Pho

Ho Chi Minh: The City

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Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) are, in many respects, polar opposites. First the easiest is geography: Hanoi is in the North. HCMC is in the South. Although Vietnam has no geographic divisions any longer, post WW2 (and even earlier) when someone said North or South Vietnam, it was foremost shorthand for a political system.

Hanoi was the epicentre of the Communist movement, that would later, of course, take over the whole country.

HCMC on the other hand, or Saigon as it was known until 1975, was French then American dominated.

So, each area had an entire generation (30+years – (WW2-1975) to cook under their own influences. I think HCMC had enough of an identity before being taken over by Communism from the North that it wasn’t entirely swept away by the North’s more austere values (despite it being renamed for the leader of the Vietnamese Communist movement – Ho Chi Minh).

How this played out in current terms, I think is visible from the number of Western franchises. In Hanoi (at least on our 2 day walks), small business still outweighs Western franchises, while HCMC just opened a McDonald’s.

Yes, it’s the only McDonald’s in Vietnam. But when reading it advertised in one of those free tourist weeklies (that it seems every city has) with the exclaiming headline: “McDonald’s is here!”, it sounded like a wish fulfilled.

After looking around the city filled with skyscrapers, boutique hotels, fusion restaurants, and McDonald’s close companions: Burger King, KFC, and cousin Subway, and maybe the overlord of all – Starbucks – it made sense…HCMC was wide open for business, and like a kid after watching a commercial about toys in a Happy Meal, it appeared it wanted to collect them all.

With such a range of Western choice at our fingertips, you might think we’d shirk them all, walking past with a condescending air, saying: “Pah. I want authentic. I want a cultural experience. Give me something new.”

And, you’d be right. Except for:

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COFFEE! Specifically, espresso.

Juliana, it became clear, though tenacious on our trip so far, really only had her flag raised to half mast. Like a national economy, she was operating at a deficit. However, the good news was that it could easily be remedied – the bad news: we only found this espresso clinic, at the tail end of our trip together:

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Her transformation was almost instant. Where she once had tired eyes and might have been a beat behind in conversation, by the end of her first double espresso (she had two) her eyes glittered with possibility, her speech galloped ahead of ours and she strode down the street as if she was late for an appointment. Witnessing it was like being in a room when someone turned up the dimmer as far as it could go.

Now fully charged, our Team Canada assembled with renewed vigor, stared at the floods of traffic, pouring through the streets:

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And decided, this time around, to see the city on foot, leaving the bikes behind:

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Our first stop was Ben Thanh market, a huge covered building with narrow alleys between massive stalls of food, clothing, trinkets and pretty much every other imaginable souvenir:

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We then grabbed our thousandth bowl of Pho – (it was pretty much a once daily routine. Sometimes more), and headed to other sites we’d heard about, one being a huge remnant of French colonialism – the Notre Dame Basilica:

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Though, strictly speaking, Communism espouses atheism – the church was in full swing when we visited with a service for the 6% Catholic population – an allowance written into the Vietnamese constitution for religious practice with the qualification (as long as it doesn’t grow too big. Translation= too influential).

Right next door was a massive post office, but mail was only the beginning. You could send faxes, parcels, pay bills, use the Internet, get writing services and, of course, buy souvenirs:

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It was an interesting building, designed by Mr. Eiffel himself in the 1890s – it reminded me of a train station, which while there were no vehicles moving around, it still had an atmosphere of activity and bustle – from modem lines zinging out information to the letters getting set for flight:

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Come nightfall, we strolled around some more, seeing things lit up, and walked through parks filled with people hanging out, and once again, skirted some markets:

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Checking out the food for sale:

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And, on the way home, ┬ádid as its done in Vietnam – walked off the sidewalk, allowing the horde to move around you:

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The experience, I found a bit like this:

I realize that’s my third Indiana Jones reference and video so far throughout the blog. I don’t know why, they just seem to be floating around in my head: (INNNDDDYYYYYY! COVER YA HEAAART!). And since we’re heading into the Cambodian jungle after this – I’m pretty sure it won’t be last.

In any case, that brought an end to Day one in Uncle Ho’s Southern ville.

 

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Hanoi Hustle 2

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The next morning we connected with our newest member of Team Canada (via Argentina), Juliana – who would be traveling with us for the next two weeks.

While still in the throes of jet lag, she bravely joined our sweat brigade as we moved through the “holy shit’ streets of Hanoi.

Heading out with intention and purpose, we strode across traffic as if we had our own private lane, bypassed vendors with nary a look or acknowledgment, and held the line walking down the street, refusing to flinch as taxis came within inches of our toes.

But, no matter how determined we were, this cat had the answer which we refused to accept:

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You can’t beat the heat.

So, after making it only six blocks, we accepted the inevitable and dripped into one of the seemingly, hundreds of neighbourhood cafes to sprawl out with a drink.

Having drunk a ton of iced coffee, with condensed milk in Lao, I’d become accustomed to the sweeter taste of the drink. Plus, drinking hot black coffee on its own, I’d made peace with the slightly sweeter taste of the beans.

However, while I considered myself a regular coffee drinker – Juliana approaches coffee as a vocation. I can’t prove it firsthand (but by all means clear it up in the comments, Juliana), but I’m pretty sure her espresso machine is the second hardest working appliance after her furnace.

Coffee is espresso. Coffee is hot. Coffee is not, “whatever the hell this was”: said the look on her face after a sip.

And so began Juliana’s odyssey for the next two weeks – where to find a rich espresso? However, with one of her addictions hanging desperately in the balance, Juliana bared down, and industriously replaced it with a whole new beverage: Mango shake.

With some balance restored, and feeling a little cooler, we headed out to the street to visit the nearest attraction: The Citadel.

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After a few steps, the heat wrapped itself around us again and we slowed down.

Seeing our pace slow, a nearby hustler chatted us up with the usual sidewalk sales pitch: “Where U from?” “Aaah Canada” “Cold”.

Normally, I’d toss off the talk and move along, but Rose was in negotiations with the guy already over a price, for something, of which I only learned after looking down at his business card: he was a motorbike taxi.

At first, I thought it was crazy. But then, after the three of us each took off on the back of a bike, I realized it was crazy.

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And, a ton of fun.

We zinged through the streets, now looking at them from the other side, missing pedestrians by inches, and vendors by less while merging through every intersection with one horn on the thumb blasting our presence to everyone driving near us.

Traffic felt like being in the middle of a school of fish – there were no straight lines of bikes or cars in designated lanes, instead, they just floated around, moving in and out to jostle for position, even if it was only two feet:

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En route we stopped at the city’s oldest university: The Temple of Literature, which is dedicated to the study of Confucianism, represented by these tortoises: each with a Confucian saying, such as: “When the temperature gets too hot. Get on the back of a bike and ride.”

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Wise man: moving through the streets on a bike is a good way to have a constant flow of air on your face.

Afterwards we paid adieu to our hogs and bikers:

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And greeted the next member of Team Canada: Matt (or Matty) who would also be with us for the next two weeks:

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(This is the first photo I have of ┬áhim – an action shot, which provides a bit of foreshadowing into our Hanoi evening).

That night, Rose arranged a food tour of Hanoi with some local university students who offer their know-how and guidance around menus and parts of the city, in exchange for the chance to speak English.

We headed out with another backpacking duo who Rose and I met at the airport, shared a taxi with and invited to join us on our gluttons tour.

First stop: Pho.

And, the first morsel of knowledge – we learned that Pho – rice noodle in broth, traditionally with beef – originated in Hanoi, and the two girls brought us to what they considered, the best version in the city, which I was suspicious of at first, because it was a restaurant.

I thought the best Pho would surely be from a sidewalk vendor. Regardless, it tasted really, really good, and became the foundation for the rest of our night.

With guides in tow, they led us through block after block jammed streets, a night market here, a packed sidewalk restaurant there, and navigated us through the standard traffic wall of a million bikes by raising their hand, like Iron Man (but sadly no laser blasts), to tell people to step tha F**k back.

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A kind, and bold gesture, which sort of worked. By final count, as many people blew by her hand as stopped, but at least it reduced the volume of bikes we had to sidestep.

However, all of this was leading to the main evening’s event – the Beer corner. The same neighbourhood Rose and I found ourselves upside down in the previous night.

Amazingly, the crowds were even more insane. All eight of us managed to squish into a tiny spot in the middle of a big crowd, sitting on the beer corner’s best stools, which were only tall enough to milk a cow.

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Then our guides advised us on some things to eat, like this:

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And, also that animal’s colon: chicken gizzard. Surprisingly, the gizzard wasn’t that bad, and went well with beer.

As we ate and drank ourselves full, we watched the scene in front of us as cops would shut down a line of chairs at the front of each restaurant that pushed too far out into the road. But as soon as the cops had gone down the road far enough to bother someone else, that restaurant re-opened the line of chairs to more people.

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The scenario repeated itself a few times at different spots. It was pretty funny to watch.

I’d said earlier that day, I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be to walk drunk through the streets of Hanoi. Thankfully, I didn’t get to find out. But I did find a slight buzz made all the coming and going traffic, shouts from vendors, and honking horns sound a lot more musical.

Next stop, UNESCO world heritage site: Halong Bay for a three day, two night boat cruise through limestone hills.

Hanoi Hustle

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Entering Hanoi after the calm and languor of Luang Prabang was like arriving into the middle of a construction site. If Luang Prabang was a chamber music concert, Hanoi was a three chord punk band.

Motorbikes herd the streets with drivers blaring their horns announcing to pedestrian, vehicle, animal and molecule to get the F** out the way. Everyone in Hanoi is coming. Whether walking down the streets, on a bike or selling food, Hanoi is a hustle of activity that’s constantly headed towards you. The trick, we soon found out, was to learn how to roll with it or, in other cases, do exactly as suggested, and learn how to get the “F** out the way”.

Rose and I arrived in the middle of the night, hungry, not sure where to head to find a bite. The concierge highlighted spots on the map with ease, explaining food was waiting just around the corner. I couldn’t understand how it could be so easy with bikes going both ways on a one way street, food vendors taking over the sidewalk with bikes stacked around them, plus cars heading down each street with a stream of pedestrians (who we’d soon join)- all competing for the same, small piece of road.

I saw a dead rat the size of a Chihuahua on the ground, during the brief walk to our hotel, and I thought: “Rats thrive in cities. If he can’t make it, what are our odds?”.

Regardless, we threw ourselves into the madness and wound up two blocks away in a food and trinkets market that was shut off from traffic. But, being Hanoi, we learned – this really didn’t mean anything, as bikes zinged and honked their way through the crowds anyway, even nudging people with their front tire in case a particularly deaf person didn’t get the point.

We found ourselves on a corner of what looked like a homecoming party in a university town. People lining the fronts of restaurants or bars, sitting on small chairs, all with a beer in hand and food in the other – and one guy, busy singing drunk karaoke in the middle of the street as a crowd of hundreds jeered and laughed at him.

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This only lasted a second as I pulled my attention to the right, after hearing a loud bark, and attributed it to a guy who was laughing so hard with his friend, he’d gone mute and the veins in his neck and forehead got more and more pronounced as he turned darker and darker shades of red.

Things were moving so fast, this impression quickly dissolved as I felt someone grab my arm and ask if I knew where a particular bar was.

“Sorry”, I said looking around with a look of confusion and wonder. “I have no idea what’s happening. We just arrived today”.

“Okay, no worries”, he moved on, quickly getting swallowed by the crowd.

Now realizing we were standing in the middle of an intersection, we quickly looked for a spot with empty seats, sat down and waited to see what happened (that’s Rose on the far left).

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Thankfully, it turned out okay – we got our first bowl of pho, of which I’d eaten enough of in Canada that I felt a small level of comfort from the madness around us.

Honestly, it was beyond anything I’ve ever tasted. So much better than what I’d had in Canada, I couldn’t believe it. Slurping up the bowl and finishing our beer we re-entered the whirlpool of people and waded back through the streets to our hotel.

We soon picked up the cardinal rule of walking in Hanoi – keep walking, don’t hesitate, and bikes will move around you. Easy on paper. But when looking towards a wall of traffic heading your way, and your realize the pedestrian crossing in front of you has no more value than an interesting pattern to look at while bikers stream across it at full speed, it was hard to put in practice.

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However, we had enough practice on some cross streets on the way back, which helped us get enough resolve to, at least, begin to understand how to avoid being that rat.

“I can do this”, I began to think.

And we soon did, as our two friends – Juliana and Matt joined us the next day from Canada for a two week tour of Vietnam. Part deux of our exploits coming soon.