Hello, Hanoi

My memories of Hanoi will always be very wet. No, January is not rainy season in Vietnam, but for some reason the weather decided to rebel (let’s continue to deny climate change, shall we?). The result of this rebellious weather was that I probably have a very different perception of Hanoi than I would have had in the sun. In the rain, Old Hanoi reminded me of an intricate network of canals instead of roads. The trees hung low over the streets and the old houses seemed to cling to them like cliffs along a river. The cars and motorcycles moved incessantly through the streets with the fluidity of running water and the bikers with their brightly coloured ponchos all clumped together felt like waves. Maybe in dryer circumstances my brain would have made other connections. But it is as it was.

Izzi finds shelter

Izzi and I spent a lot of time dodging these motorcycle waves. We would often spend several minutes watching traffic pass only to look up and realize that there was a walk sign lit and we actually had the right of way. It seemed that red lights only apply to cars, and motorbikes would move along as they wished. Since there are way more motorcycles than cars, this didn’t make the traffic lights particularly helpful. Not that the cross walks were plentiful, even if they had helped. There were many moments when in order to get from point A to point B we simply had to cross without help from any signage. While crossing one particularly scary rotary I found myself clutching Izzi’s hand and whispering to myself “I am with the force, the force is with me, I am with the force”. However by the end of our trip, if not by the end of our stay in Hanoi, we understood the art of crossing the road. The key is to cross with confidence — slowly enough that the bikes see you approaching, but never stopping so that you don’t confuse anybody.

Izzi get stuck

Since Izzi and I both love to wander the streets when when we travel, a large portion of our time was spent cafes. This is not a problem in Vietnam, since the country is famous for its coffee, which I didn’t actually know until we started planning our trip. There are many types of coffee which are famously Vietnamese. Perhaps the most well known is the weasel coffee. This strange coffee is made by feeding coffee cherries to civets, or weasels, and the beans are fermented while traveling through the digestive track. Originally, this was done with wild civets. The animals would pick the quality coffee cherries from the ground and then the digested beans would be collected. Now, however, most of the weasel coffee in circulation is produced in farms. This method has raised many ethical concerns because the weasels are force fed the cherries and there have been many reports of them being kept in horrible conditions. For this reason, Izzi and I didn’t buy any while we were there. If you can be sure that the weasel coffee you’re buying is from wild civets then by all means, buy some. But this is a difficult thing to be sure of as a tourist. Otherwise, weasel coffee is an industry that I strongly discourage supporting.

After walking around for a few days in Hanoi, I ended up with a few favourite coffee spots (CaPhes, as they’re called there). The one that sticks out best in my memory is Wi Vity Young on Hang Dâu street. We had originally sat down there because it had seats outside on the sidewalk which were covered by a little overhang from the roof. Since the rain wasn’t too heavy at that moment, we took the opportunity to rest and people-watch for a while. It was the perfect place to do that. The cafe was right on a very busy corner where we could watch women bicycle by with their bamboo hats and huge baskets of fruit hanging from rods balanced across their shoulders. It was there that I tried Vietnamese iced yogurt coffee for the first time. At first the taste was very surprising. It was an odd combination of sweet and sour from the yogurt and also a bit bitter from the espresso. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at first, but it ended up being my absolute favourite by the end of the trip. As soon as I got back to Montreal I managed to recreate it which is great because it is the ultimate breakfast.

Right around the corner from Wi Vity Young was another cute little place which, unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of. Here I tried egg coffee — another typical one in Vietnam.  The drink seemed to consist of a frothed egg on top of an espresso shot with sugar. I don’t think I could recreate this one at home since I’m not sure exactly what they did to the egg, but I’m not sure I would want to anyway. It wasn’t bad, definitely worth a try considering how famous it is. But for me the egg was just too heavy, regardless of the frothiness, and it was difficult to get it all down.

Finally, there’s Cong CaPhe. This place is actually a chain, which we realized after traveling a bit more around the country. It doesn’t feel like it, though. When Izzi told me she was taking me to a communist themed cafe, I had sort of pictured communist-commercial. You know, a big place with posters of famous communist leaders on the walls and fake propaganda everywhere. However, this was certainly not the case. Instead each Cong was a tiny little cafe with simple green walls with almost no decoration. We sat on tiny wooden stools at tiny wooden tables. Stepping in there felt like stepping back in time, which was really cool. They also had an amazing coconut iced coffee which was another of my go-tos throughout the trip.

But in between all of our coffee stops, we did manage to see some sights. One of the most striking spots we visited which was a little off the beaten path, was the old train tracks. It took us a long time to find them. We stopped to check our map and turned around more times than I could count, but for a romantic like me it was worth it. The tracks were lined so closely with houses that I could stand with one foot on the rails and reach out to touch the façades with my finger tips. The houses were each uniquely pretty with plants and laundry breathing life into each of them. They seemed to curve and move along with the tracks like I imagine the houses do in Venice along the canals (more water imagery for you). I thought the tracks would be abandoned, but they weren’t. We didn’t see any while we were there, but trains still use the tracks and it was shocking to imagine the rumble they must make through the closely stuck houses.

That same day we visited Hoå Lo Prison, a somber must-see. The prison was originally built by the French to hold Vietnamese resisters to colonization. Puppets are now used to recreate the conditions of those inside, and it was really astounding to see. Prisoners would be chained by their feet and legs so that they had to go to the bathroom right where they were sitting. In the cells that held multiple people there was often not enough air and prisoners would take turns in spots where the air moved more freely so they could take full breaths. Since much of the resistance was made up of women, many babies ended up being born in Hoå Lo and were kept prisoners with their mothers. According to the information available inside, some of the prisoners over the years managed to escape. We saw the entrance to a tunnel they used and read about how they chiseled their way out, but I still don’t completely understand. How did they get out of their cells in the first place in order to get to the tunnel? How did the guards not find the tunnel entrance? It remains a mystery to me and I can’t believe how strong these prisoners must have been to manage to escape even after being abused and malnourished for so long. Years later, Håo Lo was used by the North Vietnamese to imprison American soldiers. It turns out that this is actually where John McCain was held. The videos we watched told us that the prison was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton because of how well the prisoners there were treated. However, I’m not sure I really believe them. The videos were extremely propagandic. I mean, really, these were prisoners of war. There’s no way they were treated as well as they showed in the videos every single day. Although I certainly don’t trust the US government on what exactly was going on during the Vietnam War, I don’t trust the Vietnamese government either.

On the day we went to see the Temple of Literature, we decided to go by one of those push bikes with the carriages (I’m not exactly sure what they’re called). It was something we felt we had to do at least once while we were in Hanoi and it was fun, but I felt a little bit guilty for the whole ride. Our chauffeur was just one guy pushing both me and Izzi and  the cart. I know it’s his job and he would rather we gave him business than not, but it felt elitist and made me uncomfortable. At one point he slowed down so much that I was sure he had run out of steam, but it turns out we had just arrived at our destination. When I heard “Temple of Literature”, I had pictured a sort of library, but that it was not. It was a very classic looking temple with statues of old teachers with incense and offerings of fruit and money everywhere. I prayed for success in grad school, although I didn’t leave an offering so I hope that doesn’t come back to bite me. The coolest part was the names of all the graduates that were etched into stone turtles. They were so old that they were written in Chinese characters. I hadn’t realized that before French colonization these were the characters used in Vietnam. It was the French who westernized Vietnamese writing. I also learned that there are three sacred creatures in Vietnamese culture — the Unicorn, the Phoenix, and the Turtle. It makes sense that the names of all the doctors who graduated from this Temple of Literature would have their names immortalized on the backs of the turtles. Turtles live such long lives and with their medical degrees the graduates were to lengthen the lives of their fellow humans. This is pure speculation of course, don’t quote me on it, but it makes sense in my head.

Of course, we absolutely had to see the shrine of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s communist revolutionary leader and president. Walking towards it I could only think that the architecture was just as I had imagined communist built structures to be. It was simple and imposing, built with huge slabs of black stone and grey concrete. It was solid, strong, and intimidating, and reinforced most of the assumptions my only partly educated imagination had made about what something like this would look like. There were guards everywhere, pointing seriously in the direction we were expected to walk and shooing us away when we misstepped. Not one for uniformity and homogenization, Izzi seemed to get more rambunctious the more serious the guards were. As we got close to Ho Chi Minh’s body and the guards demanded silence she let out a laugh. I shiver at the thought of what would happen to her under such strict rule, but I was glad for her joyous company. My mood is very easily influenced by my surroundings. Although, they didn’t give us much time to really take in the experience. As soon as we got inside the stone cube that is his shrine, we were ordered to keep moving as we walked in a surprisingly fast-paced circle around his embalmed body. It wasn’t even really enough time to understand that I was in the presence of a dead body, let alone the significance of that particular body. It was a strange experience. I kept thinking about the massive structure we were inside with the undoubtably expensive upkeep that goes along with it. I might be mistaken, I haven’t yet read Marx, but isn’t communism about redistribution and equality? Yet there we were worshiping this one man as if he were a god. Our trip to the shrine wasn’t really the most fun we had in Hanoi, but it was really important to see. It’s important to remember that behind all the cute little coffee shops, beautiful ceramic, and delicious Pho there is a very complicated political history that played an enormous part in shaping Vietnam. Not everything is lovely.

The water-puppet show we saw at the Thang Long Puppet Theatre, however, was. Water puppetry is an old folk tradition which was started in ancient rice paddies during the rainy season when all the paddies were flooded. Of course the art form has developed immensely and the shows are much more intricate now, but they still tell the same classic stories of village life and feature key characters like the dragon, the unicorn, and the turtle. The puppets were amazing to see as they glided through the water telling their tales. The puppeteers were hidden behind a curtain and made the characters dance with long poles. There was also live music and actors who gave the characters voices. Although we couldn’t understand a word they were saying, they gave the story so much life and it was fun to watch. My favourite one was the dragon because as it came out into the stage it brought fire and smoke along with it. I absolutely loved the contrast between the smoke and the water. The effect was absolutely dreamlike.

On our last day in Hanoi we visited the Ethnology Museum. It was well curated and we walked around for hours drawn in by each beautiful artifact. I love objects — I love the stories they tell about how life was lived through them. They show us ways that we are different from one another as well as similar. It was exciting learning about Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups since soon we would be heading for Sapa, a region that is home to many minority cultures. I tried to take in as much as the information as I could, but there was so much that there was no way I was going to retain it all, or even most of it. Later in Sapa, though, Izzi tapped me on my shoulder and pointed to an interesting basket a passing woman was carrying. She reminded me that we had seen that type of basket in the ethnology museum and I was happy that we got to see the object in action. You see, I have complicated feelings towards museums of this kind. It seems a shame to me to put these objects behind glass. They’re not fine art; they’re things that are meant to be touched, to be used, to be interacted with. It is impossible to understand them with only your eyes. To connect with them you have to physically connect with them. I was particularly frustrated while reading about one of the culture’s animist beliefs. They believe that everything, every object, has a soul. Everything has meaning and life inside of it, regardless of whether or not it is actually alive. Reading this and then looking at this same culture’s objects behind glass seemed totally wrong. From their perspective we had caged spirits, trapped them forever in a zoo of objects where they would never be handled the way they were meant to be again. That being said, I understand the importance of conservation. I didn’t boycott the museum; I wanted to learn about the objects like everyone else. These parts of culture and history are so important. We want to understand people and these things are a wonderful way to begin to do that. Like most things, it’s a topic I find immensely complicated.

But intertwined with all of this — the museums, the politics, the history — is food. You cannot talk about Hanoi without talking about food. One of my favourite spots was the Hanoi Social Club, which Izzi found. I had the best jasmine green tea I’ve ever had. The food was amazing too. It tasted like Vietnam, but with a twist. The cooks there used local flavours and ingredients but in a very contemporary way. They were clearly experimenting, creating, and having fun. Although we went for lunch both times we went there, they hold poetry readings and have live music at night which I’m sure must be a blast. It also turns out that it’s a place you can feel good about eating at. All the cooks who work there are a part of a program that teaches quality hospitality skills to impoverished youth. Each bite of their spectacular food convinced me that the program must be working and that they definitely have a solid food career ahead of them.

We ate a lot of classic Vietnamese food, too. The main event, of course, was Pho. Pho is the type of thing best eaten on the street. This may seem like risky business, but the key is to find a place with lots of locals eating. This not only ensures that the food is good, but that the ingredients are fresh since the turnover is faster. Also, if you can see the food (which you often can in a street food situation) check to see if the soups and broths are boiling. Boiling liquids kill off any bacteria. We ended up sitting down at a place called Pho Keu (we couldn’t help but be amused by the name) and it was great. We sat down on the classic tiny plastic stools under the familiar drizzle. Since this was my first street food experience in Vietnam I opted for beef Pho since I was unsure about the safety of eating chicken. Looking back now I laugh at my cautious, naive self considering how much street chicken I would end up eating by the end of our trip. The Pho we got was about $2, huge, and amazing. It was pure and simple, perfect for my first real Pho experience.

But the dish I find myself craving now that I’m back in Montreal is not Pho, but Bahn Mi. I don’t think I’ll ever eat a better Bahn Mi than the one I had at Moto Bar in the French Quarter. The pork was tender and the juices, combined with just the right amount of chili, seeped into the baguette and gave it flavour, too. The baguette itself was also amazing, crisp on the outside and unbelievably soft on the inside. As I sat there munching I was reminded of the French. It’s amazing how occupation manifests itself in such interesting places in a culture — like the perfect baguette in the middle of Asia.

Hanoi was, to put it lightly, a lot. It is an undeniably overwhelming city where at any moment you could get hit by a motorbike or, in our case, drowned by the incessant rain. But I truly loved it. All this craziness and chaos was just a manifestation of a place full of life.

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