Good morning, Vietnam or Chao buoi sang, Vietnam!
I’ve been waiting to say those words and this morning, I was able to say, “Good morning, Vietnam!” to my group. Cheesy, I know, but I am goofy at times.
We started the morning with a walk to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The last mausoleum that I visited was the Stalin mausoleum in Moscow during my junior year abroad. To preface, I think embalming world leaders for show is kind of creepy. That said, I still felt that I still should go. Derek, our tour leader, had discovered the VIP line, so despite a brief interaction with a junior policeman that challenged his plan, we snuck our sixteen selves into the expedited line. The guards stoic faces hid any emotion. Like soldiers, we were instructed to walk, “Two by two”. As we approached the mausoleum, we were hushed and instructed to walk with our hands at our sides. Upon entering the core complex, the guards hurried us. Two of the soliders grasped my wrists firmly and hurried me along. They did the same to Dawn and a few others in the group. I don’t mind people instructing me but touching me is unacceptable! Had I been in a Western country, I would have spoken out, but given that I was a tourist, I bit my tongue and quelled my emotions – sometimes you need to let things slide. However, after this offense, I was someone off-put by my first morning in Vietnam. We continued on to the Ho Chi Minh house. I found it underwhelming and the crowds and wait did not warrant the time spent for the visit.
The Old Quarter, near Hoan Kiem lake, was our next destination. The main means of transport within the city are motorbikes, buses, taxis, and bicycles. Motorbikes remain the most common way to move around the city. After over a decade of living in Manhattan, I consider myself an intrepid city girl, but nothing prepared me for the haphazard method of crossing the street. I found myself dodging all moving vehicles in the hopes that I would not be hit. The mopeds anticipated my moves and swirled around me. I can’t recall the name of the video game where the frog jumps on the lily pad. Combined with other game Galacia, I was in a real world hybrid of both games with my life at stake. The walk, however, was at least interesting. The area retained the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi. At the beginning of the 20th century the city consisted of only about 36 streets, most of which are now part of the old quarter. Each street then had merchants and households specialized in a particular trade, such as silk traders, jewelery, etc. The street names presently reflect these specializations although are not that strict anymore.
Instead of joining the others for lunch, I went on a search for a Western Union. A previous conversation with Amex global assist comfirmed that a money order was waiting for me. I had less than $100 in cash and like most third world countries, cash is king and Vietnam is no exception. Unfortunately, all the banks and other places that offer Western Union were closed on said Saturday and Sunday. My other option was obtaining money via another atm since I lost my primary atm card. After hitting 20 atm machines, I resigned; I discovered that my emergency Amex pin had expired. Further, I could not find any places that would give me a cash advance on my Visa. It was difficult to maintain my equanimity. I abandoned my search for cash and had lunch at an establishment called Grilled Fish, noted for their lightly fried white fish in peanut oil, complemented with herbs, dill and chill and accompanied by rice noodles. The meal was disappointing, largely because I found the food bland and with limited texture. Like wine, I’m looking for balance, intensity, complexity, concentration, typicity and for me, texture is an important part of my enjoyment. After lunch, I headed back towards Hoan Kiem Lake towards the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. I was an hour early for the late afternoon show so I made a visit to the pagoda/temple in the middle of the lake. I found it mildly interested but was dull in comparison to Thailand’s fantastic wats(temples). I was more fascinated by the deep green color of the lake. Oh, and I saw dog(pictured below) at one of the food stands. The woman confirmed the species by smiling and saying, "Ruff ruff." No, I didn't sample it.
The Water Puppet show is noted in every guide book and since Derek had already procured our tickets, of course, I went. It was enjoyable show depicting country life and parables – the water puppets seemed to come to life. Either I was tired or found it boring at times, but I found myself nodding off at times(sleepyhead) and was ready to leave after the sixty minute show.
We had our goodbye dinner at a good, but not exciting, place. One of my two criticisms of doing a group tour is that by accommodating a large range of palates, the menu is wide and can be average. I found myself sneaking off to more authentic venues in search of smaller, more specialized menus – it is difficult to make a large array of food well in any country. I love food and didn’t meet any foodie soul mates in the N Thailand, Laos and Vietnam portion of the trip. Stephanie and Varun had excellent palates and I found our tastes and markers for quality food to be consistent. My other criticism is that I prefer to stay in nicer accommodations but I was able to augment that with luxury stays in the front and back end.
I spent Sunday at the UNESCO world heritage site, Ha Long Bay aboard an authentic a junk boat. It was a fantastic site although I would vote against consideration as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Hanoi has an excessive amount of motor vehicle exhaust and I felt myself getting nauseous as the minibus circled around picking up other passengers. I met a nice couple from Hawaii with whom I instantly clicked. I saw many rice paddies on the drive up.
Ha Long Bay features more than one thousand awesome limestone karsts and islands of various sizes and shapes. While exploring the most fantastic caves I’ve ever seen, I couldn’t help but think of the limestone crayeres(Gallo-Roman chalk pits) hewn out of the chalk subsoil of Reims when I saw the high and large caves. Until this trip, I hadn’t thought of limestone outside of wine regions and usually, when I think of limestone my thoughts go to Kimmeridgian soil, which is the basis for Burgundy, Champagne and the Loire Valley, France, where a porous bed of fossilized oyster shells adds a mineral dimension to grapes grown on it. Limestone also dominates the soil in Waikari, New Zealand.
I decided to go to an authentic pho place for my last dinner in Hanoi. A man on my cruise, an interesting German economist who was advising Vietnam on its economic policies, invited me to dinner but he was vegetarian but more importantly, I didn’t feel like going on a date with a stranger as I have someone else on my mind. I did, however, accept the use of his fleece in the cool and windy bay.
Following is the Frommer review of the pho place that I ate at:
Gia Thuyen Pho (Noodle Soup), 49 Bat Dan St. (on the west side of the Old Quarter near the old citadel wall), is a very popular storefront pho noodle soup stand in Hanoi's Old Quarter. If you've seen the Japanese film Tampopo about the making of the perfect noodle soup, or saw the Seinfeld episode about New York City's "Soup Nazi" who, because of his quality broth, chose his customers instead of vice versa, you'll have an idea what it's like. The line is around the block day and night, as Hanoians of all stripes humbly cue up for a taste of the best. The formula is simple: delicious cured beef, fresh noodles, and spices -- done the same way, over and over, for years. Just order "One please" (it is pho with beef or nothing) and pay the surly lady, who might even let a few customers go ahead of you if she doesn't like the cut of your jib. Unlike in most pho joints, no one serves you, so you have to carry your own bowl to an open slot at a crowded table (if you come with a friend, you might have to separate), and the place is as grotty as any little noodle stand, but when you pull those first noodles off the chopsticks and follow with a spoonful of broth, you'll know why you came. No phone. One bowl of pho is 12,000 VND (80¢/£0.45). Daily 6-11am and 6-11pm.
I went to the line and ordered my pho. I ordered the beef and pork for 30,000 kip, equivalent to less than $2usd. The proprietors were uninterested in me and did little to help me find a seat on the low chairs and tables provided. Four local men(two pictured) generously shared their beers, sampled me on the various dishes that they ordered(not on the menu!) and even offered to pickup the tab for my dinner -- so nice! The only word I could say was "com on," which means "thank you," which I said repeatedly. The pho was very good but I prefer the grilled chicken pho on Canal Street in Manhattan at a place called Pho Bang.
Coming back to the hotel, I received email from friends, including Stephanie. Her husband Tony will be picking me up in San Francisco. Will, my ex-boyfriend from college and my first love, also shot me a note; it is nice to be friends with him after so many years. My sister emailed me about making plans for my upcoming birthday. I'll celebrate both wine-Steph and my birthday at Apiary, Scott Bryan's new gig, this Friday -- Steph's pick.
I zigzagged the streets as I walked home. I think I also skipped a few meters. Tomorrow, I travel to Bangkok for a day en route to a long journey home.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Good morning, Vietnam or Chao buoi sang, Vietnam!