Food, Museums and Lakes. Last days in Hanoi.

< travels >

Aug 5, 2:15pm lake side

Ahhh... Tired Buncha last night. A day or two too late! It IS good.

A friend of mine gave me a copy of "Discover Vietnam," and there was an article about Buncha, a traditional Northern Vietnam dish. But when someone raves so much as the author did, well, I get suspicious.

But it IS good.

The restaurant was a three story building, narrow, as is typical in Hanoi, with a twisting metal stairs taking you up. It was crowded, so I ended up sitting on the third floor, feeling a bit self conscious and unsure what exactly to do.

Luckily, there wasn't much more to do than take a seat. Apparently they only served the one thing. Well it wasn't just one thing really. First, I got this bowl of meat. It was deep fried and floating in a sauce with some kind of bean sprout sunk beneath. The sauce was tart- what's the word- something between sweet and sour, but not too strong.

next a huge plate of greens was plopped down. The only thing I recognized was the only stuff I didn't like: coriander. The rest were varying sprigs of lettuce and 4 or 5 other plants of all shapes and sizes, and good.

But what were they? Who knows! Who cares!

The last thing you get is a plate of white thick noodles. What you do (from reading the article and watching) is to use your chopsticks (another hold over from Chinese patronage?) to pick up some greens, get some noodles, dip them in the sauce and eat.As the author of the article said (after writing a few thousands of them), "Words fail!"

But then I always believed in simplicity in food and this was a perfect example. A simple blend and WOW.

I say "a day or two too late," because I leave Hanoi tomorrow at 6:25am. Ugh. I'll be on train hard seat bound for Haiphong, a port on the west coast, about 75km from Hanoi. From there I will go on to see Vietnam's watery version of Guilin, China, called Halong bay. Islands looking like shaggy and green camel humps sticking from the water. It's supposed to be beautiful.

I could've gone on a tour. Most of the backpacker cafes in Hanoi run tour trips, 2 or 3 day excursions to places like this. But a tour is not what I came to Vietnam for.

I'll see what happens. I also have to figure out how to get my tickets for Laocai, the town at the border where I will cross into China. Worst comes to worst, I'll stay another day in Hanoi. Not such a bad thing that.

I plan to stay near Halong bay a few days, find a beach. If it rains I'll come back. Hope to leave my backpack here.

I'm worried about rain because it looks like it's going to do a lot of it. Yesterday it rained only in the afternoon, but it looked as if it would rain all day. Black clouds were rolling over the city while I was at the museum.

I spent most of that afternoon hanging out with friends of Chris, an English couple who had travelled down from China. We had a rather hilarious conversation about various things. I told them all about Taiwan because they both wanted to learn ManDArin (instead of MANdarin as an American would say it. Oh how I love accents. East Londoners they were, with accents most delightful. Sounds like a line of poetry that)

That was at the Bodega Cafe, where we later went to dinner. In between I went to the Smiling Cafe and got a balcony seat for once. We all came back there later after dinner for a drink.

This morning I got up early and walked to the War Museum. There were more amusing dioramas again, as well as much of the real stuff in the courtyard: tanks, planes artillery. There was a huge pile of bits and pieces from American planes shot down while on missions in the north. I thought of a friend's father then, in his F-111. He probably knew some of the men in those planes. But then the locals probably knew some people they'd killed.

Inside, besides the dioramas, there were other displays like the heroic mothers: women who had fought or given all their children to the war (8 or 9 all fallen in battle), with relics of their struggles. Very sad.

The 2nd floor was devoted to the French-Indochina wars. It was also a bit more insidious. On display were all the booby traps used. One still had the boot of a soldier stuck to it's nail. It had been a trap door to a shallow pit, and the nail was half a foot long. Apparently he had gotten away.

Descriptions of the weapons were all very detailed as well: often telling how many people they had been used to kill. There were helmets, holey from gunfire, and the medallions and insignia of the French who surrendered at Dien Bien Phu. Can't imagine any of them walking through here, but then maybe we have museums as callous. Or maybe just that they'd never expected the defeated to come back on a tour.

There, I was also treated to a concert of local Vietnamese music. They kind of dragged me and a couple others in front of their stage and played. Quite beautiful some of it and I was of course obliged (or so felt anyway) to buy some music afterwards. But it was only $6.

I had changed some $200 for some stupid reason, which translates into 2 million dong, a 2 inch thick stack of 50,000 dong bills. I'm not all that sure I'll ever be able to change it back.

After that I went to see Ho Chimin, Uncle Ho as he seems to be known locally, processing through his mausoleum in two single file lines. It was kind of macabre, his body practically glowing in the light. According to the Lonely Planet, it's taken to Russia two months a year for "servicing." One older woman, in her 50s maybe, still quite beautiful, started to cry as we made our way through.The guards were all stoic spit and polish.

The ground of the mausoleum were well kept, and included Uncle Ho's house on stilts. It was all nicely varnished; the furniture, books and papers to be seen and not touched. I wonder if it had always looked so nice.

I skipped the museum and went to the Confucius University, such as it was. It was a walled off area, a long rectangle with a big gate at the start and a temple down at the far end with a few courtyards and ponds interceding. The gate was like that of a temple, big and tall and adorned with Chinese characters. The courtyards were separated from each other by man high walls. A path curved hither and yon, past grass and trees, a rather dirty pool of "Heavenly Clarity," and led into a courtyard with stone steles. 84 of them, with biographies (in Chinese) of university scholars, the steles on the backs of stone turtles, each with a different face and size. The temple was a bit tacky though and I didn't stay for long. Gardens can only excite me for so long, and only foreigners seemed to go in there.

Then I went back to the hotel, had my Buncha, bought my rail ticket, some Chinese army pants, and them came here to East lake. It's more like a big pond. Shoe-shiners and booksellers are a rarity here, hurrah!

Wouldn't mind a beer though.

Odd things:

They don't stare as much as they do in Taiwan. Maybe it's just Hanoi and they are already used to foreigners. Don't mind really, but it's almost as if they have to try and not to look. Kids are pretty unabashed though.

No girls have tried to speak to me. In Taiwan, it's usually the girls who are the first to try. Wonder why though- just more shy?

They throw trash like the Taiwanese- i.e. everywhere. But their street cleaners are better, or maybe there is just less trash. Maybe that's not a good thing anyway, they just throw it because they think someone will pick it up- and garbage cans are non-existent. Someday it will be too much for anyone to clear away completely.

I was actually sitting and writing earlier by a lake side cafe. Informal cafe; the boss (or family I should say, a teenage boy did all the work, the mother directed) set up chairs for the customer and then ran off to make drinks down the bank a ways, I didn't see exactly where.

A cyclo driver, shoeshine boys and paper boys alternately sat down next to me. One pulled my hair- to see if it was different I suppose. Most welcome, were two old gentlemen, one with rather a bemused expression. Reminded me of my Dad somehow, a humph for laughter, a twinkle of humor in his eyes. The other man was taller and frailer, but seemed more obviously curious about me. We didn't talk much, I tried a little with my phrase book, but it was nice somehow just to sit with them. When they left they shook my hand quite warmly as if pleased with the encounter. I know I was.

There was also a young couple who worked in a nearby restaurant, the girl spoke Chinese but was shy and wouldn't speak. It became a joke to try and take her picture. The teenage boy who was doing all the work even tried to help, but she would just hide behind her friend.

The boy would come around a lot. He'd point out women, or once even elephants that walked by, and then he'd run off to help a customer. He seemed pretty bored though, so I was an added attraction to the day. There were crabs and I found one crawling up from the water. I let it go but he found it, toyed with it a while, then drop kicked it into the water. He found more and threw them on the ground near me. I thought how cruel!

But then remembered the things that I had done at his age: how normal!

< previous >
< next >
Confucian Turtles
< previous >
< next >
< travels >