Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Our Hanoi Survival Guide: 10 Tips

Hanoi was once the grand dame of French Indochina. Though its facade is now cracked with age, grimy from motorized progress and tattooed with Communist propaganda, Hanoi's unique and charming beauty is umistakable.

Hanoi sprung up among the green lakes at the Red River's bend and water is part of the culture. Spirits and pagodas lurk in the lake, and lovers nuzzle and kiss in the shade of sago palms and government billboards warning about AIDS. The Old Quarter is like New Orleans, except with air-dried laundry handing off the balconies instead of beaded revelers. Life is vibrant, humming and honking on the streets; people are so busy and so eager to do business that it's hard to tell if they sleep. Grilled meat on charcoal braziers made primitvely, portable fro claypots and metal racks dot the street like low statuary. Herbs prick the air with a basil-mint aroma, and the rainbow riot of Vietnamese silk beckons from nearly every other window.

You want to walk, walk and walk some more in Hanoi, looking up and down, left and right because there's a lot to see. And much to watch out for. Motorbikes with baskets of chickens and sludgy, wet gutters are only the beginning. Hanoians are hospitable and helpful, but others are cunning and ready to shed you of Dong. "Buyer Beware" is not exaggerated or naive. We loved our time in Hanoi, but also battled some hot moments of frustration...which thankfully led to cool moments of solution and rejuvenation.

Here are our tips for enjoying, surviving and embracing Hanoi....

1) A Name Is A Name -- Unless it's a Fake~> read more


Vietnam is notorious for knock-offs, and it's NOT always clothing, housewares or electronics. The names of business establishments, whether hotels, travel agencies, restaurants or stores, are copied left and right, next door and the floors above, and it's essential you know the exact address (e.g. 44/1a) of the establishment you want to patronize. The "fakes", which have copied the name exactly or changed it just ever so slightly (e.g. Lotus Cafe and Lotus Cafe 2) and often a fake "recommended in Lonely Planet" sign too. Vigiliance is essential as most of the knock-off places have seemingly helpful citizens outside trying to direct you right into their business instead of your intended choice. A lot of times the knock-offs have the exact same menu, rooms, tours or items, but Andy and I felt it was the principle and didn't like being conned. Thus, we always double-checked the exact street numbers when we had them and were fine, though it keeps you on your toes.

2) Forget About Curbside Appeals

Hanoi has a maze of streets that twist, turn and change names...and have millions of motorbikes. And that's not an exaggeration; Vietnam has 10 million motorbikes and most carry at least two or three people, and maybe some pigs or chickens, on one moto! Plus there are bicycles, cyclos, and yoke ladies--all without lights and traffic rules--to add to the obstacle course. Needless to say, it's intimidating to step off the curb to cross the street. In Saigon, we tried waiting for openings or stepping off the curb and hoping drivers would yield. Ha! No way. In Hanoi, we learned to just step off and start walking into the moving chaos and they'll make room for and around you. At first, it seems reckless to walk into a dark street and feel eight lanes of oncoming motorbike lights coming at you, but then you see they weave and twist and zoom by without ruffling a hair. Soon, you're emboldened, diving right into the madness and feeling like an Ice Capade skating through a crossover routine as you dance and the motos shimmy about. After that, you find it fun and look forward to another death-defying feat on the street.

3) The Yoke Doesn't Have To Be On You

The yoke is ubiquitous in Vietnam. Women carry them in every city and the woven baskets dangling off each end hold everything from flaming hot braziers to lacy bras to ripe bananas. Yokes are the department store, restaurant, supermarket and 7/11 of the country, and many people say the shape of Vietnam itself resembles the yoke. The yoke is no joke, but you must be wary as they're more than a double-edge stick in Hanoi. They can be a double-edged sword. Crinkled, wrinkled old ladies carry them with ease, even though the baskets seem to defy gravity with how many pounds of fresh greens and morning glory they hold. Even though these grandmas smile sweetly and beckon you in Hanoi's Old Quarter, watch out! Some of them really want to put the yoke right on your shoulders and be photographed so they can ask for money. Rather aggressively, I might add. Young women with flowing black silk hair carry yokes bursting with fruit and cheerfully sell it to ten times the normal price. I wanted some pineapple and asked the first yoke lady I saw and she told me "20,000 dong". My mouth fell open like a teeter-totter in disbelief and I responded, "No!!! 2,000 dong and no more!" She and the yoke shook negatively and I started to walk off, but then she called me back dejectedly and said, "OK, 2,000. Don't tell anyone -- special price for you!". Ha, victory!!! I'd been traveling in Vietnam for nearly one month and this time, the joke was on her and not me!

4) Beware Of The Fair(skin) Price

On the same note, buyer beware in Hanoi! In most of Vietnam, there is the Vietnamese price AND the foreigner price. And they are very different. Even if the price seems fair for an ice cream bar, tissues or a taxi ride, the Vietnamese are paying significantly less and your white skin, backpack or foreign accent means you pay a premium. Hanoi was the worst of it, yet conversely, it was the best city and we just rolled with it and acted tough to win certain battles whenever possible. At cultural places, we don't mind paying more for tickets but for basic items like bottled water, it kills us. Andy and I started watching what the Vietnamese were paying for mangoes, spring rolls and toilet paper, and then tried to have that exact change ready and smile sweetly saying, "Vietnamese price" so we weren't screwed. Many times it worked, other times it didn't; at least you feel better trying.

However, I had my lowest point of the Fair(skin) price at the National Museum. Desperately hot, sweaty and surrounded by Saturday visitor locals, we needed water and waited in line at the snack bar like everyone else. I watched and saw people (Vietnamese) paying 5,000 dong for water and was on guard, as was Andy. When it was finally our turn (we'd been passed over at least three times), we asked for the water and how much it cost. "8,000 dong" was the curt answer. Already hot and cranky, I got riled and started arguing about the price change and said we'd seen others paying only 5,000 dong. The woman continued to protest, shake her head and turn away. As Andy and I steamed, she helped others and got distracted. We asked again for a bottle of water and she placed one in my hands as Andy laid down 5,000 dong, and she ackgnowleged the bill. But then, seeing his hands and looking up quickly, she realized we were the foreigners and started saying "No, 8,000 dong!!!" I got mad -- I'll admit it -- and it was not my finest hour. I clamped my hand onto the slippery, frosty top of the water bottle and held on tightly. She tugged back and I held on with determination and relased a firm, indignant litany about the real price, the foreign price, getting screwed and we're smarter than you think...and won the tug of water bottle! The lady was horrified, threw up her hands and turned around as I'm sure I committed a major faux pas in the Asian obsession of "face" but I didn't care. I was tired of being insulted (that's how it felt to me) as I'm certainly smart enough to see what other people pay and know when someone is lying and probably being dishonest. Think about it -- who would know she'd charged me 3,000 dong more? Anyone? Or was it just cream for her? Did it really go into the museum's coffers? Doubtful. Prices are RARELY posted in Hanoi, save for menus, and sometimes getting treated fair-skinned instead of fairly gets you down.

5) Check In To The Hanoi Hilton

Ironically nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by its tortured American inmates, Hoa Lo Prison is another sad monument to The American War. Unsure of visiting because we were honestly depressed after our day in the DMZ which spurned complicated thoughts on our country's history and future, plus saturated us with the war wounds of both sides, we ended up near the Hanoi Hilton after purchasing train tickets. So, we casually stopped by and had one of the most memorable, jarring and perspective-giving events of our time in Vietnam. Built by the French in the early 20th Century, Hoa Lo has a history of torture whether of Vietnamese by the French or Americans by the Vietnamese. It's solid, squalid and dark with a flat energy that screams to your senses "something very bad happened here". Walking around, Andy and I saw leg shackles, cells that fit a body and nothing more, crinkled and torn photos of former prisoners, and a lot of propaganda on how nice the treatment of US prisoners was. We also happened upon three men talking in one of the solitary confinement rooms, one of whom was tall and spry with snow-white hair, sparkling blue eyes and looked to be in his early 70's; all of the men spoke with American accents. There were no other Western tourists at the Hanoi Hilton that day, and we started talking and learned that we'd stumbled upon Admiral Robert Byron Fuller's first return to Vietnam since his release from the same gate we had entered through in 1973 after 5 1/2 years as a POW!!!

We were stunned. Stunned soon became numb as we listened to the abbreviated version of his story. Tortured, confined in solitary darkness for over 2 years, learned the secret language used by Stockdale and McCain that was a morse code of sorts with broomstick and wall tapping for mental survival, believed dead by his family for three years, released at the end of the war and becomes highly decorated Rear Admiral of the USS Nimitz. Whoa. All from the tall man with thin legs in white socks and sneakers, with Santa-like hair that matched in brightness, who was kind and curious about our travels and seemed like anybody's favorite grandfather. Unexpectedly standing before us was a real hero, who lived through hell but moved on to normalcy and greatness. It was humbling. Meeting Admiral Fuller on the surreal set of the Hanoi Hilton reminded us that so many things in life are insignificant. It was inspiring. Because you so often lose perspective in your own reality and can't remember what's up from down, lucky from unlucky, important from not so important, life from death. Finally, something about America's sad, complex war with Vietnam that was truly black and white.

6) Go See Ho

Ho Chi Minh is a national hero and though he passed away in 1969, you can still see him in the flesh!!! Yes, the Vietnamese government, in all its communist, propaganda-spewing, symbol-loving glory exhumed his body, shot it up with God knows what for decades of embalming (it looks heaping doses of varnish, wax and Revlon liquid concealer to me), lit it with ghoulish lights in a mausoleum that feels like a hybrid of Disney's Haunted House and a shopping mall, and created a mecca-like pilgrimage for its proletariat. It is bi-zarre!! Gazing at his long whiskers and waxy face, you think Ho Chi Minh must have outsmarted Madame Tussaud instead of the US Military since he's here and not in London. But no smirking because you're filing past his spooky body with thousands of other patriotic Vietnamese who adore, admire and bend low in respect to Uncle Ho! Ho is only open a few days a week, for a few months a year, because his body is sent to Russia to have work done!!?? We're not sure what that means, but to us it conjures an entirely different form of plastic surgery.

7) Life is Sweet with Sweet Milk

Vietnam is one of the largest coffee bean exporters in the world, but in Andy's opinion, they should send their recipe for the perfect cup of coffee abroad instead. Ka Phe Sua (cah-fay-sue-ah) is the Vietnamese term for coffee with milk. But it's so much more than Starbucks-au-lait. It's deep, dark, roasted-chocolate, slow-filtered ambrosia with an inch of creamy, sweetened condensed milk on the bottom. Served authentically, it arrives in a glass mug with a stainless steel filter-cup on top and a tiny spoon alongside for swirling the caffeinated sweetness to perfection. In fact, often when it arrives only a few drops of cofee have splashed on the thick layer condensed milk at the bottom of the cup, and you must wait for the rest of the water to percolate from teh filter-cup. Andy learned from solicitous waiters that there's a special quick-whisking hand motion necessary to get the thick coffee and sweet milk whipped into blended balance, and he was a pro by the time we reached Hanoi. Even me, who likes nothing about coffee except that its popularity has increased the availability of hot tea in a big to-go cup, became infatuated with Ka Phe Sua because it's smell is like the darkest of chocolate instead of a burnt Denny's carafe, and because there's an entire ritual around ordering, brewing, filtering, stirring and sipping. I'm all about rituals and fancy hot drinks so in Hanoi, where there was tea beyond Lipton and Caphe Sua in every cafe, restaurant and street stall, Andy and I drank well. Whenever Andy ordered a Caphe Sua, I watched the server's face and inevitably, they smiled with pleasure at Andy saying with a deep smile and respectful head nod, "Ahh, Caphe Sua. You like Vietnamese Coffee!!!"

8) Fun With Strings Attached Is Good

The best $2.50 you can spend in Hanoi is to purchase a ticket to the magical, one-of-a-kind water puppets at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. We saw a small show in Saigon but it's minor league compared to the real thing in Hanoi, and I was like a little kid at the big show. Just ask Andy, he was too. In Hanoi, there's a live orchestra, comprised of simple but melodious wood instruments indigenous to Vietnam, and glamorous, silk-clad female singers serenading the puppets' performance. And the stage, which is actually a milky green pond with curtains across one end and floating lotus blossoms and palm trees along the side, is at least 15'x15' and lit dramatically like a rock concert (really!). Vietnam's water puppets are wholly native to the country and developed by the rice farmers as a way to entertain children and adults in the paddies during the floods. The puppets are made by hand of wood, coated in colorful lacquer and have strings and rods that push and pull from below instead of above like traditional marrionettes. The puppeteers, both male and female, stand waist-deep in the water behind the curtain to manipulate the puppets making them move, dance, slither and slide on the surface of the water. The water serves not only to hide the puppeteers and strings of the puppets but also to create a trembling stage full of reflection that utterly absorbs its audience. Suddenly the water ripples and shimmers, and firecrackers pop with a startling, smokey bang! Five dragon water puppets surface, water spurting from their mouths like frothy fire breath, and their colorful, 3' foot long and scaled bodies twist and turn in a serpentine dance on the water. And that's just the opening act...!

9) Use Your Noodles

Hanoi is home to the legendary Pho, a soup so full of noodles the broth is barely visible. A staple most often favored for breakfast and served at tiny tables on the street, Pho is the food of life for the Vietnamese. You see families squatting together, huddled over steaming bowls of Pho in the morning light, quiet in their chopstick kinetics. And yet with this cult following, Pho is never, ever exactly the same. You flavor it to personal perfection each time using piles of fresh herbs, handfuls of mung beans, splatters of chili-spiked fish sauce and flicks of a finger-mixed pepper and lime paste. The noodles of Pho are always fresh from the morning's wet market, and a noodle knocker often rides up and down the street chiming the announcement of Pho for sale. Could anything be more timeless and bewithcing than a noodle knocker that signals the readiness of homemade soup? Pho seems a way of life in Hanoi, and we happily embraced the tradition with open mouths.

Note: Pho's pronunciation is also ledendary; no one with a Western tongue can say it properly. Andy and I were told to say "fur with a soft 'r' sound"...whatever that means. Luckily, the Vietnamese are used to our butchering and reward anything close with a steaming bowl of the noodley brew.

10) Get Thee To The Metropole

The Metropole Hotel is Vietnam's most elegant hotel. A Raffles, Georges V, Savoy and Motel 6...with air conditioning...all in one. WHAT?!?!? One can easily grasp that the Metropole is rife with history and harbors an atmospheric teak bar once graced by the most important players in Indochine like Raffles in Singapore. Similar to the Georges V in Paris, it's an architectural landmark with exquisite courtyards and balconies, all nestled in the most quiet yet most historic neighborhood of a majestic city. As with London's Savoy Hotel, the Metropole delivers a classic high tea service complete with white china, pianist and fine finger sandwiches of cucumber and dill. And all of the above comes at a Motel 6 price of $8 USD per person!!!

At least the high tea part does, and the chocolate buffet as well (you read that right, un buffet du chocolat...ooh, la,la!)-- and that's what matters! Hanoi's Metropole was our haven from the storm of motorbike horns, yoke ladies and monsoon rains. Here, we processed the ugliness, senselessness, depressingly eerie contemporary resonance of the American/Vietnam War. And decompressed from scams in the soothing cool of the Metropoloe's air conditioning so they didn't taint our time in Hanoi. We also rubbed the shiny sweat and sunblock from our glistening faces with REAL cloth towels in their large, spotless bathrooms that sported marble sinks and two handles for cold AND hot water. Andy and I rejuvenated from 5 1/2 months of backpack travel during high tea at the Metropole on three different occasions. Imported darjeeling, warm scones, clotted cream, tiny tarts with perfectly fluffy yet crisp meringue, low-volume music and service with a smile--and without a language barrier--made us human again. Just look at the photos of us at the Metropole...we were in heaven and all for only $8 USD!

We've posted just a few more photos from Hanoi here:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I swear, you guys need to write a travel book because you always have the best advice and stories!
Love, Wendy

10:26 PM  

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