A week ago, Chris and I tidied the studio, packed our bags and turned in keys to what we endearingly referred to as “Hanoi Home.” We had a peaceful month in Hanoi, our time spent unrushed and at ease, terms I’d never typically use to describe travel in a new city.
We wandered Hanoi’s neighborhoods until streets became familiar and we – err, Chris – could figure out shortcuts through the city. We found favorite restaurants, food stalls and coffee shops. We caught local buses out of our Hoan Kiem neighborhood and explored other areas of the city. We shopped at the local market and Chris even got a haircut and straight razor shave at a local barber.
REUNITED AND IT FEELS SO GOOD
In early November, our friend Aaron came to visit and we all took a cruise to Ha Long Bay. Chris and I had been to Ha Long Bay before on a two-night budget cruise, but this time around with Aaron we went to a more secluded area called Bai Tu Long Bay. The scenery was simply stunning – gorgeous limestone rock formations jutting out of emerald green water. After an afternoon of overcast skies, the sun peaked out for a bit and treated us to a pretty phenomenal sunset.
While Aaron was in town, we also met up with an Iolani / UW friend of ours, Jennica, who coincidentally happened to be vacationing in Hanoi with her fiance Fontip. (Thank you, Facebook, for bridging connections among long lost friends!)
We also met up with Pimluck, one of Chris’ Mahidol friends, who was in town on business. We had dinner with a few of her local contacts, a Vietnamese music video and film director who took us to a really cool Godfather-themed bar in the French Quarter.
THANKSGIVING’S NOT ABOUT THE POULTRY…
For Thanksgiving, we had planned to spend the day feasting at “Chicken Alley” the aptly named area for an alley flanked by grilled chicken vendors. We had been to a few of the chicken stalls previously and thought it’d be a fun place to give thanks, especially with servings of grilled french bread basted with sugary goodness, grilled sweet potatoes and every single part of a chicken imaginable.
Unfortunately, the night before Thanksgiving, Chris got a terrible yet thankfully short-lived bout of food-poisoning. We think it might have been the MSG-laden pho tai we had for dinner. He was up most of the night making use of his prayer mat in front of the porcelain god; and, he stayed in bed all Thanksgiving day. I tried to give him some space and quiet to sleep so I hung out at my favorite coffee shop where ca phe sua da was 15,000 dong (about $0.60 USD) and the resident poodle sat beside me for pets and snuggles. For Thanksgiving dinner, we stayed in and ate scrambled eggs, something simple that Chris was able to keep down. It was a memorable Thanksgiving to say the least. Nothing like an awful episode of food poisoning to feel truly thankful for each other’s healthy well-being.
GROOMING AND TAILOR-MADE CLOTHES
Chris maintained his deboinair good looks by getting a haircut and straight razor shave at the local barber. For 40,000 dong – less than $2 USD – he got to sit back and get the royal treatment while I, the wallflower / photographer, sat on a stool next to a chicken and a few guys smoking tobacco out of a 2-foot-long bamboo pipe. Perfection.
In order to maintain our stylish fashion sense (nerd sandals excluded), we had clothes made since it’s an affordable and easy thing to do in Vietnam. Simply go in, show the tailors a few photos of what you want, choose fabric, get measured, go back three days later for a fitting. Have adjustments made, if necessary, then bring home your clothes! It was incredible to witness the tailors look at a few pics then produce something that looked almost exactly the same.
CA PHE AND PEOPLE WATCHING
Among the many things Vietnam is known for, coffee ranks high on the list. We tried a few different types: egg coffee, coconut coffee, and ca phe sua da, traditional Vietnamese coffee which includes espresso w/ condensed milk. One of my favorite ways to spend a morning or afternoon around Hanoi was to find a cafe w/ outdoor seating and simply enjoy the everyday city sights. I went out often to watch traffic fly by, each time seeing something new and fun.
RUN CLUB AND CROSSING THE STREET
With a slowed down pace – even slower than we had been traveling before! – I got back into run club and got in a handful of jogs around Hoan Kiem Lake. All it took was mustering up the courage to walk across two ridiculously busy intersections, traffic zooming in from all sides. I like to think I mastered crossing the street after the first few times.
One day, I even got smug about it. I had just waded through a stream of motorbikes and was half-way across the street when I saw a few tourists hesitantly stepping out, false start after false start, helplessly stuck on the sidewalk. I smiled smugly to myself, thinking I was Big Time, when out of nowhere a motorbike aimed right at me zoomed up and shocked me back into my humble place as a foreigner. Who needs run club when there are Hanoi streets to get my heart racing!?
Hoan Kiem Lake was also the perfect place to watch brides get their photos taken. Apparently, November is THE month to get married in Hanoi, a time when the temperature cools, the rain stops and the weather is picture perfect for brides and grooms. We joked about playing a drinking game around the lake. A shot for every bride we saw! We’d be drunk in no time!
THE WONDER OF MOTORBIKE COMMUTING
I’m utterly fascinated and simply in awe of how people commute in Vietnam. There are motorbikes everywhere, scattered across streets, multiple streams zooming in and out across all directions. There are seemingly no road rules yet apparently everything operates as it’s supposed to. Functioning chaos is what I call it, a remarkable and unreal thing to see, especially for someone so used to western roads and you know, traffic rules. Every day I saw a new and creative way of commuting, whether it was a dog standing on all fours on the back seat of a motorbike or five people piled onto one bike toting a bookshelf above their heads. Truly jaw-dropping and impressive. At times it was hard to see kids flung onto the side of a mother’s leg while on a motorbike, but every culture has its norms.
BIA HOI AND HANOI NIGHTLIFE
Hanoi has a fantastic night life mainly because there’s not simply a tourist-centric series of bars like Khao San in Bangkok or Pub Street in Siem Reap. Tons of locals hang out in the old quarter drinking and eating on little plastic stools and tables.
We became such loyal regulars at a bia hoi spot that Bia Hoi Lady – that’s what we nicknamed her – recognized and greeted us with a huge smile and “Hai Bia?” (“two beers?”) each time. She always made space for us and, sometimes, on really packed nights, she’d set up a new table and two stools in the street so we could sit at the very front closest to the keg and motorbike traffic – the best seats, in my opinion, for people watching.
On our last night in Hanoi, after a scantily clad lady of the night threw cash and a half-eaten corn cob at us, the uber-petite Bia Hoi Lady stood at attention next to our table with her arms folded across her chest in bodyguard stance as the aggressor in red paced past. (Our protector!) The lady of the night, or “crazy” as Bia Hoi Lady called her, threw dong at us three separate times as we sat at two different locations. I wanted to hurl the corn cob back at her but Chris said it’d be best not to go to jail the night before flying out. (He was probably right.)
Our month in Hanoi was everything I had hoped for: respite from our past half-year of thrilling yet exhausting go-go-go travel, a place to call “home” for a short while and the chance to close out our honeymoon by easing back into a more routine and settled life. While it still feels like a stretch to say we “lived” in Hanoi, it’s completely fair to say that we got to know the city at our own pace. Leaving was bittersweet but not as bittersweet as our past trips which we’d sometimes end by remarking to each other: “I wish we had more time here.”
We made time this time around, and it was more than worthwhile! Cam on, Vietnam – until we meet again!