We met all of the Luce Scholars in Thailand last month, and because it takes a long time (and costs a relative fortune) to travel to Southeast Asia from Beijing, we decided to take the week before our meeting and do this insane thing where we attempted to see all of Vietnam in like six days. Fool’s errand, y’all — despite its relatively small size, it turns out there’s a lot (a LOT) to do in ‘nam, which is a thing I should have remembered, given I’ve been there before. We realized this, though, after we’d booked a flight into Hanoi and out of Ho Chi Minh City, so we whittled our trip down to a couple of days and change in Hanoi and Hoi An, and then an overnight in Ho Chi Minh (HCMC, from here on out).
‘Nam is great. It’s cheap and cheerful, the people are rad, the food is achingly delicious, the history and culture are plentiful, and once you get over the insanity of the roads, it’s a cakewalk of a country to maneuver in. (Related: Rob was not even that impressed with the traffic jams since he’s already been to Jakarta, which contends for the worst traffic on the planet. I’ll admit the streets were not as snarled as I remembered — the Hanoi I remember required a leap of faith to cross the road in front of the motorbikes — but more on that in a second.)
I’m gonna break our trip up into two posts, mostly so you don’t ruin your work day reading a 17,000 word story all at once. So up first, Hanoi.
We touched down in Hanoi late and hit our hotel, which I’m only mentioning because this place deserves a little internet lionizing. I stayed at the Hanoi Elegance Ruby five years ago when I went to ‘nam with my friend Ben, and we’d marveled at the shower orchids, in-room laptops, and breakfast pho — all provided for a nightly sum that’s cheaper than most Super 8s in the States. Over the years, I talked this hotel up a lot to Rob, and we booked the same place. He was skeptical when we arrived — our room was small (but the bathroom walls were not made of glass, so no idea why he didn’t think this was the lap of luxury!). But let me tell you, he became a believer. The staff here just gets it: they all remembered our names and details, and they looked for little ways to deliver. Like upgrading us to a suite for the last night. Or calling our room and offering to pack me breakfast the last day when it became clear that I was not going to make it down before our car to the airport arrived. Hashtag nailing it, who needs the Four Seasons. Okay, TripAdvisor review over, but seriously, should you someday find yourself in Vietnam, I hope that this blog post ignites something in your memory and you book this joint — the Elegance chain is the way to go.
Before I give you the bullet point list of highlights, I’ll say that the real crowning moment of Hanoi (and the whole Vietnam trip, frankly) was the dinner with our friend Nick’s host family. Nick is also a Luce Scholar, and he’s working on environmental policy junk in Hanoi (sorry I still don’t know exactly what you do, Nick! Even after all that time spent together!). He’s a lot of fun, and an excellent host, and he’s living with a Vietnamese family at the moment, which means his Vietnamese puts our Chinese to serious shame (I harbored some intense jealousy at how well he speaks a language that has MORE tones than the one I’m purportedly learning).
The family had us over for a home-cooked meal, which involved some killer crispy spring rolls, rice paper wraps stuffed with thin rice noodles and herbs, sautéed vegetables, roasted duck, and a bamboo soup, which they say they eat because it makes you full fast. No need to make me full fast — I was already dying, and Nick’s host mom kept being like, “eat, eat!” (She had other advice for us, too, like don’t eat the fruit in China — the Vietnamese, it seems, harbor some ill feelings toward their northern neighbor over what’s happening in the South China Sea.) We also met Nick’s host parents’ daughter and her husband, who offered us insight on HCMC. Mostly, it was fun to watch Nick interact with his host parents, who poked a lot of good-natured fun at him for a litany of pretend offenses. Nick played it up, rolling his eyes and responding dramatically. Above is a picture of the fam. Note that Rob is actually twice the size of Nick’s host mom, who had amazing teeth.
Here’s what else we did in Hanoi that was cool:
-Rob ate his first street side banh mi sandwich at Banh Mi 25. This is a trumpeted sandwich in Hanoi, and I think that’s because of the crisp yet delicate bread. Also, the owner was really insistent on us taking a tiny banana at the end of our meal, which was nice.
-Checked out the requisite sites, including the one-stilt pagoda, the citadel, the Women’s Museum (a good ethnic museum, but there’s a lot of info there), the Hanoi Hilton (which you might know as the prison John McCain was held in when he was a POW), West Lake (which we walked part way around), Hoan Kiem Lake (which we walked around), and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. We didn’t actually go in the mausoleum, though, because Ho Chi Minh himself is currently in Russia getting a touch-up of some sort. The citadel was pretty cool — part of it was used as a bunker and planning base for the French war and then the American War of Aggression (otherwise known as the Vietnam War). Strangely reminiscent of the hospital in the rock in Budapest, actually — like the whole thing could be basically hermetically sealed to the outside world.
-Wandered around the old quarter, where ladies sell fruit from bicycles and people perch on tiny stools for food. Also, each block seems to be devoted to a specific industry or item. One block we walked down sold metal shelves and kitchen gear. Others seemed rich in clothing.
-Rob ordered a Vietnamese pastry (no idea what it’s called, though we later saw it translated as floss bread) that tasted like a waffle, except that it was bun-shaped and filled with chocolate. Rob has not stopped talking about this fortuitous find since.
-Saw a water puppet show. Wikipedia tells me this is a thing that dates back about a thousand years. The puppets glide over a pool of water (they’re operated from behind a screen by people standing in that water) while an orchestra provides a soundtrack built on drums, some sort of monochord thing, and bamboo flutes. Pretty spectacular art form, at least to my uncultured eye. And some fiery special effects, like when the dragons shot sparks out of their mouths.
–Ate Cha Ca, a dill fish dish unique to Hanoi that I have not stopped talking about since I was in Vietnam the first time. I went to Cha Ca La Vong that time, which is the most famous spot. This time Nick took us to Chả Cá Thăng Long, where we met up with Noey, a friend from New York who now lives in Hanoi with her boyfriend Peter. I don’t remember enough about La Vong to compare the two, but I will say that at Thang Long, after we finished our five portions of fish, we ordered five more portions. Because we are fat Americans.
-Marveled at the architecture — Vietnam has that old French feeling, thanks to the fact that the French were taking up space in the country from the 19th century until 1954, when the Vietnamese kicked them out. In those days, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were collectively known as Indochina. So now you know where to place that Indochinese architecture, which is, basically, French colonial, but Southeast Asia style — leafy trees, tropical flowers, teak. Also, when you think about the fact that the Vietnamese had just kicked the French out of their country and then had to take on a war with the Americans, it puts into context how much a generation of people suffered here. The message of a lot of the Vietnamese war museums is not so vehemently anti-French or American as it is anti-war — war is bad.
-Learned some Vietnamese slang from Nick. A young guy dating an older woman is “a pilot flying an old plane”.
That’s all for now! Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An coming in part two.