in the morning at Pho Bo Gia Truyen, a crowd of people extended from the glass encased serving station flanked by steaming bucket-sized pots and became entangled with a narrow row of motorbikes.  The line gave us time to understand the ordering process.  From my point of view, there were two options: raw meat or sliced beef tendon.  We simply pointed, indicated two servings by extending our peace fingers, and received floral print bowls full of pho.  Hot broth spilled onto my thumb as I settled onto an unstable plastic stool at a short wooden table.  It only took seconds for a red blister to appear.

The broth was murky, cooked for hours with marrow-rich beef bones.  Rice noodles supported a layer of chewy beef tendon, my first meat in years.  Green onions and herbs added a crunchy texture and freshness.  Condiments included fish sauce, chillies and garlic, and a red paste.  After four bites, I was full.

Surrounded by the never ending buzz of Hanoi, we found ourselves sitting among a group of people giving full attention to their meal.  Through the steady slurping of noodles, all was quiet.  No mindless banter, no reading of newspapers, no text messaging or email checking.  All paused long enough to enjoy the comfort of breakfast.

Our experience with bun cha was similar.  Plastic stools, low tables, slurping noodles.  The bun cha broth was clear and sweet.  Pieces of caramelized pork grilled over an open flame left specks of charcoal in our bowls.  The meal came out in three pieces.  A bowl of broth and pork, a huge plate of bean shoots and herbs, and a pile of rice noodles.  Assembly required.  With increasing chopstick skills, I lifted the noodles into my bowl and topped it off with greens.  Any remaining broth got soaked up by crispy deep fried spring rolls.

The food in Hanoi was fresh.  Maybe not free range, but definitely local.  Chickens were picked from cages and butchered and feathered on the street.  On my way to the train station, I walked by a live duck with it’s body wrapped in a dirty plastic bag.  To my human eyes, the duck appeared tranquil, resigned to the inevitability of dinner.  On my way back, it’s throat had been slit, and a dark stream of blood stained her white neck before leaking into a blue bucket.

We drank mostly Vietnamese drip coffee and beer.  Brewed with hot water dripping slowly through pin-sized holes, the coffee was served black with a side of sweet condensed milk.  On days when it was so hot that we had to change our clothes more than twice, we drank it iced. The beer was not so good.  Brewed daily and with a very short fermenting time, bia hoi was cheaper than water and not much more flavorful.

More important than the flavor of the beer was the bia hoi culture.  Bia hoi joints were on every corner and midway through every block.  During the day, men came to these places for quiet relaxation with a cigarette.  At night larger groups came together to drink and toast while snacking on fried chicken feet and salted peanuts.  This was a male ritual.  And proudly Vietnamese.  We weren’t asked to leave, but we also didn’t feel entirely welcome.  Until we met a group of teenage boys one afternoon working at the dirtiest bia hoi place we visited.  With the help of their limited English, a pen, and a few napkins, we were able to have a conversation.

“Are you…I love you?” the boy pointed to us and then pointed to his ring finger.  “Ah, yes, we’re married,” said James and continued on to ask the boy if he had a girlfriend.  His face turned red and his eyes glanced downward in embarrassment as he answered, “Yeah, some.”  “Wait, you have some girlfriends?” I don’t think that he meant he was seeing multiple women, but for some reason, each time we asked a young adult male if he had a girlfriend, he would respond with the same embarrassment.  After explaining that no, we did not have any babies, drawing a picture of us with two cats, and a successful beat boxing demo by James, the most talkative of the boys decided that they had enough trying to communicate.  It was time to arm wrestle.  The match was even.

Sometime later we learned how they washed the chipped beer cups.  The method included five baskets layered with about 100 dirty glasses and a hose.  Sanitary standards for street food weren’t much better.  Open grills passed by curious dogs, plates of food prepared on the sidewalk and left waiting for customers.    Our time in Hanoi ended with upset stomachs and extra-strength imodium.  And I stopped eating meat.

Vietnam: Impressions

An entire day of my life had disappeared.  Twenty-six hours devoted to traveling, and all of it was a blur.  We started on a deserted subway platform, minding the gap as we pulled our two small suitcases onto a train spotted with early risers.  Now here we were, about to land in in Vietnam.  A day in transition nearing the end.

What did I know about Vietnam?  Wikipedia imparted a history of occupation.  The New York Times praised tourism, beer, and the rapidly growing economy.  The popularity of Vietnamese food in New York such as Pho and Banh Mi had given me a taste of what to expect.  A hand-me-down Vietnam experience.  But here we were: a day lost, eleven hours gained, on the edge of forming our own impressions.

Impression No. 1: Greenhouse effect

Thick air mixed with the musty scent of damp soil.  Distinct, but not unpleasant.  A verdant smell associated with moss and orchids and all things steamy.  We had left the desert air of the plane and entered a greenhouse.  Dazed and vulnerable, we met the representative from our visa service.  She held a white paper sign printed neatly with James’ name inflating my sense of self importance.  We signed a few papers, and then our precious passports were carried off by a uniformed officer without explanation.  This represented the first of many times when we (reluctantly) just had to have faith and go with the flow.  Nothing was explained, language barriers were not crossed, we just had to trust.  The entire visa process was completed away from our presence.  Those pesky immigration forms that we diligently completed on the plane proved useless.  But in the end, we were left admiring our shiny new Socialist Republic of Vietnam stickers… like a gold star.

Impression No. 2: French balconies

Speeding toward Hanoi, our view grayed by darkness, we strained to capture any images that we could commit to memory.  Through shadows and headlights, tall skinny houses grew out of the flat earth like awkward pillars.  And then I thought of my mom.  For every place we visit and every picture she sees, she reserves the same comment: “Oh, that looks like New Orleans!”  This time I would have to agree; New Orleans is the only place I have to compare it to.  A scene of french balconies and hanging plants.

Impression No 3: Shrimp chips, choco pies, red fruit

Yin, proprietor of the Hanoi Old Quarter Hotel, raised the graffiti-free metal grate and greeted us in pastel pajamas.  We were over an hour late and definitely missed the 11pm curfew.  Luckily, she had a special room waiting for us.  The room with a view, the luxury suite, the self-proclaimed King Room.  There were braided baskets of spiky red fruit, shrimp flavored chips, individually packaged choco pies, and a fully stocked mini bar of cola, water, and beer.  While I showered away the grime of traveling, James, who had never eaten a shrimp in his life, devoured two full bags of shrimp chips.  As comfort food, we ate (and later became obsessed with) the choco pies.  And because who eats fruit after all that salt and chocolate, I took pictures instead.

Impression No. 4: Daylight

Jet lag had me up at 6am.  The floor to ceiling windows let in plenty of light as I peered out over the misty red river.  A wide bridge with four converging lanes of traffic expanded into the old quarter.  A colorful mosaic propped up at the intersection celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of Hanoi.  Stepping from the air conditioned room onto the narrow balcony, the immediate change of temperature left a thin layer of fog on my camera lens.  Leisurely traffic, including early morning motorbike deliveries and women heading to the markets of the old quarter, gradually increased to a sea of pedestrians, bikes, buses, and cars.

Impression No. 5: The Streets

Life in Hanoi happens on the streets.  To the casual tourist, it seems a public event.  Sidewalks are not for walking.  They support rows of parked motorbikes.  They serve as restaurants and kitchens.  The overflowing store fronts spill out into vacant spots, and the homes in between are kept with open doors.  Basket ladies wearing traditional conical hats hobble up and down the street, heavy goods hanging from both ends of a stick supported over one shoulder.  Sparks fly from the tools of metal workers.  Sounds include the clinking of hammering tin, the contrasting horns of motorbikes (beep beep) and busses (WAWAwawawa), a cleaver meeting a block of wood as it chops through raw meat, birds chirping in thousands of spindly wooden cages, and men yelling “Hel-lo!” and “Moto-bike?” as we pass.  Not quite as diverse as the soundscape, fish sauce and exhaust are the prevailing scents.  What would be considered back alleys in New York are busy multi-lane roads in Hanoi.  Rather than a structured city grid, organization in the old quarter is based on industry.  Silk Street, Coffin Street, Music Street all winding through the city changing names every few blocks.  At first the chaos is invigorating and exotic, but we find ourselves needing long breaks from the detailed attention it takes just to walk across the street.

Travel Preparation

This summer, James and I will travel to Vietnam and Japan for three weeks.  We will stuff avalanching piles of personal effects into one undersized suitcase, beg friends and family to watch our feline companions, and fly into the future via time zones.  Until then, New York City will have to feed our anticipation.

Vietnam, as you are likely aware, was ravaged by American forces during the Vietnam War (known to the Vietnamese, with good reason, as the American War).  But way before the Americans even considered this long thin country a threat to Democracy, Vietnam was occupied for over 1,000 years by the Chinese and about 100 years by the French.  Culinary influence?  Of course.

Searching for a Vietnamese dining experience in NYC, I did not want a fancy Asian fusion restaurant.  Banh Mi Saigon Bakery had great reviews and is said to serve the best and least expensive Banh Mi in the city.  Located in the back of a small jewelry store, more of a deli than anything else, the Saigon Bakery was full of hungry customers.

So what is Banh Mi?  A baguette stuffed with pickled vegetables, some sort of protein (in this case seitan), and fresh cilantro.  Basically, a sandwich.  The bakery offered minimal options for seating, so after taking a few exploratory bites in the confines of the jewelry store, we finished our sandwiches in Tompkins Square Park.

James loved his Banh Mi, and I thought it was okay, maybe a little too slimy for me.  I’ll have to acquire a taste for slimier textures before our trip.

We took the time to peek into a few of the fish stores in Chinatown,

and headed to Sakaya for a free sake tasting.  We were expecting to try a few different kinds of sake and were slightly disappointed to find only one.  However, it was delicious, and the owners of Sakaya were fantastic.  Needless to say, we left with a bottle of our own.

Continuing the Japanese theme, we walked a short distance to Cha-An.

We have both been here several times for tea and dinner, so this night, we decided to split the dessert sampler.

I started with genmaicha tea,

and James ordered Scarlet Glow, an herbal blend.

And then came the three course dessert.  Unfortunately, the waitress did not tell us what each dessert was, and they were not listed on the menu.

Ice cream:

Something that tasted like strawberry shortcake and a chocolate ball thing:

and cookies:

If you do decide to visit Cha-an, don’t miss the bathroom.  The woman’s restroom is equipped with a hi-tech toilet!  As you approach the seat, the lid lifts automatically.

The seat itself is heated, and a controller lets you customize your personal preferences.  Rear cleansing?  Rear cleansing soft?  Front cleansing?  Dryer?  Oscillating, pulsating, rinse cycle?  So many choices.

Banh Mi, sake, tea, and toilets of the future… I think we are ready for our travels.