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Reflections on historical memory: Hanoi

Written by Chaz on 4 July 2011

Much more so than Thailand, Vietnam seemed to wear its past on its sleeve. When you think about it, the country has had a series of particularly unfortunate circumstances, between the French and American interventions. It’s pretty easy to see how those historical circumstances could lead to a strong sense of collective nationalism, resulting in the communism that tore the country’s economy apart in the ’70s. Though the government has taken a China-like tact since then, liberalizing the economy while maintaining tight authoritarianism politically, the nation’s socialist identity was evident from the moment we got our visas, which proudly proclaimed that we were welcome to one visit to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. (It’s also worth noting that Vietnam was the only country that required us to get a visa.)

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On our first morning in Hanoi, during our first walk through the city, we walked by a statue of Lenin on our way to a museum celebrating the great things Ho Chi Minh did for the nation, leaving there for a museum of party-approved Vietnamese art. Though we didn’t appear to have minders watching us, it was still a pretty surreal feeling. The most interesting part to me about all that is that the value system it reflects: above all else, communism — but above that, communist leaders. Sure, the nation Lenin was running didn’t turn out hugely successful, but at least everyone was equal. Well, except for Lenin, who was even more equal. It’s a different sort of truth. Uncle Ho did do great things for the country, in a certain sense. Vietnam was able to become an independent socialist nation, and if that’s your standard of evaluation, then he did an excellent job.

Similarly, at the Hanoi Hilton, the total denial that the Vietnamese soldiers did anything untoward to their American prisoners isn’t exactly doing the country’s reputation any favors. We haven’t forgotten that terrible atrocities were committed in that prison, even if the prisoners did leave alive, and lying about it is repugnant as well. I’m not exactly sure what they should say in their little museum, but perhaps that’s why you shouldn’t torture people. Much of the prison has been demolished to make way for a high-rise; maybe they should have demolished the whole thing.

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Unfortunately, the country, which is the world’s 13th most populous at 90 million, appears to have remained totally underdeveloped. As soon as we drove away from the airport when we arrived, we were surrounded by rice patties separated by dense jungle reminiscent of any Vietnam War movie. Hanoi sprung up out of nowhere, starting with a few ramshackle buildings and growing into the dense center of the city, which wasn’t all that much more finished.

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Interestingly, this apparently proud and defiant national identity didn’t seem to be reflected in the city’s restaurant scene. We found that the best, most authentic Vietnamese food was to be had on the streets, not in the city’s fine restaurants. Perhaps this is just because the nicest restaurants are funded by outside investors with the purpose of attracting outside tourists, but it didn’t suggest a culture of exalted national cuisine. In fact, I get that impression more from Vietnamese restaurants back home, which very much embrace the idea of bringing out the best from Vietnam.

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Our time in Vietnam was fascinating in a very different way than any of our previous stops. Hong Kong and Thailand are changing, even dramatically, but neither had quite the sense of truly being at a crossroads that I got in Hanoi. As I read the latest from each of the countries we visited, I’ll have a very different perspective on all of them after having been there, but I’m particularly intrigued about what lies in Vietnam’s future. In the meantime, I’ll have great memories of some delicious food.

Welcome to Singapore

Written by Emmy on 3 July 2011

Saturday brought even more torrential rains to Hanoi. We woke up at 5:30 a.m., hoping to check out another round of tai chi. This time I was going to go in my official outfit. But when we woke up and saw the pouring rain, we decided it would deter even the most determined Vietnamese exercisers.

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We headed back to sleep, woke up at a slightly more reasonable hour and enjoyed our last hotel buffet breakfast. We went to meet the cab we had prearranged to take us to the airport, but it never came. As the hotel attempted to call us another one, a German family also departing for the airport generously offered to let us join them — they had been touring Hanoi with a guide and a van, and had an extra row in their car. On our trip to the airport we got to hear a very flattering tale of Ho Chi Minh’s early life from the family’s guide, making it even more apparent that the Vietnamese people have been taught a filtered version of history.

Once at the airport, our new friends headed for the business class line at Singapore Air and we made a beeline for the long line at the more budget Tiger Airways. Apparently due to a technical malfunction of some kind, the desk could not print luggage tags, creating a bit of a hold up. With handwritten stickers indicating our destination on our suitcases, we were quite suspect that the bags would follow us south. We finally checked in and spent some downtime in the rather sparse Hanoi airport before boarding our plane.

Three-ish hours and a time change later, we landed in Singapore. The Singapore airport is legendary for its amenities, including a swimming pool. However, when one lands in the literally named Budget Terminal, the bonus features are not included. After claiming our suitcases — which did miraculously make it — we donned our Vietnamese rice patty hats and went to find Vernie. (We just wanted to make sure she could see us.)

Vernie lives on the eastern side of the island, not too far from the airport. At just a quarter of the size of Rhode Island, Singapore is a tiny country. The island nation is totally urbanized, covered from end to end in tall apartment buildings.

Vernie and her dad, who graciously drove us around throughout our time in Singapore, narrated our quick journey back to their apartment, giving us an intro to the city and pointing out all the sights we would get to see.

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Note: it was basically dark when we landed in Singapore. This is a sunnier view of the city.

After a quick shower, we headed out on the town. Singapore is known for its efficiency, and true to form, we were able to take the MRT — which stands for Mass Rapid Transit — straight downtown. We were not originally supposed to have a weekend night in Singapore, but following our last-minute change in travel dates, Vernie was able to plan a great Saturday night. We went to Clarke Quay, a must-see nighttime spot on any tour of Singapore. The whole area felt almost like Disney World: restaurant after restaurant, all representing a different world cuisine, and all with seating on the water. After the crowded and dirty streets of our prior stops, the perfectly immaculate and spotless streets of Singapore were a bit of a culture shock. Plus, jaywalking is illegal, a real adjustment following Hanoi.

We took a walk around the whole area before sitting down to eat at Brewerkz, a German-themed brewery. Our very Western entrees of grilled mushrooms, pesto pasta and chili could not have been a further cry from the foods we had been eating for the past three weeks. After catching up over dinner, the three of us met up with Dhiviya, one of Vernie’s friends from secondary school. Our tour of a Saturday night as Singaporeans continued with drinks on a bridge, and then our first taste of the clubbing scene.

After a fantastic night, we returned home to get some sleep in preparation for our whirlwind Singaporean foodie tour.

Rain, rain go away

Written by Emmy on 2 July 2011

On Friday, we were supposed to see this:

Instead, we saw this:

An incoming typhoon and monsoon-like rains prevented our trip to Halong Bay. When the weather turns tumultuous, the local government does not allow tourist boats into the water. And since that’s the only way to see the world-renowned sight, our overnight trip was canceled. (It took a series of emails, phone calls and visits to the front desk before we were able to actually confirm that the trip was canceled, but that can mostly be chalked up to the language barrier.)

Because we had already seen most of Hanoi and because the apocalyptic rains showed no signs of stopping, we decided to spend one last day exploring Vietnam and move our departure to Singapore up to Saturday. (Thanks to Tiger Airways and Maison D’Hanoi for making our logistical moving-and-shaking pretty easy.)

Determined not to allow the weather to ruin our final moments in Vietnam, we set off to find the opera house in the nicest part of Hanoi, flanked by designer stores and fancy hotels (including the Hilton Hanoi Opera, so named to avoid awkward confusion).

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IMG_2895After snapping a quick picture, we sought refuge in the International Press Club, a recommended coffee stop. In Thailand, the delicious cuisine was missing one key item: coffee. In our two weeks, we only encountered weak, instant coffee. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, seem to have learned an important lesson while under French rule. The cafe au lait drinkers may have been driven out of the country half a century ago, but their caffeine-worshipping behavior left an impact.

We followed our coffee stop with a lunch break. Walking through a monsoon is awfully tiring. We headed to Tamarind Cafe, a recommended vegetarian restaurant. The cuisine had a Vietnamese influence, but clearly was going for more of an international menu. We had a mixed salad and summer rolls with tofu and veggies. I tried Double Happiness, which was not quite the bundle of joy I thought it was going to be. It turned out to be fried tofu with a side of noodles, which was relatively bland in comparison to many of the other things we’ve eaten to date. Chaz had a Malay quesadilla, which was a bit more interesting — a combination of many different international influences. Overall, not the most exciting meal we had — and definitely pale in comparison to our many Thai vegetarian lunches.

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After lunch we attempted to check out the Army Museum — where there are supposedly several American fighter jets from the Vietnam War — but an armed guard told us it was closed. Our book had not indicated the museum would be closed on Fridays, but we decided that unlike when people in Thailand told us that museums were closed and we ignored them, assuming a scam, we would listen to this gun-toting guy.

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The rain ultimately forced us back into our hotel room, but it did eventually clear in the late afternoon. Following the ever-trusty advice of the New York Times’ 36 Hours, we hopped in a cab to the Intercontinental Hotel. Built on an artificial island in the middle of a lake, the hotel is 15 minutes outside of the center of Hanoi. The main lobby and bar are firmly on dry land, but all of the rooms appeared to be floating out in the sea.

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After a lovely sunset drink and a snack at the Intercontinental, we hopped back in a cab to have a delicious dinner basically on a sidewalk.

We later attempted to visit the night market, but found that that too had been washed away in the rainstorm. So we settled for one final street corner bia hoi among the motorbikes and the pineapple saleswomen.

The best food of Hanoi

Written by Chaz on 2 July 2011

In Thailand, we had plenty of great meals on the street for next to free. But the best food we had was in the city’s finest restaurants. The food that came out of the best kitchens was more refined, more complex and just more delicious — which is not to say that it sacrificed tradition. Rather, it exemplified the best that tradition can create.

But in Hanoi, as we explored the culinary scene online and in our guidebooks, we quickly began to discover that the city’s most upscale restaurants, and even many midrange ones, served internationalized food, rather than just straight Vietnamese. So we had to fall back on our old ways, prowling the street scene. In Hanoi, there are lots of little street stalls serving fantastic traditional Vietnamese food. Each specializes in just one dish, like fish soup or crab spring rolls.

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We tried two of these, each serving a variant of bún, the Vietnamese noodle dish. The first specialized in bún chả, crispy pork strips over vermicelli with pork spring rolls. After we took our seats in the rather spartan little restaurant, we were given a large plate of vermicelli noodles, a plant of mint and other tasty greens, and a bowl of chili and garlic to customize the flavor.

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Each of us was then given a bowl of pork strips in the soup that gives the dish its distinctively Vietnamese flavor, and we shared a plate of the spring rolls. We each had little empty bowls, as well, in which we combined all the ingredients to create the fusion of textures that is bún.

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At the other stall we tried, we had bún bò nam bộ, the beef version of the dish which we had also had at KOTO. This dish was much less soupy than bun cha, flavored with more of a sauce.

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Both dishes were fantastic — and again, very different from Thai cuisine. Each of these dishes were much more composed of their component parts than most Thai dishes. In the case of the bún chả, we even literally assembled the parts ourselves, then carefully scooping some noodles, greens and meat into each bite. This made for a very different experience, one that I enjoyed immensely. In both restaurants, each of our entrees cost about $4, which was almost certainly the foreigner rate.

As if to validate the superiority of street food in Hanoi, Quan An Ngon, which serves a selection of common street foods in a slightly less street-like atmosphere, is one of the most highly rated restaurants in the city, despite being extremely affordable. Our meal there shared the same composed nature with our street meals, even requiring some instruction before we were permitted to chow down.

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We ordered chicken phở and fresh shrimp spring rolls. The phở arrived ready to eat, but the waiter decided I needed a tutorial on how to assemble the spring rolls from the plates of noodles, shrimp cakes, vegetables, sauce and rice paper wraps that lay before me.

The shrimp wraps were delicious, not least because the rice paper, which is so simple as to be nearly tasteless, really let the ingredients inside shine. The phở, which probably was state of the art, wasn’t really either of our taste (I know, I know).

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The meals I will remember most in Thailand were in fancy restaurants, while the meals I’ll remember from Vietnam were all simple street meals. I think that speaks to the difference between the two cuisines, too — one is about cooking and preparation, and one is about ingredients and composition. Both were an absolute treat to sample.

Visiting Hanoi’s past

Written by Emmy on 29 June 2011

Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a complicated web of 36 winding streets, linked together to form a thriving marketplace. Unlike the wide boulevards in the newer part of the city — near the monuments and large hotels — the Old Quarter is crowded, hazardous to pedestrians, and filled with the sights and scents of local life.

On Thursday we took a walking tour to get a better feeling for the more traditional part of the city. We never found a map as great as our Thai ones, but the one advantage Vietnamese street signs have over their regional counterparts is their use of Roman script. Though we still found ourselves lost a few times, we could at least sound out the names of the streets where we were. The use of the familiar looking letters stems from Vietnam’s longtime colonization by the French, but they managed to throw in some of the strangest looking accent marks I have ever seen.

Our walk wove through tiny side streets, each specializing in the sale of a different product. One street sold tires, another sold toxic-smelling paint. We perused a row of stalls that all sold paper money for burning in religious ceremonies. Some streets were entirely dedicated to fruits, others to crabs and still-flopping fish. Many of the saleswomen were wearing my new favorite outfit, complete with a rice hat. And while making our way through the many shops, we narrowly avoided several encounters with rogue motorcycles.

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On one block, we saw three iPhone vendors and a small child being bathed in a basin on the street. It was contrasting moments like this that really reminded us we were in a developing nation. The exhaust streaming out from the motorcycles, the open air meat markets and uncovered fish, and the women carrying baskets of pineapple across their shoulders were also signs of the economy of yesteryear.

In Bangkok, we had been offered rides on a tuk-tuk at every turn. In Hanoi, locals were equally eager to get us onto their motorbikes. We declined, but everyone else in the city seemed eager to hop on board. Entire families on one bike, with small children sitting on the handlebars and babies crammed between two seated adults, were pretty typical. Though we saw an impressive number of adults wearing helmets, very few children were outfitted for safety. I read in one of our many online guides that ambulances in Hanoi can take at least 45 minutes to get to roadside emergencies because of the insane alleyways and motorbike traffic. Yikes. But despite the sheer insanity of the motorbike driving and their people-weaving skills, the whole system seemed to move pretty smoothly.

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In addition to our streetwalking, we also perused a large market. The first floor was filled with all sorts of interesting foods: entire stalls devoted to different mushroom varieties, barrels and barrels of dried shrimp, more raw meat, and beautiful, bright-colored fruits. The upstairs was packed with wholesale clothing and make-up, reminiscent of many of the other markets we’ve seen on our Asian journey.

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IMG_2841After spending the whole morning in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, we paid a visit to the Hanoi Hilton in the afternoon. The Hoa Lo Prison was given its nickname during America’s war with Vietnam, but it was originally built by French colonists to imprison the local political opposition in the late 1800s. The French used the prison through the mid-1900s, keeping large numbers of Vietnamese men and women in — according to the Vietnamese — subhuman conditions.

Much of the prison was recently demolished for new development projects, but the wing that remains has been turned into a museum. The exhibits show the small cells that the Vietnamese were forced into, as well as evidence that they were abused by their French captors. The museum honors the many local political heroes who spent time in Hoa Lo.

During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese army repurposed the prison to jail, torture and interrogate American pilots who had been shot down. From the museum exhibits, you would think the Americans — John McCain among them — were in summer camp. They made Christmas cards, wrote poems, played cards, joked with their captors and received excellent medical attention.

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From the Vietnamese perspective, it seems that life in the Hanoi Hilton was rather bucolic for the American soldiers. Memoirs written by the American pilots in the decades since would probably disagree.

It was also interesting that the Vietnamese took a prison that had jailed so many of their own people, and repurposed it for their own uses (and abuses). It definitely gives the whole establishment a bit more of an eery feeling.

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Literature, puppets and motorcycles

Written by Chaz on 29 June 2011

After our amazing lunch at KOTO on Wednesday, we headed across the street to the Temple of Literature, a very old Chinese temple compound in the heart of Hanoi. We took a few minutes to explore the temple grounds, the last of many, many temples we saw in our time in Asia.

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After cleaning ourselves up a bit at our hotel (I have never sweated like I sweated in Hanoi), we took a short walk around part of Hoan Kiem Lake to one of Hanoi’s best-known tourist attractions, the Thăng Long Water Puppetry Theater. This northern Vietnamese tradition dates back to the 11th century, and there are still four performances every day in central Hanoi. I think all the guidebooks’ praise of the show had overhyped it a bit, though, because it ended up being a bit of a letdown.

Yes, the puppets are jumping through a ring of fire. Apparently this complies with Hanoi fire code.

We took a short walk from the theater to one of Hanoi’s best restaurants, Wild Rice, which focuses on Vietnamese cuisine. Its sister restaurant, Wild Lotus, has taken a more international tack, combining pan-Asian specialities with Western influence. We started with another Vietnamese chicken salad and prawn and cashew spring rolls.

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The salad was just as phenomenal as the one from lunch, and it inspired me to try to find Vietnamese salads back home. Unlike Thai salads, which were mostly vegetables even if they contained seafood or meat as well, this chicken salad was primarily chicken, more like Western composed salads. Combined with vegetables and Vietnamese flavoring, this made for a very different texture than the salads we had been having. The fried spring rolls, though delicious, were somewhat unremarkable. One of the pitfalls of traveling to the other side of the world for amazing food is that fresh food tends to stand out much more than fried food, even if the latter is also state of the art.

We moved on to pork with chili and lemongrass and prawns in peanut and tamarind sauce. We also wanted a vegetable, but our waiter said our choice, an eggplant dish, wasn’t their best, steering us to another eggplant item that also had pork and proved to be as hearty as either of our other entrees.

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The pork dish exemplified the difference between Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, and was almost a return to some of our food in Hong Kong. The meat was tender and flavorful, in the same cooked-in manner as the spicy Szechuan chicken we had, though with a very different taste. The accompanying vegetables were fresh and tasty as well. The sauce with the prawns was tangy, not spicy, but without becoming overly sweet. The eggplant was a full-bodied dish, with a delicious sauce and ingredients.

After dinner, we walked back to our hotel, and nightfall made Hanoi’s thousands of motorcycles seem even more dramatic. We managed to get some good shots of them, too.

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Dreaming of lakeside tai chi and spicy salads, we were asleep moments very shortly after returning to our hotel.

Eating for education

Written by Emmy on 27 June 2011

In the midst of exploring Hanoi’s past, we took a lunchtime break on Wednesday at one of the city’s indications of a more promising future. The now world-famous KOTO was founded over ten years ago by Australian Jimmy Phram who returned to his native Vietnam to help advance the odds for local kids. KOTO, which is an acronym for “Know one, teach one,” began as a sandwich shop and training ground to give working skills to disadvantaged youth. Today, the thriving restaurant recruits and trains young people in Hanoi, employing them in the cafe and teaching them the skills to subsequently go and work in the service industry in Vietnam and throughout the world.

Students are trained at KOTO for 24 months in order to ensure future employability and economic security. Everyone who served us at lunch had a name tag indicating their class year and speciality, ranging from operations to guest services.

In addition to providing a great service to the community, KOTO also serves a fantastic menu.

We started with the banana blossom salad, a mix of greens, what we assume to be banana blossom, onion, peanuts and prawns. Though similar in texture to the many papaya salads we ate in Thailand, this was not fire-in-your-mouth spicy. In fact, it barely had a kick. What prevailed were the fresh flavors and tangy tastes, and, OK, a little bit of spice. But the delicious salad of Vietnam could not have been more different from the salads we left behind in Thailand.

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We also sampled a variety of different types of spring rolls, including two different kinds of fresh roll and a crispy roll with a shrimp tail hanging out. They were accompanied by several dipping sauces, allowing us to taste a full range of flavors.

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For the main course, I opted for the do-it-yourself option: rice paper wraps filled with fish, pineapple, red pepper, mint, vermicelli, peanuts and a tangy sauce. The items arrived on a large platter, ready for me to assemble. Thankfully, a kind waitress gave me an in-depth lesson on how to construct my meal. (If you’re wondering why I am seemingly dressed in pajamas, please review my prior post.)

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The wraps turned out phenomenally: the rice paper allows the ingredients to shine through in a way that flour wraps or lettuce leaves would distract from. The combination of the grilled and flavorful fish with the mint and pineapple was like a flavor explosion. And here I was concerned that without the ultra spicy flavors of Thailand, my food experiences henceforth would be bland. Not a chance.

Chaz has far more Vietnamese food experience than me, and he ordered a dish based on name recognition. His bún bò nam bộ, a bowl of vermicelli, beef, peanuts, lettuce and a different — but equally tangy and delicious — sauce, was delightful in its simplicity. Like with all the dishes we ordered, KOTO took advantage of great ingredients and tried-and-true recipes to deliver an excellent meal.

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Like our visit to Condoms and Cabbages in Bangkok, eating at KOTO came with the benefit of knowing that we had helped a local organization address a real problem with a pragmatic solution. The fact that the food was outstanding of course didn’t hurt.

Ho Chi Minh’s Hanoi

Written by Emmy on 27 June 2011

Hanoi is hot. We’re talking over 90 degrees, from the moment the sun comes up until it goes down. And so in this capital city, the day starts early. In the days of Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese people were required to exercise every day. Though it has been several decades since Uncle Ho passed (more on him later), the tradition persists. Daily, starting at about 6 a.m., the people of Hanoi — from the infants to the elderly — head to the lake for their daily exercise.

On Wednesday, we rose with the best of them and headed to Hoan Kiem Lake for our own morning exercise. We opted to take two laps around the lake and in the process, witnessed group tai chi, individual stretching, ballroom dancing, what appeared to be some kind of Asian jazzercise and several other communal exercise programs.

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Many of the women do their exercise — and spend all day — in what look like silk tracksuits. Usually patterned, the matching two piece ensembles definitely make a statement. And after watching the Vietnamese women parade around in theirs, I decided I could really use one of my own. I assumed we would find them in a marketplace later in the day, but just as we were completing our second lap around the lake, we saw an older woman stake out a bench and begin spreading out her wares. The local women swarmed her immediately. So I followed suit.

I grabbed a patterned shirt I liked, found its matching pants, held them up to me and decided they would probably fit. I didn’t pay immediately because I wanted to see what a native would be charged. I knew I would otherwise get the foreigner rate. But no cash changed hands and I was forced to communicate through a series of hand gestures. We landed on 100,000 dong. Before you freak out at this astronomical price, that actually only adds up to about $5.

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After a refreshing break in our hotel air conditioning and a trip to the breakfast buffet, we headed back into the heat for some aggressive sightseeing. Hanoi doesn’t have that many tourist sights — the real appeal of the city is walking its streets — and so we were able to accomplish most of our touring on Wednesday morning alone. And just to see if it made the temperature more bearable, I wore my official Vietnamese outfit.

First stop was the pretty bridge and temple we had spotted in the middle of the lake during our morning walk. We’ve gotten used to temples and altars featuring deities we are not familiar with, but the Ngoc Son temple’s display of Oreo boxes definitely won the prize for strangest religious item we’ve seen to date.

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After our lakeside touring, we headed into the heart of the city, where the majority of the monuments and other must-see items can be found. First we paid our respects to Lenin. Hanoi has one of the only statues of the former Soviet leader outside of Russia, and he commands a big presence over an open plaza. In the mornings and evenings, the plaza is apparently packed, but it was totally desolate when we visited midday.

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Down the street from Lenin rests Ho Chi Minh. The revered former leader of Vietnam is remembered for bringing independence to the Vietnamese people and crafting a vision to reunify the nation. In the history books, he looms large alongside his contemporaries, like China’s Mao, and in Hanoi, his presence is still felt strongly. The massive mausoleum was clearly influenced with the Soviets, with its heavy, block structure and harsh lines. For Vietnamese people, visiting Uncle Ho in his final resting place is a rite of passage and a necessary undertaking. Lines apparently wrap around the block to see him most mornings (except for the few months when the body travels abroad, a strange discovery we have not yet gotten to the bottom of). We arrived at the mausoleum after visiting hours had ended and were waved away by the armed guards.

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Our next stop was the Ho Chi Minh Museum, a similar Soviet structure dedicated to the recent history of Vietnam and the personal history of the former leader. The museum was a little eerie, filled with laudatory statements about Ho Chi Minh and decorated with photos of the Vietnamese people fawning over him. The history wing was even stranger, with abstract sculptures and installations to represent different eras and events. Each was summed up on a small placard in English, French and Vietnamese. The description that struck us most was that of what the Vietnamese usually refer to as the “American War.”

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While the Thai museums and their praising of the royal family had left me a little uncomfortable, the Hanoi sights were unnerving in an entirely different way. It seems as if the Vietnamese people are only exposed to a particular view of history, and an entire museum dedicated to the accomplishments of a singular individual only helps to reinforce that. (That, and a controlling one-party government system. There’s not too much room for alternate interpretations in such a system.)

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Even in the Fine Arts Museum, which we visited next, the government-approved view of history seemed to pervade. We saw art and other artifacts reflecting the struggles faced by the Vietnamese people under the rule of French colonialists. In another wing, I was particularly struck by what looked to me like a propaganda statement from a communist government. It was the title of an innocuous painting of smiling women, working steadily in what looked like a bakery.

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We perused the exhibits a bit more, but hungry from our walking and learning, we took a time out from our sightseeing to enjoy an unbelievable lunch. More on that delicious adventure soon…

From Chiang Mai to Hanoi

Written by Chaz on 27 June 2011

We left Chiang Mai early on Tuesday after encountering a bit of a runaround at the airport. We arrived at the domestic terminal, since our first flight was a Thai Airways jet back to Bangkok to connect to a Qatar Airways flight to Hanoi. But we were told that since our ultimate destination was international, we had to hoof it over to the international terminal. After a few more escalators and checkpoints, our bags were successfully checked to Hanoi and we were comfortably borrowing Wi-Fi from an airport coffee shop.

The food on each of our flights was actually quite delicious. Both airlines are well-known for their in-flight service, and they didn’t fall short. Thai Airways gave us a phenomenal croissant with some kind of curry confection inside, along with a peanut butter cookie and a selection of coffee and juice.

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We had been given special stickers in Chiang Mai, and we were instructed to wear them on our shirts to identify us as transit passengers. Sure enough, they came in handy when we were led through the Bangkok airport to a security checkpoint before being left on our own to hike all the way across the several terminals, through the most upscale duty-free selection I have ever seen, to the Qatar Airways transfer desk, where we were given our second boarding passes. Our second flight was equally nice, with hot chicken sandwich wraps and a full selection of beverages.

We were met at the Hanoi airport by our hotel, and the difference between Thailand and Vietnam’s development level became immediately obvious as we left the airport and immediately began driving through rice patty after rice patty, punctuated only by dilapidated buildings. After settling into the very nice Maison D’Hanoi in central Hanoi, we headed out onto the city’s streets for a uniquely Vietnamese experience: bia hoi, or fresh beer, on a street corner. This local concoction is made every day and sold all over the city to local regulars and unsuspecting tourists for about 25 cents a glass.

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We were only able to make it to the beer stand thanks to the advice of a friend, who warned us about the insane traffic in Vietnam. And we thought traffic in Thailand was tough! In Hanoi, where 90 percent of the traffic is motorcycles, you have to just look straight ahead while crossing the street. No looking both ways — there will never be a moment when the road is clear. Instead, you have to ignore the dozens of oncoming motorcycles, trusting that they will swerve to avoid you, and walk steadily but slowly across the street. It was absolutely as terrifying as it sounds, and we are lucky to have made it out of Hanoi alive.

After our drinks, we headed to 69 Restaurant, widely reviewed as one of Hanoi’s best restaurants for authentic Vietnamese food. We started with fresh spring rolls and a Vietnamese chicken salad. We were almost taken aback by the spring rolls, which were very different from what we’d been having in Thailand, though equally different and very similar to the best Vietnamese food I’ve had back home. The salad was equally great, though again, it was very different from Thai salads. I think both of our taste buds were in shock to have a full meal in which no item was numbingly spicy.

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I had my favorite Vietnamese entree from restaurants in the U.S. for the main course: bún chả, or pork on vermicelli noodles and greens in sauce. Emmy opted for a similar dish but with fish, complete with veggie accompaniments and served over a charcoal fire to keep it sizzling hot. Because we were seated directly under a high-powered fan, the ash started getting blown at us, and we had to switch sides of the table.

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IMG_2462The dishes were excellent. They made a great change from Thai cuisine and a wonderful introduction to Vietnamese cooking. We were seated next to another table of American travelers, recent Penn grads who are also documenting their travels around Southeast Asia in a format you’ll enjoy reading. After dinner, we grabbed a quick drink at a pub recommended by one of our guidebooks, and spotted a great sign. We headed back to our hotel on the early side, exhausted from our travels and looking forward to starting early to hit Hanoi’s sights.