Hanoi: Welcome to Vietnam!

January 9 – 15

Well, we are off on the next leg of our grand adventure! We took off from San Francisco for Hanoi, Vietnam just after midnight on the morning of January 8; landed 13 hours later at Seoul Incheon Airport (in the morning of January 9, having crossed the international date line), and then boarded a five-hour flight from there to Hanoi.

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I think we were both simultaneously better prepared and worse prepared for this leg of the trip: We did a better job of packing early, and were able to narrow down and lighten our gear (Martin even spent a few afternoons sewing us some new light-weight duffle bags to take! I made some toiletry bags with the leftovers); but we did a lot less advance planning before taking off this time and left with only our first week’s worth of accommodations booked.

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Everything went smoothly upon landing in Hanoi: no issues at border control (I was a little nervous about our visas since we had applied via email and then received loose-leaf visas in the mail; plus we didn’t have flights booked for leaving the country), and our Airbnb host in Hanoi had arranged a driver to pick us up from the airport. We picked up a SIM card for our portable wifi, some cash from the ATM, and we were on our way!

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Once we got to the Old Quarter of Hanoi, our driver dropped us at the corner near our hotel. I thought I recognized our host ahead of us (we had exchanged some messages beforehand), but he was already greeting another (white) couple and they were off down the street. We trailed behind them as I was pretty sure there was some confusion—or a great coincidence—and we were able to find our accommodations by following them. It turns out it was Kevin, our host, who I had seen in the street and there was a mix-up: When he had seen two white people with backpacks he had assumed they were us, but it turned out they were other guests that were also staying with him but whom he had already met previously. Kevin thought this was hilarious and could not stop laughing for the first five minutes of our arrival because “white people all look the same.”

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Our first afternoon in Hanoi was pretty overwhelming. Driving from the airport felt very similar to arriving in Mexico—driving through agricultural fields mixed with dilapidated stores with random English words on the signs—only we weren’t staying in a nice beach resort at the other end. Our homestay accommodation was right in the middle of the Old Quarter, which is very tight and completely packed with people, sights, and sounds (not to mention the motorbikes!). We went on a walk through the Old Quarter to Hoan Kiem lake to stretch our legs and (try to) get our bearings. It was good to get out but the traffic is crazy and the air quality heavy and gross.

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One of the biggest highlights for us in Hanoi was definitely the food and we dove right in that first night: We were supposed to have dinner with our host Kevin and his family, but they weren’t available anymore so we found a place nearby (fewer streets full of motorbikes to cross!) for bun bo nam bo—rice vermicelli with grilled beef, fresh herbs, and crispy shallots. It. was. DELICIOUS! (That first night we opted to avoid eating the fresh herbs and lettuces, our usual move in places with questionable water quality, but that went out the window pretty quickly.) And at $7 for dinner and beers for two, so cheap!!! So, despite feeling pretty overwhelmed after our first day in the country we were pretty excited to eat all the foods.

Over the next six days in Hanoi, we actually got pretty used to the traffic and learned to confidently (if a bit nervously) cross the streets amongst the motorbike madness. We were even able to navigate the maze of streets in the Old Quarter without a map and had our favorite places for food and treats. I ended up actually liking Hanoi quite a bit! The food is amazing, the people-watching is unbeatable, the people are nice and not overly pushy towards tourists, and the city is an interesting mix of ancient buildings and modern shopping and restaurants.

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A word on motorbikes: They are everywhere. Cheaper than cars, everyone has one and it is multi-purpose: the family vehicle to pick up the kids from school; a moving vehicle to transport furniture and 10-foot picture frames; delivery vehicles with giant packages strapped on the front and back; food delivery or merchandise delivery vehicle where trees and plants, or even stacks of porcelain, are bungeed together and miraculously stay on the bike. The sound of honking motorbikes is relentless: the horns are used as “Hey, just a heads up that I’m turning/crossing the intersection/merging/etc.” as opposed to how we use them at home, “I’m angry at you/you’re in my way/etc.” so with the number of vehicles on the roads at all hours of the day, the cacophony never stops. And in general, there don’t seem to be many road rules as directions, lanes, traffic lights, crosswalks, one-way streets, all don’t seem to mean much. “Right of way” isn’t really a concept here, “might is right” is the general law of the road and motorists only have to yield to those vehicles that are bigger than they are: bicycles trump pedestrians, motorbikes trump bicycles, cars trump motorbikes, buses trump everything. But people do pay attention and as a pedestrian you kind of have to just walk into the street and trust that the sea motorbikes will just part around you (which it generally does; it’s cars and buses you really have to watch out for).

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Some highlights of our time in Hanoi:

FOOD: (Duh…) We took a street food tour one evening, which was really interesting and fun. We walked around the Old Quarter with our guide and he told us a bit about Hanoi food and Vietnamese culture, we tried a bunch of different street foods including bun cha—the pork and noodle dish that Anthony Bourdain and Obama ate in Hanoi (we didn’t go to the same place they went, apparently we went to a better place)—and egg coffee (we allegedly went to the cafe that invented it, where the wife of the inventor still works with her sons).

 

The food in Vietnam is very regional and one Hanoi specialty is “egg coffee” which, admittedly, sounds really weird but is actually really good! Created as an substitute for a cappuccino at a time when there wasn’t fresh milk available, it is made of eggs beaten with sweetened condensed milk until really really thick and creamy, and then dolloped over a small cup of black coffee; if made correctly, your spoon should be able to stand up straight on its own in your cup. It’s like dessert and also makes a great afternoon snack/pick-me-up. It’s even more fun to enjoy it in situ, sitting on the tiny tiny stools (finally, a country where I get to feel taller than average! Martin’s knees might give out, though…) in a cafe, listening to the crack-snapping of people eating sunflower seeds.

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We also took a cooking class while in Hanoi, which included a market tour to purchase all of the ingredients for our meal. We learned how to make banana blossom salad, bun cha, deep-fried spring rolls, and egg coffee. The market visit was really interesting: It was helpful to wander with a guide who could answer our questions, but it was also a little frightening to see how the food is handled behind the scenes (not much of a concern for food safety or handling). It was also amazing to see how you can purchase almost everything pre-prepared—peeled garlic and shallots, chopped or ground meat, sliced lemongrass or banana blossom—so that you don’t have to do it at home; this makes sense when you know that people often go to the market before cooking each meal every day and this saves them a lot of time.

Museums: On a recommendation from my friend’s mom (who we ran into in Berkeley two days before we left town!), we visited the Vietnamese Ethnology Museum in Hanoi. As promised, it was really interesting and informative, and put together quite well. Vietnam has 54 separate minority ethnic groups and the museum provides information on the regions, lives, products, and history of all of them. There are models of traditional homes from each ethnic group, as well as examples of the traditional clothes, textiles, cookware, musical instruments, and tools of each group. There is also a large garden area where some traditional homes have been reconstructed and which you can wander through to get a sense of traditional rural life.

Next door to the Ethnology Museum is the Museum of Southeast Asia, which we also checked out. It was an interesting overview of other southeast Asian cultures, including some beautiful artifacts and textiles. It was interesting to see so many examples from these different cultures next to each other, to be able to see the differences and similarities between them.

Walking street: Every weekend, some of the streets around Hoan Kiem Lake are shut down to motor traffic and people come out to enjoy the “walking street” and the night market. We enjoyed this primarily for the amazing people-watching! One afternoon we enjoyed some egg coffees in a cafe balcony overlooking the walking street and had a great time just watching people go by below. Some of the best entertainment was the tiny little cars and mini-scooters that are for rent for children to drive around in: The parents also get a remote control so if the kid is too young, or not very good at driving, the adult can take over and steer. Another favorite among the children are hover boards which have been adapted with a seat and steering system—the older children gleefully careen down the pedestrian street at high speeds on these. We also liked watching circles of people playing a hacky-sack-like game that involves some washers attached to a feather (instead of a hacky-sack ball). When two young men ran up to us one afternoon, we were fairly certain that it was a scam of some sort but they turned out to be students practicing their English and just wanted to ask us some simple questions about the weather and our hobbies; and then they took a selfie with us. We got beers at a fifth-story bar overlooking the walking street and giggled while watching the students eagerly run up to any white tourists to repeat their English practice.

Water puppet show: We went to a traditional water puppet show one afternoon: not sure if it is a highlight, but it definitely was an experience! The puppets are made of wood and float on top of the water, controlled by long poles underneath the water by puppeteers behind a curtain; you can see how these were originally performed in the water-filled rice paddies. The performance was comprised of several short vignettes covering traditional themes and accompanied by traditional music. It was a little odd, and it was all in Vietnamese so we didn’t understand much, but it was definitely an interesting cultural experience.

Temple of Literature: Our other big cultural and historical experience while in Hanoi was the Temple of Literature. We spent the better part of a morning wandering around the lovely grounds. The temple was built in 1070 and is dedicated to Confucius; it is also home to the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university, and honors the country’s scholars. It was really interesting to see some traditional architecture and to see some examples of pagodas, although. Evidence of the wars that have passed through the country was pretty obvious here as only about 25 of the original 120-some-odd structures are still standing. A festive feeling hung in the air, however, when we were there: A large group of recent university grads were there taking photos and celebrating.

Beers with friends: We had a small-world moment in Hanoi when I thought I recognized out of the corner of my eye someone I had gone to college with. I reached out to Katie online to (awkwardly) check to see if it was indeed her, and it was! She had just moved to Hanoi a few days prior and we ended up meeting for a few beers at Beer Corner one evening. It was great seeing a familiar face and catching up with a fellow Whitman alumna!

Wag of the finger to: Breaking my toe when I slipped on the stairs in our homestay on the morning of our first full day in Hanoi. Tip of the hat to: Martin for navigating a Vietnamese pharmacy to pick up some supplies to stabilize my toe and letting me take it easy for a few days.

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All-in-all, a successful and delicious start to our trip! Stay tuned for more of our adventures in Vietnam: After Hanoi, we headed to Ha Long Bay.

Click here to see more photos from Hanoi!

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