Friday, 26 June 2015

Hanoi, part I: why did the Necia cross the road?

Hanoi, Vietnam
As we had to rise early for our flight to Hanoi, we were exhausted by the time we checked into our hotel in the afternoon. Upon arrival, the unfailingly cheerful Tim at reception informed us that our room had been upgraded for a reason not immediately apparent. After dumping our backpacks (less than seven kilos, but still seven kilos of burden), we went in search of lunch. We had been advised by friends to eat the street food in order to taste real non-westernised Vietnamese food that the locals eat.  Only eating at restaurants is for rich ninnies. 
The streets were a dazzling complexity of motorbikes and signage, and we ended up eating bún chả from a street vendor, plucking rice noodles and pork from the broth while sitting on plastic stools small enough for a doll. The increase in temperature from Malaysia also meant that I was trying not to sweat into my bowl. For the remainder of the evening we rested, awaiting the onset of sudden vomiting and diarrhoea that we had been assured we would get due to the poor hygiene standards. When staying in Malaysia (where food hygiene is at a higher quality), we had asked Jarold if he ever acquired food poisoning in his home city and he said that it had happened to him once. One of his noodles had fallen onto the table and he felt it appropriate to employ the Five Second Rule, knowing full well that the cloth used to wipe down tables was so disgusting that it may as well have been a piece of old ham. Since hearing his story I was always mindful of this, however I knew that in Vietnam the food itself was enough to make us sick. 
Too tired to venture out for dinner, we finished the coconut dodol from Melaka and drank our complementary water. 
In the morning, we were both shocked to discover that we had not shit ourselves in the night. Happy too, of course, but we knew it was only a matter of time as we had seen street vendors cooking literally on the curb. No joke. And we were eating it. 
The map that the hotel had given us was astoundingly oversimplified and therefore didn't give us nearly enough information. Hanoi streets are complicated in nature, sometimes changing names three times though it's the same stretch of road. Hang Cot is where our hotel was located, but walk down a little and it inexplicably became Hang Ga, and down further Hang Dieu. Yannick decided to hand draw a map of the Old Quarter in order to catalogue the details, including a key for sights and foods we wanted to try. 
Breakfast was included in our room price, and I was excited to discover the selection of fresh fruits: pineapple, watermelon and dragon fruit. Paired with tea, that's a winning combination. Yannick drank the watermelon juice. 
Our first order of business was to see Hoàn Kiếm Lake, famed for being surrounded by scammers looking to make a quick buck off hapless tourists. It turns out that we are those hapless tourists, as a man implied Yannick's jandal was coming apart, promptly stuck superglue in it and then removed said shoe. I was confused as to what was going on, and his cronie got one of my shoes off as well. They went about glueing and cutting an additional piece of rubber into place, explaining it would improve durability. Yannick negotiated the price down, but we still had to pay for something we didn't want just to get our shoes back (obviously they wanted more to do the other jandal but we put our foot down (heh) and didn't let them, so we now have an extra piece of rubber glued to one of our shoes each). A woman also tried to squeeze us by sticking a hat on me, balancing a basket on my shoulder and insisting that photos of this would be free. Not so fast, lady! I smiled and repeated "no thank you" until I could push the items back to her. 
Though retaining constant vigilance (Mad Eye Moody would have been proud), we did get to enjoy the scenery of the lake with tree branches dangling in the water and in the distance Turtle Tower on a tiny island. 
Taking food recommendations mainly from TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet, we ordered bánh mì at Banh Mi 25. Bánh mì is a small baguette that is filled with pate as well as other fillings such as grilled pork or ham (referred to as jambon), and is a remnant of the French colonisation. For 20,000dong each (or about $1.30NZD) these are a great cheap and filling lunch option, and with Banh Mì 25 you know you're paying the same price as a local which is very unusual. Everywhere has a tourist price, often double at least what a local would pay. We forked out $4 per bowl of bun cha the day before - a large mark up, though still a good price by our standards. Speaking fluent English (another surprise), the owner of Banh Mì 25 said that a glass of iced green tea was included, and we could help ourselves to the bananas on the table. Score! 
Making our way to the marketplace, we stopped by the Old City Gate for a quick photo. Unfortunately there's not much information on the gate except that this used to be a gate to the city (if you couldn't tell that already by the name) and that it's been restored at some point. 
The traffic here was a flurry of wheels and honking. If you had to pick one sound to sum up Hanoi it would be the constant beeping of motorbikes and cars. This isn't due to road rage, instead it's an essential part of the Vietnamese road code, signalling your presence to other road users. I felt even more of an outsider when crossing the street because it was so out of my comfort zone yet I knew I was executing it correctly: you have to slowly walk out into the road and let the motorbikes flow around you as a river flows around a rock. I noped my way across every time. Yannick really got the hang of it though, so I explained to him how trepidatious I felt by using a pop culture reference: in Shaun of the Dead, the protagonists need to cross a sea of zombies somehow to enter their local pub and improvised safe house 'the Winchester'. They decide that if they shuffle along with blank stares and groan, they will pass as members of the zombie horde and not be eaten to death. That's exactly how I felt walking across streets in Hanoi - if I kept walking slowly and didn't panic, then no one would suspect I don't belong and run me over. A few times on the busier streets, I took to humming to myself as a coping mechanism, and once we reached the footpath I would exclaim "we made it!". Being not dead is nice. 
The market streets had less traffic, allowing me to get a proper look at the produce on offer. Normally it was a necessity to keep a close eye on what was going on around me and see if there was anything suspect on the ground in front of my feet (like a live chicken pecking at the gutter, a dirty puddle or food scraps).
The most interesting part for me was the fish vendors. I can't stand seafood - even the smell of it - but seeing writhing tubs of eels being fed by a crouched wrinkled lady held some charm I hadn't anticipated. 
Saw a rat scamper into a drain too. 
Wandering along, checking out the stalls on both sides of the street, we saw a temple squashed in amongst the market. In Vietnam, pagodas are Buddhist places of worship while temples are for the worship of ancestors, heroes, Taoist divinities and Confucius. 
After leaving the market we walked along some nearby roads and in contrast to the market streets and the area we were staying in, these streets were aimed strongly at tourists, selling boxes of Oreos, Western beers and old propaganda posters. 
Then we saw a woman burning ghost money. Only fifteen percent of the population of Vietnam is Buddhist (by religion rather than philosophy), eight percent Christian, less than one percent 'other' and the remainder are non religious or practise their own sort of religious activities such as ancestor worship. When I first saw someone take a $100USD note and place it onto a burning pile, I was bewildered and concerned. But as we walked on, little flaming piles of fake currency was a common sight. Most of the burnt money is an offering to the dead: ancestors or ghosts. 
When planning our Vietnam trip, we had desperately wanted to visit Hoi An in the centre of the country, but knew we wouldn't have time to take the long train journey. To console ourselves, we ate at Com Ga Hoi An which literally means chicken rice from Hoi An. I had set my expectations too high from reading outstanding reviews, and found that the chicken rice was average and not nearly as good as our Melaka chicken rice. It was back to street food for us! Electrolytes were on standby.