It is nearly impossible to believe that just 24 (or is it 48?) hours ago I was strolling languidly along an endless beach in Zanzibar, gazing down at the pure white sand to make sure I didn’t bang my already black & blue toe on another hidden rock. And now I’ve just arrived back to the sanctuary that is my hotel room after navigating Hanoi’s Old Quarter for four hours on foot, carefully looking every which way to make sure I didn’t get run down by a horn-blaring motor scooter. Before my arrival here, I was trepidatious about the dramatic shift in pace from the serenity of the island to the chaos of Vietnam. But I gotta say – I LOVE IT HERE!
Frenetic. That is the word that first comes to mind when I try to figure out how to describe this city. So I feel compelled to write about my experience thus far in just such a way – wildly, uncontrollably, perhaps even a bit madly…
Here are a few things I came across during my initial wanderings (and this is only one morning spent in Old Town Hanoi):
A somewhat disheveled old man perched on his motorbike, tweezers in hand as he gazed into this rearview mirror, searching the top of his head for gray hairs to pluck.
A tiny chihuahua dancing frantically around the doorway of a jewelry store, collared in a fake crystal bracelet. (And yes, of course I stopped to play with her. Adorable.)
A motorbike whizzing by with a passenger (thankfully not the driver) desperately holding onto a full-size glass sliding door. Another old woman racing past with a small garden clinging to her motorbike – plants, tree and all…glaring at me as I tried to snap her picture.
Hello Kitty helmets, army green mesh-covered pith helmets, floral-covered helmets worn by young men, sporting matching face masks (which are quite popular here … lots of pollution).
An old, stooped man who glanced at my distressed face as I tried to navigate my way across an impossibly busy street and decided to take pity on me, marching me across as if hundreds of speeding motor scooters were mere flies to be swatted. Then he took the time to point to my gaping, open purse (that I had failed to close after searching for my map) and motioned for me to close it up. Kind GENTLEman.
Finding myself on a side street and stopping suddenly as I realized it was devoid of honking, honking, honking. What?! A sudden quiet. Impossible. And delightful. Then my other senses kicked into gear and I inhaled the strongest smell of dried fish imaginable. Was that dried seahorse next to the diminutive pink shrimp? Possibly.
Plucking my glasses out of my purse to once again stare at an impossible-to-read map then having the lightbulb moment of remembering … Google Maps! My savior. As long as I took the time to step well away from the streets teaming with whizzing transport to stare at the screen.
Searching for “Silk Road” – which my hotel concierge had kindly recommended I visit – an area purportedly full of fabrics of every possible design and color. And realizing every time I looked at my iPhone that I was, somehow, getting farther and farther from my destination. And then saying, “Sod it” (a favorite phrase I picked up from my British friends) – and looking instead for Bahn Mi 25 which is said to have the best Vietnamese sandwiches in town. And arriving at my destination to find a tiny cart filled with fresh rolls and pate and thinly shaved pork and cilantro and delicately shredded carrots… with a smiling young woman pointing to an impossibly small royal blue plastic stool upon which I perched to eat the BEST Bahn Mi I’ve ever had. Despite the fact that a loud Australian guy took residence next to me and proceeded to tell me his sad tale of unrequited love with a local Vietnamese girl (“She looks like a model!”). After 10 minutes of listening to his heart wrenching tale in which he fretted about trying to find a teaching job here so he could live in Hanoi to be with his princess (who he had just met days ago), I then learned of his past Balinese girlfriend and others scattered around Asia. Ah … love.
Once I handed over the 20,000 VND ($0.89!!) for my Bahn Mi I realized I only had an hour and half before my afternoon walking tour with Hanoi Kids*. Recognizing my inability to get anywhere without taking at least 10 wrong turns, I headed off in what I believed was the direction of my next destination – Cafe Giang – home of what was supposed to be the best Egg Coffee in town. Google Maps told me it was only a 10-minute walk. I arrived 25 minutes later. Regardless – up the rickety stairs I headed (after asking directions of course), and after perching myself on yet another doll-sized stool, I ordered my Egg Coffee (“Hot or cold, miss?” … “Um … I don’t know? What’s your favorite?!” Blank stare… “Hot or cold, miss?” “Hot please!”). Not two minutes later a small cup of dreamy hot goodness was placed in front of me. A thick layer of sweet, sticky, eggy cream floated on top of spicy, strong, hot coffee. Mana from heaven. And necessary for the rest of my day.
I then pulled out my iPhone to type in the last leg of my journey, only to find that my battery was dying… a sinister half-red battery icon staring at me. Frantic that I would be forever lost in the depths of Hanoi – I typed in my hotel’s address. And found that it was a mere five-minute walk away. I made it in 13.
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*If ever you find yourself in Hanoi – I urge you to check out Hanoi Kids. A volunteer organization comprised of young Vietnamese eager to practice their English – this group of students provides free-of-charge tours throughout the city.
My tour guide Sang was an utter delight. After whisking me through the Temple of Literature for a private tour, he found a random little joint that served the most delicious sticky rice … a few stories above the teaming streets of the Old Quarter. We sat and talked about everything from family to government to films to travel. He talked about flower-shaped snow (snow flakes!) and his dreams of traveling to Europe, then of his love of Manchester United and the summers he still spends harvesting rice with his family. He was fascinated with everything about my life – from my solo (what!??) global trip to the picture of redwoods I showed him on my iPhone to the similarities in internet coverage between his home town and the villages I visited in Africa.
After our sticky rice we headed across the street to Cong Caphe for coconut coffee… yet another heavenly coffee drink laced with coconut ice cream and rivulets of strong java. He explained that the shop used to be a prison which, as I looked around at the barred windows started to make sense. We continued to chat for I-don’t-know-how-long … among other thing he asked if I had any pets and then proceeded to tell me that his parents used to raise dogs to sell as food as I tried, unsuccessfully, not to bury my head in my hands.
After hours together, I felt like Sang was my long-lost little brother. He laughed at his pronunciation of various English words (apparently “R’s” are especially tricky) as I punched him lightly in the shoulder when he told me of his adoration of Taylor Swift. When we arrived (too soon!) at my hotel, I reached out my hand to shake his – but he happily insisted on a hug. I asked for and received his Facebook name and now hope we will be BFFs forever.