Scenes from Hanoi

Due mostly to unpredictable WiFi connections, this post was actually written about a week ago, and only going up now. Also, photos to come later.

I’m on an overnight train, leaving Hanoi, headed to a town further north called Sapa. I know very little about this place, other than having read it is mountainous and beautiful, and that the Hmong, and other indigenous tribes like the Dao, have made Sapa their home.

Truth is, I still feel I hardly know very much about the place I’m leaving.

Shuli and I have spent three days and two nights in Hanoi, sampling local dishes and sleeping in a run down “Homestay” operated by Pham and Hung, a husband and wife couple that had done their earnest in giving us a warm, comfortable welcome.

Pham looked like he’d much rather be by himself, though. It seemed as if being accommodating to strangers was learned behavior – a ready smile, a firm handshake, a quick offering of food or drink, a willingness to engage in small talk. Most of it appeared exactly as such, like willingness more than genuine interest. But perhaps much of his actual feelings about us, about his work as a budget hotel operator, were really lost in translation. I didn’t leave feeling disappointed by his seeming desire to just do his own thing – I just didn’t know if it was us that left him feeling disinterested.

I’m convinced that it was Hung who more than made up for Pham’s well-intended, but somewhat unnatural hospitality. Her smile was genuine and inviting. She had the sort of charm that seemed to soften her husband’s rather serious demeanor. She never undermined Pham’s rants on Vietnamese society, politics, or on the occasional bad review his Homestay might have received. She let him speak his mind, but whenever it was her turn, she always came across far more gracious, and even apologetic. I doubt that the warmth she exuded wasn’t the least bit contrived. But I could never really know.

What I do know is that Hung cooked amazing meals for us time and again, shared about her life as openly as she could, went out of her way to get us whatever we had requested, let alone, merely inquired about, and still insisted on giving us a parting gift of a free bag of Vietnamese coffee, and an accompanying filter.

Their home was our home for a few evenings, and they let us in on their story.

From Pham and Hung we had learned how property is really expensive in Hanoi, and they are lucky to even have a home, albeit a small one, to call their own. They gave us an explanation about how land was scarce after the 80s, which had inflated the price for land for many Vietnamese. We learned that many of the women carting around vegetables in the morning are, like them, from nearby provinces, who had come to Hanoi primarily to work and make ends meet.

I have no idea how they are really standing to make a profit. For a modest $15 a night, aside from room and board, we were treated to several generous meals a day – one evening included a feast of Bun Cha, essentially a mix of fresh leaves, noodles, and barbecued meats – certainly much more than what they had made it appear they would offer on their AirBnB listing. (I’m sure 15 USD goes a much longer way in Hanoi than what we might’ve done with it, but I can’t imagine they were saving that much of it given how much food they seemed to keep offering. I really don’t know.)

Another visitor at their homestay had confirmed the family’s incredible, genuine warmth and hospitality, telling us that the reason Hung and Pham weren’t around to properly check us out of their homestay was probably because they had taken out this visitor’s wife and kids for a swim at a local pool. We had to make our goodbyes over the phone.

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Everything seemed to move at such a frenetic pace in Hanoi, ourselves included. Walking slowly was a concerted effort on my part, as I found myself having to fight off feeling like I needed to move just as quickly as the motorbikes whizzing by us. Getting around on foot felt a lot like running for cover, at times. If we weren’t trying to dodge cars or bikes, we were still having to elude people.

People were everywhere. Sitting on little plastic chairs and low tables by what appeared to be these makeshift tea-drinking stations on the side of the road, sleeping on parked bikes, squatting on sidewalks, or peddling all sorts of items for sale, from tissue paper packets to cigarettes to the day’s leftover produce.

Hanoi’s Old Quarter was teeming with – well, everything. Calling what was before us (and behind us and surrounding us) a frenzy of motion and activity still doesn’t quite describe what it was like navigating its tiny streets. ‘Controlled chaos’ seems more appropriate. Never had the expression “method to the madness” felt more fitting than here, as if there was an order to the disorder that made perfect sense to the locals, and left the rest of us both bewildered and amazed by everything that was happening. Like I said, the Old Quarter was teeming, with everything.

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I’m tempted to go lengths describing the food but I’m afraid there are many other more seasoned “foodies” who have already done the due diligence of breaking down the unique flavors found on the streets of Hanoi. Besides, I’m perfectly satisfied leaving it up to the experts to differentiate between quality broths of pho.

Simply put, I enjoyed just about everything. I ate whatever was put in front of me, and more often than not, Shuli and I hardly bothered with a menu. We went to local joints that specialized in one or two dishes and gave our order as a quantity. “Two bowls”. Sometimes just holding up our fingers.

We had our fair share of bowls of pho that seemed to strike a delicate balance of freshness and fatty-ness – crisp vegetables served alongside heaping bowls of noodles swimming in broth infused with the fat from the chicken or the beef. The fish sauce was abundantly available, yet subtle enough when incorporated in dishes that it never felt so overpowering. Or perhaps my palate had grown so accustomed to the taste, that it had already changed. I’m not so sure.

I only know that I was surprised at my willingness to gnaw at what was clearly a pig’s hoof included in my Bun Bo Hue, or “choosing my own adventure” with spices whose power I couldn’t possibly predict until after my nose was immediately dotted with beads of sweat. If I refused to eat at a particular road side establishment, it was primarily because I didn’t really know how to make my order. Picking places that were populated with locals was a safe bet, and even better if they only served one dish.

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If I had it my way, (and it’s probably best that I hadn’t), if I had been traveling alone in Hanoi for a week, I’d have blown all my money just on coffee.

I still don’t have an explanation for the abundance of cafes (spelled ‘ca phe’) in Hanoi. The number of options to choose from is seriously overwhelming. I’ve lived in several cities that pride themselves in their “coffee culture” but I’ve never been to a city that’s taken it to the level that Hanoi has. Between the local coffee shops offering the standard “ca phe su da” (iced coffee with milk) to higher end establishments offering ‘Americanos’ and other espresso-based drinks, Hanoi is littered with options for the casual drinker to the caffeine junkie.

Me, I stuck mostly with the local Vietnamese way – incredibly strong, dark, coffee served with condensed milk and a single cube of ice.

I’m not sure anything else can really compete, in my book. The list of other caffeine-based drinks that are as consistently satisfying is a short one, and this one may very well be the runaway winner. The jolt I get from the very first sip is unmatched. The subtle sweetness of the creamy condensed milk mixed in makes for a nice contrast to the robust flavor of the roast. Vietnamese coffee is, in my opinion, well worth the patience it takes to prepare it well. It is not the kind of coffee taken, on-the-go, even if everything else around seems to be flying at that pace around you, as you take it. Something about the drinking of Vietnamese coffee requires a concerted slowness in intake to appreciate all its flavor. I just can’t get myself to “down it” if I had to. It would feel disrespectful.

Unfortunately, what I know is what I know. No one could explain why there was such a glaring proliferation of coffee establishments around the city. And no one could quite explain the magic behind a single cup of Vietnamese coffee, served simply, with a cube of ice. Sure, I could probably read about it somewhere, but that would just seem like I’d be doing myself a disservice to the experience. I’d rather someone walked me through it – someone wholly invested in the genuine look of pleasure on my face as I took my time with every sip.

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Shuli had asked me if I was ready to leave Hanoi.

The pace has certainly taken its toll. I wouldn’t mind an evening that wasn’t serenaded by the incessant honking of horns. Nor would I mind regaining the experience of crossing the street without thinking each stride was a matter of life or death by motorbike.

Truth is, I’ll remember how overwhelming everything appeared to be, but I’m not sure I’ll remember if I had actually felt, overwhelmed. The sense that I could’ve handled so much more of what the city offered, yet didn’t handle quite enough of it, makes me feel like, if I could, I’d at least want to give it another go. Just a little longer, for the next time – enough to actually feel ready to leave it behind.

Now, it feels like I’m leaving with too many questions still unanswered. But perhaps the lingering mystery will help me remember Hanoi with a distant sort of fondness – the kind you feel after having experienced too much without having much explained to you. The details might be fuzzy, but the feelings, even the ones I don’t quite understand, remain.

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