We got to Vietnam late, stood in a long passport control line and were thankful we hadn’t lost track of the Vietnam Visa we acquired before we set off on our journey. This made our visit with the officer quick and painless. We got a SIM card for Robbie’s phone in the airport (and seriously wondered why we hadn’t done that sooner. 8 dollars for 9 days of unlimited internet usage without wifi). We grabbed a taxi to our place in the Old Quarter and were dropped off about a block and a half from our actual place due to one-way streets, and emptied out into the total chaos of a typical night in the Old Quarter: streets littered with people eating on tiny tables in short chairs on the sidewalks and in the middle of the street despite motorcycles and cars trying to squeeze past, the buzz of street lights, the boisterous unending honking from vehicles in every direction, and the loud chatter from all the people humming through the air. It was nearly midnight by the time we made it there after a late night direct flight from Siem Reap, yet hundreds of people were out presumably eating dinner (or second dinner, I guess). Our airbnb host graciously stayed up for our arrival and showed us into our private space. We entered through an unassuming wooden door down one of the Old Quarter streets, amidst a dozen family run restaurants and businesses. The downstairs was just a tiny narrow cement box essentially that a family that lived on the second floor runs a rice business out of. and we lived above them on the top third floor with a balcony that overlooked the bustle and hum of North Vietnam’s busy streets.
We awoke the next day to the yelling of the women running their rice business downstairs. This became a daily occurrence, unfortunately, but oh well. It seemed like the women were always arguing about something in Vietnamese and it always had to be at a volume that was incomprehensible to us. Amazing how even when things like that are terribly annoying (or should I say, HANOI-ing), we still oftentimes remember them with fondness: “Don’t you miss waking up the yelling Vietnamese women?” and then laughing so much and face palming and shaking our heads. It’s these things (and clearly so so much more) that we remind ourselves is still somehow special because only we lived through it. No one else was there to experience the crazy ladies living below us and how tight garage-type spaces with rats *cringe* running around near our feet will remind us of our wild week in Vietnam.
We found our way to a amazingly-rated Banh Mi restaurant for lunch. I’d wanted to try banh mi (which just translates as sandwich) for awhile and was excited to actually do it in Vietnam. We chose the best place. But first I should describe– the streets of Hanoi are awesome. It’s like you’ve been transported back several decades, every building with a flavor of the war, the air is polluted and thick with the tangle of honks and loud voices and hoards of people. Every other street is an old Vietnamese man in a military uniform hollering things in Vietnamese through a megaphone to pedestrians and street traffic alike. So many women wearing conical hats (pointy straw hats you’d expect to see of people working in rice fields) walking their rusty bicycles that carried fruits or vegetables or bundles and bundles of flowers. Even in this city of eight million, you walk along the street dodging cars and motorcycles instead of on the sidewalk because the sidewalks are all packed with locals running businesses on them. Maybe you’ll have a small section of sidewalk you can actually walk on, free from operations, and then inevitably you resort back to walking on the actual street to avoid stepping over someone’s pot they’re cooking rice or broth in or a table a family is sitting around right there on street corners. Tall old trees jut out of sidewalks and the fronts of buildings, bending over the streets, adding to this illusion we were in some other world, similar yet so different than the Southeast Asia we had come to know. Robbie and I came to the conclusion that even if we just walked these streets for seven days and did nothing else, we’d be perfectly satisfied with the experience. There was so much to take in, noises, sights, and smells. Anyway, our slow-roasted chicken Banh Mis were incredible and were the most flavorful sandwiches we’d ever eaten. I would make banh mi a staple in my diet if I could figure out how to make them.
We wandered for a bit until we happened upon a place we had read about online. An “egg coffee” shop that is known for being the local’s absolute favorite. It was a dumpy place, small but tall with an upstairs. It was cramped and loud. We sat down at the iconic tiny tables that re hard to sit at with your knees bent and jutting up high above the table top and ordered two egg coffees, one hot and one iced. (Robbie always prefers iced coffee). So these egg coffees.. they’re famous in Vietnam and they’re sold everywhere. Every shop, cafe, restaurant, etc. advertised egg coffees. And rightfully so! They’re unbelievable. while the name makes it sound super unappealing, it just means they take egg whites and froth them up into a thick, custard-like texture and combine it into your coffee and steamed milk with a little vanilla. It tastes like whipped smooth coffee ice cream over your hot coffee. Amazing. It’s the only thing this place served and they do it the best. I seriously don’t know why egg coffees haven’t made their debut in American coffee shops, considering how simple they would be to make and just how good it was.
I’m writing the Vietnam post a couple weeks after we left (instead of during or just a couple days after we left a place like usual). I’ll be honest, my stomach issues continued on past Cambodia and lingered well past our time in Vietnam too. I have my normal issues but I knew this was different. I was sick after every meal of every day and I was gravely discouraged. I was frustrated too. We were loving Vietnam and thought it was just the coolest place, but we couldn’t enjoy it to the fullest because of the extreme pain I constantly had in my abdomen. Because of this, I didn’t want to write about Vietnam right away because I was afraid I’d be much too pessimistic in the moment. I wanted to wait til I was better, and I also didn’t want to waste any precious time while we were in Japan and falling in love with Tokyo, our final stop on the journey. Little did I know, I would get back to the United States and still not be better. But that’ll have to wait for a different time, as I’m still figuring out what’s wrong with me.
Because the days jumble together now, I won’t write a day-by-day synopsis, but rather just an event-by-event summary of the fun things we were able to do and see, despite my illness. and I’ll mention that the Burger King around the corner from our airbnb became a favorite memory for us, going in with such shame on our faces for being the only white people walking the street and then being classic and going into an American fast food joint when there’s all these local street food vendors surrounding it. But what can I say, that Vietnamese Burger King was cleaner and more sanitary looking than any Burger King I’d ever entered in the U.S. (and cleaner than any street food place in Hanoi, that’s for sure) and this was the biggest draw for me. It was food my stomach was fairly familiar with (although I should say I go to one of the classic American fast food places about once every year–so not very often at all). And I can’t tell you how good this tasted to us. Oh my! I’m so ashamed of how much we enjoyed our two Burger King dates in Hanoi. Too delicious after eating weird, unfamiliar food for a month.
We spent our week in Hanoi doing all sorts of “travel guide things”. We got tickets for Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre and honestly had so much fun sitting and watching this show. It’s a tradition of the Vietnamese dating back to the 11th century when their rice paddies would be flooded and farmers would stand waist-deep in their fields, doing puppetry for their communities to entertain themselves. The puppeteers at this theatre are also standing waist deep in water, hidden by a bamboo screen, holding onto rods that connect to the puppets and the puppets dance in the water beyond the bamboo screen. I hope that makes sense. If not, go Google this theatre and you’ll get to see some pictures. We enjoyed the hour long show, that even had puppets who held actually-lit candles that lit up over the water. It was beautiful and the music was traditional and beautiful too.
We got to visit Hoa Lo Prison which held American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War (called the American War to the Vietnamese). The prison has since been turned into a museum, ironically painting the picture of a blissful life in this prison– truly making it seem like the Americans had a better life in this prison than they would have had back home. This is the POW prison that John McCain was held in. Very interesting and somewhat entertaining.
We walked over Hanoi’s iconic red bridge and toured the Ngoc Son Temple on an island on Hoan Kiem Lake. The temple was dedicated to Confucius and has a silly legend behind it. It was pretty, but more fun to get to the island and look back at the chaotic city of Hanoi beyond it.
Markets are such a staple of life in Southeast Asia. We visited the biggest one in Hanoi, the Dong Xuan Market, an enormous covered market, several floors tall, packed with vendors selling everything you can think up. This building was such a fire hazard, Robbie and I just had to laugh. It’s stuffed to the brim with people and goods, so packed and so hot and humid, the air is hard to breathe. It’s not for the claustrophobic, so you can imagine after thirty minutes wandering the floors, I was totally ready to be safely outside breathing more easily. The streets near the market are filled with outdoor market stalls too and those are way more fun for me. It reminded me of Chiang Rai. I could wander outdoor market booths for hours. It’s so colorful and magnificent, alive with culture and centuries of history. One of the most insane things we loved about Vietnam that we had not seen in the other SE Asian cities was how people balanced enormous loads on the backs (and sometimes fronts) or their motorcycles. It would catch me off guard every time toward the beginning of the week, totally freaking me out and worrying me that they were going to get off balance and wreck and hurt themselves or someone else on the road, but by the end of the week it was more just pure entertainment more than anything else. I know this is going to be hard to believe for Americans living the Midwest life that I live, but these men would balance an entire mattress (or TWO) on the back of their motorcycle. Or they’d stack four giant boxes one on top of the other behind them, or maybe a big desk, or some other package bigger than two full adults. Nothing, I’m serious– nothing was tying these loads down. I know that seems impossible but apparently it’s not. Maybe they’d squish a friend between them and the load on the bike in order that the friend could help stabilize the load. This wasn’t just a once a day or every other day sighting. This was an every-street sighting. In every grouping of traffic on nearly every street, there was someone with an enormous load, sometimes even carrying an extra box on their laps and only driving their motorcycle with one hand and a tall stack of boxes behind their backs. I captured a couple pictures of people with large loads, but it seemed the people with the biggest loads, I never had my camera or my phone ready in time by the time they had driven well past us. Which is a bummer, but I suppose you’ll just have to take my word for it. It was incredible. Another amazing sight to us was seeing a handful of barbers who just set up shop on a sidewalk. They’d hang a mirror from a fence next to a building, put a chair in front of it and clip away at customer’s hair. Like this is every day life for these people! Just walk down the street, see turtles and live fish in a bucket that were sliced up (still alive) right before they’re given to the paying customer on the same street as some guy is getting his haircut from a random man running his barber business on the sidewalk. It’s definitely a culture shock for us Midwesterners. A shock, but also stinkin awesome and made us smile every turn we took with something new and crazy to watch and observe.
Robbie and I are so obsessed with local cafes and coffeeshops. It’s just in our blood and I cannot wait until we have children and they grow up frequenting one or two shops we love and maybe when they’re grown they’ll fondly remember how mom and dad always made time to spend talking and investing in each other, caring about quality time, and prioritizing that above everything else. We became obsessed with two different cafes in the Old Quarter that we ended up going to both twice (and would have gone more probably had I been feeling better). One was called Hanoi Social Club and the other was Cong Caphe. Hanoi Social Club was definitely like a hipster coffee shop and cafe that was tucked in a trendy alleyway in a quieter part of Hanoi. This alley looked so different than the Hanoi we’d come to know–it was cleaner and filled with hip young people, and had more upscale shops (upscale for Vietnam, I suppose). Hanoi Social Club had three floors, each individualistic and uniquely decorated from the next. We ate meals both times we were here and I was amazingly impressed with their avocado toast with huge slices of avocado on thick lightly toasted bread. Such a safe relief for my stomach. Their super young staff was beyond sweet and had the best English of anyone we’d come across in the city, still very broken, but very appreciated nonetheless. This cafe felt tucked away enough for some solitude, but also just enough in the city to still feel a part of it all, listening to the honk of motorbikes and the breeze of the 70 degree days whipping in through the open windows. Ahhh such a relief from the mighty and brutal heat of Thailand and Cambodia. I remember Robbie would spend his time here doodling in his drawing pad, making drawings of memories from our trip as a whole (something he has periodically done throughout the months. He’s so good at it too!), while I read the Hanoi Newspaper that happened to be printed in English. I remember writing Bretty a postcard while sitting at the Hanoi Social Club, telling her how I had just read about Vietnam’s perspective on the U.S. and North Korea drama going on currently. It amazes me having a first hand observation of how this affects not only just us but the rest of the world too. Vietnam is scared (and I read the English Beijing News on our China Southern Airlines flight to Japan later that also chronicled their objection of what North Korea is doing and how they don’t want things to escalate). It’s astonishing how this isn’t just U.S. News. What’s going on is being written about on every corner of the globe.
Cong Caphe holds a special place in our hearts too. Cong has several locations among the city, and we went to two of them. This cafe, unlike Hanoi Social Club, is right in the thick of the Old Quarter (both that we visited), situated on a ridiculously busy street corner. We could sit on the third floor balcony overlooking the intersection watching the motorbikes and cars, with absolutely zero stop signs or rules of the road, no traffic signals either to indicate who should go when, attempt their way across, with seemingly no hesitation or fear of an accident. It was fascinating and could keep our attention for the whole hour of rush hour. Motorcycles, scooters, cars, bicycles– everyone crossing whenever they wanted, usually a hoard of seven bikes and a couple cars going at once but that same number of vehicles coming at each other from all directions. What makes Cong unique is it’s supposed to be some coffeeshop that’s associated with the Viet Cong, the South Vietnam communist political organization from the days of the war. It’s decked out in army-green paint on the walls, buzzing old metal fans hanging rickety on the walls blowing warm outside air around the room, authentic black and white Time Magazine covers of the war plastered crooked on the walls, along with other photos of Viet Cong soldiers in the war, and to top it all off, old rusted light fixtures with flickering lights, as if the electricity were unreliable. This shop was badass and I’m sure it would give my parents or anyone from their generation the heeby-jeeby’s. I am utterly fascinated that visiting Vietnam “for fun” is close to the equivalent of my own children one day visiting Afghanistan “for fun”. This fact alone makes me love it all the more. I feel rebellious being an American in this shop. But I should be clear, we felt very loved by the Vietnamese. This was a hip underground coffee shop more than anything actually sketchy.
The first visit we had to Cong Caphe, we were sitting out front of the shop in old tiny fold-up camp chairs covered in green canvas (total throw back to the war), just absorbing the hectic and shocking traffic, marveling at how we hadn’t witnessed an accident yet. We got to talking to a white couple sitting next to us when we bonded over a Vietnamese man who approached us trying to repair Robbie and the other man’s shoes (long story, but Robbie and I already got scammed with that a day before, being charged 700,000 Vietnamese Dong–about 35 dollars. So frustrating. We could buy a new pair of shoes for that much money!) and us two couples laughed it off together and then realized we both knew English and began what ended up being a fun three-hour coffee date with Emily and James, from Canada and Tennessee respectively, who have been dating for five years. They met in South Korea teaching English, and have essentially been travelling or living in other countries ever since. They lived in Hanoi for two years about a year ago, then took six months to travel South America, and then another six months spending time in Tennessee and Canada before doing what they never thought they’d do and that is move back to Hanoi. They were convinced when they left a year ago that they’d never move back, but they both recognized their unexpected longing to return, and so they did, about four months ago. They’re in their late twenties, kind and open minded, easy to be around and lovely to talk to. For three hours we relayed stories of travel abroad, a lot of questioning on our parts of South America (because Robbie and I think South America will be our next long term travel destination if we are ever able to make it happen again). It was refreshing to talk to people who were so laid back and had zero pride about their travel. It’s just their way of life, it’s what they do, like they wouldn’t even know how to go back to America (nor would they want to at this point). They actually ended up inviting us to play ultimate frisbee with them and their Vietnamese friends the next day, which is so cool. But it was somewhere way beyond the city and a little complicated to get to (Emily and James live outside the Old Quarter also) and with me not feeling well, it seemed too unpredictable for us to go. But it still was so cool they asked us to go, and of course I wish we could have gone because it would have been a wonderful experience.
We didn’t have egg coffees at Cong, but rather Robbie had their popular coconut coffee (a total delicacy of hot coffee poured over fluffy frozen blended coconut. Amazing–and Emily and James’ recommendation!) and a “Saigon coffee” which was regular coffee with sweetened condensed milk. Again, amazing! I had watermelon juice both times and I swear they just stuck watermelon in a blender and poured it into a cup. So fresh and so good. One night afterward we went to a top-rated pho shop. Looking back on it, I still can’t believe we ate there. I mean it was certainly popular with locals lined up down the street waiting for their bowl of piping hot pho, but boy, oh boy was it a sanitation risk! haha The meat they put into our bowls was just hanging on hooks in the outside air–a woman grabbing a hunk off the dangling meat with each customer that made their way to the counter, chopping it in front of you and throwing it into a bowl that had just been ladled with broth from a 4-foot tall pot bubbling with hot broth. We took our places amidst a crowd of Vietnamese families all sitting on the sidewalk at those miniature tables illuminating our pho with the glow of the restaurant behind us that hand no front wall. It was very good pho, don’t get me wrong, I just more can’t believe I ate a bowl of food that had literally gray meat in it that had hung unrefrigerated for who knows how many hours. hahaha Oh yes, we were definitely living that Southeast Asian life.
And while we’re on the topic of gross-looking-foods-that-make-your-stomach-turn-a-bit-just-remembering-it-all, let me relay to you my very dramatic experience with hot pots. On our second to last night in Vietnam, I was so excited to try hot pots. It’s a popular Vietnamese dish in winter. It’s probably what you would imagine: hot broth in a pot at your table along with some raw meats you can cook to your liking, paired with fresh vegetables to have as a side dish. This sounds great, right??? WRONG! We went to such a nice restaurant. One of the few places in the Old Quarter that wasn’t just a dumpy, dirty, cook-on-the-ground-eat-on-the-sidewalk shop. It was a sit down place with a waiter. We ordered the chicken hot pot. How dangerous could that be? From the get go, as the items started arriving to our table we were so confused. We didn’t know how to turn on our hot pot, we didn’t know how long the chicken was supposed to be in the broth, or if it should be covered or not. They brought different dishes of sauces and I didn’t know what to put them on. Well then the raw chicken arrived and for whatever reason it was the most repulsive food I have ever had to look at. There were large disgusting looking chicken feet, and the rest of the somewhat normal looking parts of the chicken that were on the plate had huge layers of jiggly fat surrounding the actual meat with red bone-marrow nasty stuff in the bones. YUCK yuck yuck. I can hardly replay it in my mind without wanting to gag. We had barely even looked at the meat before I dramatically (but I couldn’t help it, honestly!) decided I was not willing to eat a single bite of it. Our sweet waiter saw we were confused and helped us put the meat in the bowl of broth and explained we were supposed to put the vegetables in too. Well since my stomach already hadn’t felt well for weeks, the sight and smell of all this had everything inside me turning over on itself. I stomached some of the stringy sticky noodles they had at our table along with some of the hot broth on top of it, but honestly because I couldn’t stop looking at the hideous raw chicken foot at my table, somehow that made noodles and broth make me want to vomit. I nearly lost it when Robbie started eating some of the sickening chicken (when in reality he was just being a trooper and I’m so proud of him for eating so much of it without complaint. And he’s the one who’s supposedly the picky eater!). I just couldn’t watch. So much so that I had to go relieve myself in the bathroom and almost threw up, but instead had diarrhea. hahahaha I’m just laughing so much that I’m actually writing this down. I came back downstairs from the bathroom, told Robbie I had to leave otherwise I was going to be more sick, so I paid and left the restaurant and literally waited on the street corner until Robbie finished his dinner. I know I know. This is one stupid story of me not being able to suck it up with food that really could have been way worse. I really don’t know why it affected me so dang much, but it did, and I felt out of control of my emotion over it.
One weekend night we walked the Old Quarter along bustling and wild pub streets, not partaking, but listening to booming live music coming from every other bar, and just people watching. You really get to know a city for their night life and Old Quarter is nuts. It was fun and frantic, too many people around to move about freely at times–tourists and locals alike. We enjoyed going over to Seven Eleven to grab cokes and mountain dew and kit-kats to end our night and our time in Vietnam. Hanoi is a city that is so alive and so loud you can hardly think at times. But I think that’s the beauty of this big city. You go in knowing its crowded and the people won’t stop honking even when it’s 3am and no one is on the roads (don’t ask me why that’s true but it is, and I’d go out to our balcony at 3 in the morning and try to understand why everyone driving through was still honking and military men still yelling in their megaphones). Visiting there is an experience in and of itself, unlike anywhere we’ve ever been and I’m so happy we got to go.
Vietnam is the Southeast Asian country we visited that I don’t feel we had enough time in. There’s so much more to see and discover in this country and Robbie and I definitely plan to be back to explore more of the country. On our bucketlist: Hoi Ann, Sapa, and Ho Chi Minh.