Pumpkin Soup and Hoi An’s many other beauties

Time, and the way we talk about time, is funny. All my fellow travelers said to me when I told them that I was going to Hoi An was that I was going to love the ancient city. And I did love it, but it was not what I had expected. Because the word ancient was emphasized so much I had pictured a place frozen in time. I had pictured a place where I would be able to feel the history with every step and imagined I would be surrounded by secrets which I would never be able to understand. But time does not freeze. Places change and grow just like people do. Many people were there to visit the ancient city, and so the ancient city changed in order to please them. There were many shops and restaurants with big open windows to let the breeze in, but none of them seemed to be for the locals. It seemed that now everything was there for us, and it was a little hard to see the ancient behind all the souvenirs.

But despite all of that, Hoi An was incredibly beautiful. The air was warm and the sun sparkled off the water and all the people around us seemed happy. There were flowers and brightly coloured fabrics on every corner and I really enjoyed poking around and looking at all the pretty things. It was quite a change from what we had been experiencing before. One evening as we made our way to the night market, we stopped for Piña Coladas on a boat bar on the river. It certainly wasn’t an “authentically Vietnamese” activity, but it was a wonderful place to watch the sun go down. Plus, after trekking for three days it felt good to treat ourselves to some summery drinks on a wooden boat.

But don’t get me wrong, the ancient city was there, you just had to look for it. Izzi and I bought a pass so we could see a collection of the preserved ancient houses and temples. I learned a lot from all of them. Many of the temples are actually Chinese temples. In the mid 17th century the Qing dynasty took power from the Ming Dynasty and many people who were not willing to obey the new regime took refuge in Vietnam. The Nguyen Lord welcomed them and gave them Vietnamese citizenship. Although the Chinese settled in many areas, Hoi An was the most popular. This migration influenced much of Hoi An’s architecture in a Chinese style.

The temples were very beautiful, but my favourite heritage site was the Duc An Bookstore, which was also highly influenced by the Chinese. It was built at the end of the 19th century and held books by many Chinese authors and philosophers including Khang Huu Vi and Luong Khai Sieu. Many early anti-French revolutionaries came to this bookstore to meet and discuss the progressive ideas from the Chinese authors. The book store was an important site for Vietnamese independence.

Hoi An was also full of little gems that, although not necessarily ancient, were wonderful all the same. Of course, we drank a lot of coffee and visited a lot of cafes but our absolute favourite was Reaching Out—a tea house built around a philosophy of silence. The point was to be at peace, enjoying the subtleties in the taste of the tea and the beauty around us. The spot was incredibly beautiful. Izzi and I fell in love with our surroundings and both felt like we could have stayed there forever. The silence was emphasized by the fact that all the servers were deaf so we weren’t able to communicate with them vocally. Instead they provided us with little wooden signs so we could ask for what we needed.

Reaching Out’s mission is to give jobs to individuals in the community who are disabled. Vietnam is not an easy place to live, and especially not with a disability, so Reaching Out gives those who need it a good, stable place to work where their rights are protected. All the servers at the tea house were deaf, but they have jobs for all sorts of differently abled people. Not far from the tea house they also have a workshop where they make beautiful gifts. The work shop is right behind the store so you can go in and see the craftspeople making everything. It was very hard for me to choose, but eventually I bought a couple beautiful little tea cups, a tea strainer, and some fair trade tea and coffee. If we hadn’t been backpacking and I didn’t have to worry about everything breaking I would have bought an entire tea set.

The Central Market was definitely the place to go for lunch. There were a lot of tourists, of course, but we found a stand that seemed to be popular with the locals called Mrs Hien’s, and waited for a spot there. It was definitely worth a bit of a wait. Izzi got a Cao Lao (noodles, broth, and beef) and I got a Bahn Mi and a pumpkin soup. I have to say that the Bahn Mi wasn’t as good as the one I had gotten in Hanoi, but the pumpkin soup was unbelievable. It was like no other pumpkin soup I had ever eaten before and it was definitely one of the most memorable meals I had during my time in Vietnam. When we finished eating, we went out the back instead of the way we came in and that’s where we found the real market. There were vegetables everywhere and live crabs with their claws tied up with twine. I strolled happily along the water taking in all the smells and sounds and feeling like I had really found Hoi An.

One of the main things to do in the little city is to take a cooking class. There are tons of options everywhere you go, but we decided on Vy’s Market after passing by on our first night there. When we signed up they told us not to eat for three hours before the class, but they really should have told us not to eat all day. When we arrived we met our guide, Cherry, who was wonderful. I say guide because the evening really felt like a tour. The place was set up with tables in the middle and then different stations dedicated to different types of food all along the edges. We started at the noodle making station, although we weren’t allowed to actually know the recipe for the dough since, apparently, it was a family secret of the chef’s. There we tried our best to cut the dough into noodle strips, which I failed miserably at. When I tried to go anywhere close to the speed of the chef the noodles came out way too thick, but if I slowed down to get them the right size I realized it was definitely not a sustainable pace. I was much better at the dumplings. First we got the dough to the right consistency using rice flour, then shaped it before wrapping it in a banana leaf. It was sticky and wonderful and I was really excited to add the filling later on.

We also made spring rolls, which were awesome, but my favourite thing to make was the Vietnamese pancakes. This was the most fun because I felt like I was actually doing everything myself and it turned out really well! I hadn’t tried that dish yet so it was cool trying something traditional that I had made myself.

And then there was the”Weird and Wonderful” station where we didn’t cook anything but had the chance to try some of Vietnam’s strangest and least tourist-friendly dishes. I liked the beef tongue best and the frogs were also great, but I just could not handle the duck fetus. I am a really adventurous eater and it takes a lot to pass my limit, but a duck that has been allowed to develop about half way inside its egg and then boiled and eaten… that was too much for me. At the end of the evening, when Izzi and I were both so full that we almost couldn’t eat the dumplings we had prepared at the beginning of the night, Cherry gave us a booklet of all the recipes we had tried out. I’m hoping to put some of them up here soon!

The cooking class was a Hoi An must-do, but we also couldn’t visit and not get some clothes made. Hoi An has been a tailor city for thousands of years. The ancient emperors used to have all of their clothes made by tailors from there and the tradition has lived on. Bing, our host at Cloudy Homestay, told us not to go to a place in the ancient city because they would surely overcharge us. Instead she sent us to Bao Diep tailer. I promise I really meant to just get one thing. All I wanted was a silk dressing gown, but they were too good. Kim, the lady helping me, knew exactly what she was doing. As soon as I sat down with her she handed me an iPad which already had the Pinterest app open. She told me to just look through everything for a while. “I can make anything you find on here,” she told me. After I picked the designs I wanted, we picked out the fabrics (I fell in love with linen that day) and then Kim took my measurements. I’ve never felt more like royalty. We went back the next day to try on the clothes and then after they made a few alterations they all ended up perfect. Needless to say, I got more than a dressing gown. I also got a dress, a skirt/shirt combo, a blazer, a white linen shirt, and some silk slippers. I’ve never had clothes that fit me so well, made specifically for my body’s individual shape. I spent much more than I had planned, but there is no way I would have ever been able to do that at home and the experience was amazing.

I felt very pampered by Hoi An. The way we treated ourselves there was definitely not how I’m accustomed to traveling, but it was definitely the best way to experience the city. Plus, some luxury was needed after our days in Sapa and before we made the trip to Saigon.

Rice Paddies, Buffalo, and the sad fate of the Cardamom Trees

Apparently Sapa Town is pretty beautiful. All the pictures of hostels we looked at on Hostel World had amazing views of lush green mountains. But alas, we were not meant to see them just yet. The town was so foggy when we got there that we couldn’t even see from one side of the street to the other and to make matters worse, it was cold. After being soaked to the bone for three days in Hanoi, we were not happy about the circumstances here. We tried to explore the town a bit and went in search for a good jacket for Izzi, but with the fog being what it was we soon decided just to head back to the hostel. The hostel served hot food, at least, so we treated ourselves to rice and veggies and sat as close as we could to the fire. We struck up conversation with a Canadian couple playing cards at the table next to us. They had just finished their trek and we were interested to hear their thoughts. Unfortunately, it turned out that they hadn’t been able to see anything for their whole trek because of the fog. One of them said that all she had wanted out of her trip there was to see a rice paddy and not even that had been possible. Izzi and I finished our meal glumly and then, downtrodden, took to our beds to rest up for what were pretty sure would be a disappointment. Looking back on it now, our mood seems pretty funny. We sulked all day in our beds, ready for the worst, when what actually lay ahead was the most amazing three days of our whole trip.

We had booked our trek with a company called Sapa Sisters. There are many tour groups to book with in Sapa, but most of them are owned by foreign operators or hotels and don’t actually do much to benefit the local people. Sapa sisters is run entirely by local Hmong women, so they benefit directly from the tours instead of working through a middle-man. In addition to truly supporting local tribes, since it’s run by women of the Hmong tribe, it gives them an opportunity to make their own living and to be independent from their fathers and husbands. I felt really good about our decision to book through them. The day after arriving we made our way to their office where we met with our guide, Cho. She explained the different routes to us and the different levels of difficulty —we decided on medium difficulty, although it was tempting to choose the highest level. Then we left our big bags in their storage room and rented some boots. They were thin rubber rain boots which looked like the kind of thing a little kid might wear while gardening with Mum. I was skeptical and was sure that I would be better off in my sneakers. But, Cho strongly recommended that I rent the boots which, of course, turned out to be the right decision.

Once we were all booted up and ready to go, we set off through the town behind Cho. Two Hmong women followed us out of the town and at first it made me a bit uncomfortable, since I had no idea why they would be following us. But, since Cho didn’t say anything I relaxed. I ended up being very happy to have them. Once we reached the hills it got very slippery on account of all the rain (this is the part where I was thankful for my boots). Going up the hills was easy enough, but once we started going down it was downright scary. One of the ladies grabbed my hand each time it looked like I was going to fall to steady me. Although I appreciated her intention, at first I was determined to do it all by myself. I had been hiking in Patagonia, for goodness sakes. I could do this! But then I fell… twice, and after that I accepted her help. Eventually I think she realized I was a somewhat capable hiker and we came to an unspoken understanding. She only offered her hand to me when she thought I would really need it and I learned to trust her definition of a tough spot. They stayed with us until we reached the town where we would be eating lunch. When we thankfully sat down at our table, very ready to eat, they unveiled what had been hidden the whole time in their beautifully woven baskets and it all made more sense to me. It was time for us to buy some of their crafts to thank them for their help. At first I was disappointed. I had naively thought that they were really just there to help us. But I was genuinely grateful for their help and the crafts were beautiful, so I bought a couple woven pouches. Over the next few days countless women and children would offer us help along our trek, obviously expecting us to buy from them afterwards. Cho explained to me that she couldn’t tell the other women to go away. If she did, she said, the community would say that she was bad and didn’t want to share her fortune with the rest of the tribe. But she also told me that it was absolutely fine for me to deny their help. I was very grateful for her explanation and afterwards I learned to say a polite but firm no thank you. 

Izzi and I both absolutely loved Cho. We had all been a little quiet at the start, but as we hiked and got to know each other better we began to joke and laugh quite a lot. She also taught us so much about our surroundings. Once, when we were walking through a more forested area she pointed out some trees which she said were Cardamom trees. She told us that the trees were becoming quite rare because of how the weather was changing. She said that before, it never never snowed in Sapa, but now it was snowing sometimes and the young Cardamom trees couldn’t survive it. She told us that the Hmong people say the tourists bring the snow because before the tourists came there was never any snow.

A Cardamom Tree

It was depressing to realize that there was a fair amount of truth in what they said. Perhaps the tourists didn’t directly bring the snow with them, but tourism means airplanes and airplanes mean carbon emissions and  carbon emissions mean climate change and climate change means strange weather patterns and strange weather patterns mean snow in Sapa. It was a very confusing mix of emotions, feeling very lucky to be there learning this from Cho but also knowing that I was at the very centre of the problem.

Indigo plants

Cho also pointed Indigo plants out to us. She told us to rub the leaves very fast in between our hands without warning us that it would turn our hands well… indigo. Maybe I should have thought about that myself, but I didn’t mind anyway. She told us that she is part of the Hmong Black people which have that name because they use Indigo to dye all their traditional clothing, which turns it all black. I was beyond happy to be learning all this. I really wished I could be writing it all down in my notebook, but that would have slowed down our trek significantly so I concentrated hard on remembering every fascinating tidbit that Cho shared with me.

I tried equally as hard to remember the sights, although taking a photo is a more socially acceptable form of delay than writing down notes. The fog turned out not to be a problem in the slightest for us and the entire trek we had perfect views of everything. Although visually they couldn’t have been more different, Sapa gave me a similar feeling to being in Patagonia. All the space around me seemed to have an extra dimension, as if the 3D world I was used to was actually very flat and I had just never noticed. As I looked around everything continuously seemed to be folding in and out of itself, looking very much alive. At times it would seem unbelievable that I was in the middle of all this beauty. The mountains made me feel very small. It’s a feeling I get often when I’m traveling and which I absolutely adore. I love feeling small because it reminds me that I am a part of something much bigger.

There were rice paddies all over the place and we hiked along thin paths which wound their way between them. I was actually surprised how much I liked the paddies. Usually I’m not a big fan of visible human impact on the land, but the rice paddies certainly felt like they had more of a right to be there than I did. They were carved so perfectly into the mountains and I couldn’t even begin to imagine how long they’d been there. Water buffalo roamed through them, grazing on the shoots in the water and I realized that the paddies were a part of humans and buffalo and rice living together in this place. Sapa wouldn’t be Sapa without them and they were spectacular.

I also grew quite fond of the bamboo. On our second day we hiked through a bamboo forest and the shoots grew tall and thick around us with only a tiny footpath to follow. It was dark in there, but the trunks were narrow, letting just enough light filter through them to give a mystical feeling. In other places, away from the forest, the trees clumped together in little patches, bending from the weight of their leaves which sat in tufts like a bad hair day and made them look like something from the world of Doctor Seuss.

After our long days of hiking it was always nice to arrive at our stopping points. On the first day we had stopped at a restaurant made for trekkers for lunch, which was fine. But that night we stopped at a homestay which we shared with two other small groups of travelers and which was infinitely better. We were given rice wine and amazing food and our hosts were so welcoming. Although we were tired, we stayed up chatting and drinking with the others, our goal being to finish our bottle of rice wine. Cho told us that in their culture, odd numbers were unlucky. So, for example, if you wanted a scoop of rice you had to take two and if you wanted three scoops of rice you’d have to take four. It turns out that the same goes for shots. Needless to say it was not difficult to finish the bottle.

Since Cho was good friends with the guide of one of the other groups we had lodged with, named Pen, we all continued the trek together the next day. For lunch we stopped at Pen’s mother’s house which I was naturally very excited about. It was wonderful to be inside a real home. Since the Chinese New Year was on its way everyone was in the middle of preparations, making traditional celebratory clothing.

They also served us the best rice dish Izzi and I would eat during our entire stay in Vietnam. I learned that nearly all the families there grow their own rice in their paddies and have their own vegetable gardens. Coming from where I come from, this seemed absolutely dreamy. Don’t I wish that everyone back home had the space and the time to grow their own food? Don’t I wish that everyone grew just enough to feed themselves and share with their neighbours? But, of course, Cho and many others don’t really feel the same way. Many people feel stuck in their lives, unable to do anything but grow rice for their families. It’s important to remember that the beautiful life of a small farm is only ideal if you have chosen it for yourself.

On the last of our three-day trek, Cho gave us the option of taking it easy and spending the day at a nearby waterfall, an offer we eagerly accepted. When leaving Sapa Town in the fog we had been so convinced the weather was going to be horrible that we almost spitefully left our bathing suites behind. Now, of course, we were irritated with ourselves, but we decided there was nothing wrong with swimming in our undies. When we got to the waterfall there was a bit of a chill in the air and getting into the water took some courage. But there are only so many opportunities to swim in a waterfall in Vietnam, so we stripped down and dove in. Yes, it was cold. There was a definite moment of shock that required some deep breathing, but it certainly wasn’t as bad as the salt lake in Chile. This time, Izzi lasted longer, too. The waterfall wasn’t very big but it was beautiful. The sound was gentle and calming and made me want to spend the whole day floating on my back with my face pointed up towards the sun. Every few minutes I would dive down into the river as deep as I could. It felt amazing to let the water run passed me and wash off all that travel. It made me feel more clean than even our nicest hostel shower had. When I came back up for air I settled again, half in the water and half in the sun. To my right there was an ancient looking tree which had grown out of the side of a small cliff. It grew low and twisted towards the sun, and its roots wrapped around a huge grey stone as they made their way down towards the river. Just next to it  two water buffalo, a mother and a calf, grazed in the rich green grass, not at all concerned with our splashing. Beyond them I could see the rice paddies carved endlessly into the mountain sides and I was glad that the cold water had turned my skin numb so that I could concentrate all my focus onto what I was seeing.

My body felt tired as I pulled myself out of the water and I loved it. I sat and warmed myself in the sun with the others and it was impossible to imagine a more perfect way to end the most glorious three days. We still had most of our trip to go, but even then I knew that our trek in Sapa would be very difficult to beat.

Cat Ba Island: A breath of fresh air

Izzi and I really did mean to visit Ha Long Bay. In fact, it was one of the things I was most excited about after looking up pictures on the internet pre-trip. To me, it was the perfect Asian water landscape and I couldn’t wait to see it. Unfortunately, we did not make it to Ha Long Bay. When buying our train and bus tickets in Hanoi we got some dates mixed up and in the end we had a grand total of only 24 hours on Cat Ba Island.

Getting there was an adventure in itself. First we took a five hour bus ride from Hanoi and then a 45 minute ferry to the island. The bus was a hilarious nightmare. The length wasn’t so bad, five hours is nothing when you’re traveling, but for some reason the driver decided that it would be appropriate to blast horrible dub step the entire way. Nobody on the bus wanted to say anything to him, so we sat with our own music turned up as loud as it could possibly go, trying our best to get some sleep. Part of me thinks that he really just liked that kind of music and wanted to play it, but it was so bad and so loud that another part of me thinks he just wanted to torture the tourists. When we got off the bus and looked around, I was a little confused. We were at a rather shabby dock with rusty fishing boats sitting in water that looked less than pristine. This wasn’t exactly the paradise I had pictured, but we were hurried onto the ferry and my mood lifted as we started off across the water.

I dozed in an out of the sleep, soothed by the rocking of the boat, and when I opened my eyes I spotted an island shrouded with mist and mystery in the distance. Land ho. When we arrived on land we got on yet another bus and then finally, we arrived in town. The company we had booked the bus/ferry through also owned a hostel in town called Full Moon Hostel, and that’s where we disembarked. I was not thrilled about the hostel and the town in general gave me a weird feeling. It seemed almost ghostly, as if it no longer had any purpose but to feed and house the tourists coming through. At least, that was the impression from the centre of town. But as it turns out, the hostel Izzi had booked was about half an hour away from town. After such a long trip to get there I wasn’t looking forward to another drive, and the taxi wasn’t cheap, but man was it worth it.

The hostel was called Woodstock Beach Camp and it was located at the tip of a little cove. The air immediately felt better when I got out of the taxi and I filled my lungs with the wind coming off of the water. The beach was literally steps from the front of the hostel and there were no other houses or lodgings anywhere I could see. After the chaos of Hanoi the calm and quiet was very welcome. It was our own little paradise—our own miniature Ha Long Bay. The stone mountains stuck out of the water in rounded points that reminded me of hands emerging from the deep.

Photo credit: Izzi McDonnell

After walking up and down the beach a couple of times, our toes digging into the sand, we decided to stay put, right where we were. Getting to Ha Long Bay would have meant getting in another taxi and another bus to take us there. We had less than 24 hours to enjoy the island and, although it meant missing the main attraction, we decided to relax and enjoy.

The hostel was an absolute dream. It was hard to tell who worked there and who was a guest because everyone hung out all together. Izzi and I joined in for a game of cards and then some pirate dice game that I don’t remember the name of, let alone the rules. The cans of cheap Hanoi beer were distributed through a tab system, so they were plentiful and we had soon made friends with the others. The hostel was home to a litter of puppies who loved to snuggle, the cherry on top of this perfectly comfortable place.

Photo credit: Izzi McDonnell

We lounged for a while in the pillows and tapestries, but after a while Izzi and I decided to explore a bit more. Woodstock actually had a kayak of its own named Simon (Garfunkel had recently been lost in the high tide) so after less than gracefully pulling it through the mud, we slid the boat and ourselves into the water. We spent a few hours pushing ourselves silently through the cove. Although it wasn’t raining (thank goodness) the sky was grey and the reflection of the clouds turned the water into melted silver.

One of the guys who worked at the hostel had told us about an old bunker left over from the war so, naturally, we went off in search of it. We managed to find it—it was the only metal door in the side of the rock—but after clambering up towards it and pulling hard on the handle, I realized it was locked. It wouldn’t budge a bit. I called down to Izzi to tell her that it was sealed shut, and I could hear my voice echo from inside the bunker. It sounded like a real adventure inside and all I wanted was to follow the sound of my voice into the tunnel. But it was not to be, so we continued our adventure on the water, stopping in the middle of the cove and sitting in silence.

That night we played more cards and drank more beer and eventually ended up in the middle of a big game of twister. I ended up winning, to my enormous surprise, and my prize was a shot of rice wine. It was my first one of the trip, but it certainly wouldn’t be my last. Not long after the shot I decided it was time for me to go to bed. The next day we were starting out journey towards Sapa so I climbed into my top bunk and fell soundly asleep, exhausted from the rejuvenating day.

Of course, seeing Halong Bay would have been amazing and we wouldn’t have missed it if we had just one more day. But sometimes you need moments like our day in Cat Ba while you’re traveling. You need to allow yourself a few opportunities to ignore the “must sees” and just be. Enjoy where you are, because even if it’s not on the TripAdvisor Top 10, it’s the first time you’ve ever been there, and will probably be the last. Plus, at least this way we weren’t contributing to the pollution caused by the tour boats in the water… right?

 

Note:

Have you noticed that some of the best pictures on this blog are credited to Izzi? She’s an absolutely amazing photographer. Do yourself a favour and follow her on Instagram! @izzixmcdn

Vietnamese Yogurt Coffee

When I was traveling in Vietnam, I spent a significant portion of my time drinking coffee. Vietnam is famous for its coffee and they serve it many different ways whether it be coconut milk coffee, egg coffee, or yogurt coffee. Although I wasn’t a huge fan of the egg concoction, by the end of my trip I had acquired a deep appreciation for yogurt coffee. When I first tried it I found it very strange. It’s definitely not a flavour I had ever tasted before. But it grew on me and grew on me until I was craving it every morning. It’s the absolute perfect way to start your day because its breakfast and coffee all at once. Once I got back to Montreal I absolutely had to figure out how to make it for myself. Now, there are more complex and perhaps authentic recipes out there that involve making your own yogurt, but I want something I will realistically make for myself in the morning so I use store bought yogurt. If you want to try to make the yogurt yourself — good on you!

Ingredients

2 Tbsp of quality espresso

1 cup of plain yogurt

3 tsp of sugar

5 ice cubes

Directions

1     Make the espresso. If you have an espresso machine at home feel free to use that, but since I do not I used a small macchinetta. If you don’t have either this could also work with drip coffee, but a shot of espresso is preferable because you want a small amount of strong coffee. If you do use a drip machine, make only half a cup.

2     Once the espresso is done, stir in the sugar. I suppose you don’t need to use 3 teaspoons if you’re trying to cut down on your sugar intake, but it didn’t taste quite right until I got up to 3.

3     Put the espresso in the fridge for about 15 minutes to cool. It doesn’t have to be ice cold, but if you pour the hot espresso onto the yogurt it will curdle.

4     Once the espresso is cool, put the ice cubes then the yogurt in a large glass. A mason jar is the perfect size.

5     Pour the cooled espresso over the yogurt then stir until all the contents are well combined.

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.