Five (Somewhat Controversial) Tips for Living in Hanoi

21 Dec

At the end of my seven-month stint as a volunteer living and working in Hanoi, I feel it’s fitting to pass on some of the “wisdom” (charitably defined) I have accumulated over my time here. As such, in my final post to Good Evening Vietnam, I’d like to present five lessons for living in Hanoi that you won’t find in any guidebook. I emphasise ‘living’ because I’m not suggesting that anyone who visits the city for only a few days should necessarily start following these prescripts: you’d probably get yourself killed. But if you’re due to bed down here for a month or more you’re unlikely to go wrong by following these simple instructions.*

*Of course the author holds no legal liability if you should “go wrong” by following these simple instructions.

1. ‘Boil it, peel it, cook it’ … forget about it!

The risk of a mild case of gastro is a small price to pay for the privilege of tasting Bun Dau Mam Tom (rice noodles and tofu dipped in stinky fermented shrimp paste)

During my first week in Hanoi my fellow volunteers and I were ushered into a medical clinic for a briefing on common Hanoian health issues. The stern GP cautioned us to avoid motorbikes, mosquitos, late-night ‘romantic’ encounters and street food. From what I could tell, anyone who followed his advice would live out a hermetically-sealed existence spent darting between homes festooned with mosquito netting, air-conditioned taxis, and over-priced expat restaurants. What fun!

If you’d prefer to live a little more on the edge and don’t mind referring every so often to your “Self-management of Traveller’s Diarrhoea” ‘flow’-chart (See Appendix, possibly literally), then I advise that you throw caution to the wind, sit yourself down on a miniature stool by a street food vendor from time to time and dig in. I’ve always thought that you’re on safer ground anyway, buying something like street-side nom ga (salad with chicken) from a motherly-looking lady who is exclusively making nom ga (salad with chicken) than to venture into a familiar-seeming ‘restaurant’ that has a voluminous English menu, few customers and an unseen kitchen.

Sure, the nom ga lady has whole, uncooked chickens flapping in the breeze for all to see but, given her turnover, those chickens were probably running around on the street a few minutes ago, whereas we can only speculate how the cafe is hygienically storing all the ingredients necessary for dishes ranging from fresh spring rolls to spaghetti bolognaise. My advice: stick to the street.

2. Jump on your bike and plug in your headphones.

Displaying all the latest trends in Hanoian traffic-wear, Mike is seen here sporting a jauntily cocked 'Protec' helmet ($10), authentic, grit-and-bug-beating 'Ray Ban Wayfarers' ($5), and his ubiquitous, noise-cancelling, in-ear headphones. Looking good Mike!

Unless you’re planning on braving Hanoi’s regularly terrifying taxis on a daily basis or investing in one of its curiously proliferating Mercedes, BMWs or Bentleys, it’s likely that you’ll often find yourself  wending your way through its chaotic streets on the back of a bike (whether of the motor or pedal-powered persuasion). In order to maintain your sanity amidst the exhaust fumes, beeping, and occasional flirtations with death (for a fuller depiction, see this post), I’d suggest defying common sense and simply plugging in your iPod as a form of mild escapism.

Some naysayers will suggest that riding a bike in Hanoi requires undivided attention and full use of one’s aural capacities, but to them I say, “fooey”. What minor degree of spacial awareness and concentration you lose is more than compensated for by the sense of calm you’ll attain, powering through the traffic to the tune of Belle & Sebastian’s ‘Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runner’, Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’, or perhaps the Economist magazine’s audio editions. And apart from your Zen state of relative tranquility, your ears will thank you for shielding them from the deafening tumult of inconsequential beeping and honking outside of your immediate, three-metre hazard radius.

3. Ignore the ‘Sights’.

Ok, perhaps I’m overstating my case in the title here but I genuinely think that Hanoi’s greatest charms lie more in its everyday, unexpected curiosities than in its historical and cultural ‘attractions’. If you spend your free weekends working your way methodically through every museum and pagoda on Lonely Planet’s ‘Must See’ list then I think you’re missing out on something smaller and yet more wonderful. Don’t get me wrong, there are some worthwhile tourist destinations in Hanoi: in particular the Museum of Ethnography with its impressive collection of hilarious, erotic, wooden statuary.

But I went seven months in Hanoi without feeling a pressing desire to visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (all due respect to the guy, but he wanted to be cremated anyway), the History Museum (and I’m a history buff), or any number of ‘significant’ pagodas, and I don’t feel like I missed all that much. What I would suggest instead is to immerse yourself in Hanoi’s hurly-burly daily rhythms and focus on its simple delights, like getting a $3 hair cut and ear polish or people-watching over beer and hotpot at your local bia hoi. And keep your eyes peeled for Hanoi’s hidden gems, such as comically butchered English language product descriptions:

I'm not entirely sure what about these cookies is 'human' but I wasn't in a hurry to find out.

"Benign Girl: Push Any Button"

I think I found more joy and excitement from encountering ‘Benign Girl’ in a street-side toy store than I experienced during my entire visit to the Temple of Literature. You probably would too.

4. Get out of town.

One of the many little ‘pearls of wisdom’ that I occasionally dream up and then repeat ad nauseum to anyone who’ll listen is that “the best way to enjoy Hanoi is to get out of it”. Although I just like the sound and moderate cleverness of this phrase, I also think that it is probably true. Despite the various official and unofficial pleasures of living in Hanoi that I have described above, it is certainly the case that the city can get on top of you at times. The beeping, the pollution, the karaoke, the heat, the cold, the bustling masses: it makes you yearn for peace and quiet and most of all, space. My advice to you then is to make time to head for the hills (or coast) every so often and seek out these precious commodities. Here are a few suggestions for weekends or day trips within spitting distance (200kms) of Hanoi:

Ba Vi National Park

Yen Bai Province

Tam Coc

Sapa

Halong Bay

5. Wear pink shorts.

In my first ever post to Good Evening Vietnam, written during my second week in Hanoi, I told the story of my introduction to the reluctant Hanoian fashion scene of short, pink shorts. At the time I lamented my cultural and stylistic insensitivity for ever considering that such a garment would fit in to a society where all men wear jeans (or long pants of some description), even in 40 degree heat and 100% humidity. What I have come to learn over the past seven months is that, regardless of what I wear, I’m never going to fully ‘fit in’ to Vietnamese society, and so I might as well flaunt my pink shorts for all to see. I’m likely to get strange, occasionally scandalised  looks of course, but I won’t look quite so foolish as the strange character in the photo below, who appears to be kitted out entirely in quick drying, moisture wicking, mosquito repelling, wonder clothes that make him look like a complete idiot.

Clutching his Lonely Planet Guide firmly, safe in the knowledge that his shoes are 100% waterproof and breathable, this intrepid explorer sets off on a leisurely cruise up the Red River into deepest darkest tourist country.

When times got tough, when language barriers and technological difficulties and hygiene deficiencies threatened to overwhelm me, I would sometimes strip off my stinky jeans and slip on my pink (happy) shorts and everything would suddenly feel alright.

Appendix:

Diarrhoea ‘Flow’ Chart

A Transparent Appeal For Your Envy

6 Nov

In my very first post to Good Evening Vietnam I solemnly promised not to turn this place into “a journal of my thoughts, an ill-informed political diatribe,  or a poor excuse for a travel review”. In retrospect, I seem to have failed miserably in keeping this vow (although I’ll protest in my defence that my ill-informed diatribes were rarely, if ever, political).

Accepting this wholesale failure, I’ve decided to use one of my last posts from Hanoi as a sneaky opportunity for a blatant exercise in showing off the wonders of Vietnam as I have experienced them over the last six months. I figure that most people’s photo blogs and facebook albums are primarily designed to provoke jealousy in their friends and family and I might as well be up front about it.

So, if I haven’t offended everyone who might be reading, here we go:


La Vie Vu Linh Retreat in Yen Bai Province


Medicinal plant lessons with Mrs Nhat, a Dao villager.

Phu Tho Province – My Counterpart’s Home Town

The Ho Chi Minh Highway, Cuc Phuong National Park and Tam Coc

Ho Mac in Cuc Phuong National Park

 

Foot-Powered Paddling at Tam Coc

Hue

Sapa and Mt Fansipan

A Guided Tour of my Vietnamese Bathroom

18 Oct

Welcome to my Vietnamese bathroom! Feel free to take a look around and explore the sights.

Quite pokey isn’t it? Cozy-like. And I personally think that ‘cozy’ is a perfectly fine quality for one’s fortress of solitude. There are however, a few slightly questionable design features to this bathroom.

1. A supplementary urinal.

For some reason it was decided that the addition of a urinal directly in front of the toilet was a good idea. I’m not sure if the bathroom-design visionary involved was aiming at marginally greater convenience for male users and thereby shorter wait times, or if he planned to double capacity by encouraging simultaneous dual-use of the room but whatever his intentions, the end effect was to completely freak out my female housemates (who are unaccustomed to such urinal proximity). I decided to try and make them feel more at home – so I put a fake plant in it.

Note, incidentally, how well stocked we are in toilet paper - an essential provision if you plan to regularly eat Hanoian street food.

Changing the seated scenery from this unsightly eyesore:

To this decorative faux-floral conversation piece:

2. An open-plan shower.

This seamless blending of shower and toilet into what I have termed a “shoilet” is a common design feature of Vietnamese bathrooms. I suppose it was conceived of as a handy compromise when space is limited (although I have also seen it persist in larger bathrooms with plenty of room for a screened shower area) but the certain result is that the entire bathroom becomes a steamy, slippery, sudsy waterworld.

A shower-nozzle's-eye view of the vaguely defined spray zone.

Rogue jets of water maliciously search out my towel, clothes and any unsheltered toilet paper and liberally spatter them. Careless body positioning can expose the toilet seat to a sudden tropical downpour that will present a damp surprise to its next occupant (probably me). I generally try not to contemplate what microscopic wildlife could be swishing around on the tiles between my toes. The worst thing, however, is that the entire bathroom floor remains a wet trap for my sock-covered or dust-covered feet for hours after the shower is used. My female housemates have suggested that I give in and start wearing shower sandals like these:

But I have refused for obvious moral, aesthetic and size-related reasons.

The final odd design feature is one of my own making. As a welcome gift from the university I work at, I was presented with two traditional, painted masks. One hangs above my bed to guard me in my sleep but the other provides welcome company in my curious Vietnamese bathroom.

Yeah, I can have some pretty weird design ideas too.

The Limits of Familiarity

21 Sep

Do you get offered guava-like fruit from strangers in the street? Why or why not?

The other day I walked out of my front gate and into my little lane, only to be confronted by a mysterious woman proffering strange, green fruit.

My first thought was that she was trying to flog me something and my instinctive response was to go on the defensive. I raised my hands in the universal gesture of “no thanks”, put on a fixed grin and started muttering “em ăn roi” (I ate already), which is a weak excuse for rejecting fruit but was the best I could muster.

Despite my feeble protestations, the insistent woman continued to press the guava-like object onto me and I began to realise that, on closer inspection, she didn’t really fit the description of a typical Hanoian street hawker. For one thing, she was only carrying two pieces of fruit.

And she was chowing down one of them.

Ah! Obviously this was just a friendly neighbourhood lady who wanted nothing more than to share an exotic fruity snack with one of the bizarre Tâys (Westerners) who live on her street. How nice! I dropped my defences, backtracked on my excuses and bashfully accepted the offering.

It turned out to be pretty gross and I chucked it in a bin once I made it around the corner but that’s not the point. It’s the thought that counts. More than that, it’s the openness; the willingness that I find in so many Vietnamese people to come up to a complete stranger and ask their name (and often age, income and marital status), offer them some fruit and possibly squeeze certain parts of their anatomy in a friendly, inquisitive way. I suspect you’d get sued, or at least backed away from, for doing some of those things in Australia.

Uncle Ho lives on and enjoys cuddling people at hot reggae nights

Consider another example. Early on in my Hanoian adventures I moseyed along to a live reggae night on an especially humid Spring evening. It was held in a dimly lit basement that took on the look and feel of a particularly rocking sauna as it filled with profusely sweating, manically dancing revellers.

At some stage of the night I became aware that an elderly Vietnamese man bearing a ukulele, a straw hat and an alarmingly close resemblance to Ho Chi Minh was circulating amongst the crowd. This cheery gentleman would dance up to a group of people, bop up and down, and then serenade each person by bellowing out their respective national anthems. Upon approaching my companions he cycled briskly through Advance Australia Fair, La Marseillaise, and The Star Spangled Banner before dispensing some cuddles and ambling off.

Part of me would love to think that Uncle Ho is not dead and on public display at his very own mausoleum but instead lives on in an ageless retirement, smoking pipes and playing checkers by day and dancing along to Bob Marley by night. The more likely truth is almost as comforting: Hanoi is just filled with genial characters such as this who think nothing of clasping an arm around you and launching perhaps into a stirling rendition of “O Canada”, or a spirited defence of peace amongst nations, or a hands-on comparison of your respective heights and musculature systems. This is welcome familiarity in my books.

There is, however, an upper limit to the level of familiarity I can readily appreciate. And on a recent trip to a hair salon, deep in the beating heart of Hanoi’s commercial Đống Đa district, I discovered this personal threshold.

After having my hair snipped and trimmed into something resembling a haircut, I was ushered to a hair-washing station by a kindly middle-aged woman. We gossiped about my age, occupation and relationship status as my head was dunked and shampooed and gently massaged. I was curious but not alarmed when a face-cloth was placed over my eyes, and my forehead was inexplicably hammered with a blunt object that made ‘clacking’ noises. But when it was time to wash the suds off and this motherly woman inserted her fingers into both of my ears and vigorously purged them of water (and wax), Vietnam had suddenly gotten a little too familiar.

What the “Beep”?

22 Jul

or, Musings on Hanoi Traffic

This post is rated (NA) and is considered unsuitable for my Nana. It contains motorcycles and traffic themes that may concern her.

There comes a time for every Hanoian expat who is pretentious enough to maintain a blog, when they must turn their attention to the subject of traffic. As I approach my three-month milestone here and with fewer and fewer semi-original things to say, I’ve decided to put my two thousand đồng in on the matter.

First though, an admission: in Australia I am an ideological road-rules stickler. If I see a motorist fail to indicate as he or she enters a roundabout I am likely to descend into a furious private monologue in which I castigate the offender as a philistine, hell-bent upon the destruction of civilisation. Any passenger unlucky enough to share the car with me at this time may then be subjected to a sermon on the importance of law, communication and reciprocal trust as the foundations for a peaceful and just society, with the implication that failing to indicate represents a first step down the slippery slope into total anarchy.

I know, I know, they probably just forgot.

Anyway, given such predilections, you can probably imagine that I struggled initially in Hanoi to cope with a road environment in which law, communication and reciprocal trust seem, at first glance, to be entirely lacking. But when you’re operating in a world where lane-markings and pedestrian crossings are, as aptly described by a local friend, “just for decoration”, you either adapt or stay off the road.

And so, when I came to the realisation that my travels in this city were going to be too hot, far-flung, and generally suicidal for cycling, too frequent and rambling for buses, and far too expensive  and spontaneous for taxis, there was only one choice: get on a motorbike and join the throng.

Would you share a ride with this man? No, you wouldn't.

Now, to begin with, I opted to get on the motorcycles of others, namely those of xe ôms (motorcycle taxis / the drivers thereof), but after one or two journeys which involved unexpected detours down crowded pavements, over hazard-strewn construction sites, and through blatant red lights, all tinged with the faint smell of rice wine, I decided that it was probably wiser to take my life into my own hands. After a perfunctory late-night practice session, I fumbled my way through the purchase of a second-hand 125cc Honda Future Neo and immediately careened off into the murky sunset.

It so happened that my maiden journey was to take me down La Thanh street in peak hour traffic. This, in retrospect, was probably a mistake. Anyone who has lived in Hanoi will tell you that La Thanh street is generally considered to boast the worst peak-hour traffic of any stretch of road, street, alley or lane in the city.

Imagine a narrow, pot-holed hell, two kilometres long and one-and-a-half lanes wide, populated by a thousand motorcycles, a hundred cars, and a few dozen hapless buses and trucks crawling along in both directions. Imagine choking exhaust fumes, a cacophony of ineffectual beeping, and a rate of travel that alternates between tectonic and trundling. Finally, imagine that this street is flanked on both sides by bia hơis (beer houses), small children at play, and metal workshops that spill hot welding sparks and newly formed girders into the street. You still cannot imagine La Thanh during peak hour.

La Thanh Street in quieter, more peaceful times.

Yet subjecting yourself to this particular acid test teaches you much of what you need to know about surviving Hanoi’s traffic. You learn very quickly that lanes, red lights and right-of-way are abstract concepts that should be treated with much scepticism. You learn that motorcycles are not like cars that can be driven in stately procession, one after the other, but more like schooling fish that swim as one against the flow, and scatter at the sight of a predatory, oncoming bus.

You also gradually learn about the subtle language of beeping.

The beeping of horns is a constant, syncopated rhythm in the soundtrack of Hanoi and can seem like so much meaningless, aggravating, high-pitched static until you begin to recognise its value. Such an appreciation does not come easily. In Australia a car horn is most often beeped in anger; perhaps at some idiot texting when the green light hits, or at a petrified learner driver or elderly lady mystified by a roundabout. It is difficult to break that instinctive association between honking and road rage.

But in Hanoi beeping generally means something quite different to an outburst of impatience or angst. I’ve come to think of beeps as a courtesy. When operating without reliable road rules, rear-view mirrors or indicators, the excrutiating “meep meep” of a motorbike as it sails through your blindspot should be welcomed. Essentially, what that considerate fellow motorist is trying to say is “Look out! Look out! Here I am! I’m behind you! I’m beside you! I’m pulling blindly out of an intersection in front of you!”. This well-meaning clamour is far kinder to the nerves than the sudden “vooooOOOOM” of an unannounced speed demon as he hurtles past within an inch of your left handlebar.

That said, when a hundred over-considerate honkers announce their presence as they zoot past your bedroom window at 6am, you can be forgiven for cursing their caution. And when a bus or truck decides to signal its already well-established location and road privileges by blasting you off your bike with its shockwave air-horns, it’s difficult not to feel aggrieved. And when over-zealous women on Vespas “TOOT TOOT” you, the innocent pedestrian in their general vicinity, just in case you should absent-mindedly veer into the street and throw yourself under their wheels for lack of warning, it is possible to forget the subtle charms of beeping.

All jokes aside …

20 Jun

Sometimes, I have to put my fumbling attempts to be ‘entertaining’ and ‘humorous’ aside, step back, and let Vietnam speak for itself.

These photos are from a recent trip to Lan Ha Bay, a less touristy, though equally beautiful neighbour to the more famous Halong. My fellow volunteers and I were taking part in an eco-tourism kayaking weekend to help clean up the Bay in honour of World Environment Day.

Imagine paddling around in an aquatic dreamscape of cool, calm water punctuated by dramatic limestone karsts, God Rays, and occasional birdsong. Now just book a budget flight or two and get here.

An Economist’s Guide to Eating Out in Hà Nội

3 Jun

A wise man eats phở cuốn exclusively on 'phở cuốn street'

Mark Twain once wrote of the Chinese settlers in California that they “eked out a precarious existence by washing each other’s laundry”.

‘Oh God, what on earth is he rambling about now?’  I hear you say.

Well, my mind works in mysterious ways, and for some reason that particular phrase bubbled up from the depths of memory the other day when I was considering what to eat for lunch – a daily dilemma. You see, Hanoi seems to have more eating “establishments” per hectare to choose from than anywhere else in my known world. If at any time you have to walk more than fifty metres to find somewhere to eat, it probably means that you’ve strayed beyond the city limits.

In fact, it appears sometimes that the entire city’s commercial energies are primarily focussed on providing breakfast, lunch and dinner; its denizens “eking out a precarious existence” by selling each other phở. And there it is, dear reader: my bizarre, ‘thought-segue’ is completed for you.

Certainly, phở (pronounced “ĭn’kə-rěktly” by myself and most foreigners) is a meal you can buy anywhere in Hanoi and from seemingly anyone. I live in mortal fear of mistaking some unsuspecting family’s ground-floor dining room for a particularly well-appointed phở joint and simply walking in, sitting down, and placing my order. But for the dishes which are less staple (and I have, incidentally, encountered what looked and tasted like a staple in my food) the best place to enjoy them is their specialty locale.

Bún (like phở) is utterly ubiquitous; and here accompanied by Mọc (pork and mushroom dumplings)

So for the definitive cha cá (grilled Red River fish) go to “cha cá street”; for fried chips go to “fried chip alley”; and for kem ca ra men (crème caramel – sound it out and see) seek out “kem ca ra men corner”. Obviously, those aren’t necessarily the official names of these locations but they provide a useful shorthand.

These ‘cuisine clusters’ might seem peculiar to some – why set your snail soup shop up next to five other snail soup shops? – but I suspect that there is a partial explanation in an economic theory called ‘Hotelling’s Beach’.

The economist Harold Hotelling gave the story of a beach with two ice-cream carts on it. If beach-goers are spread evenly along the beach and they have no preference between the rapidly melting wares of the two ice-cream sellers, where will the carts set up in order to assure that they each sell the maximum amount of ice-cream?

You might be inclined to guess that the two carts will set up a quarter of the way from each end, in order to share their customers equally and save them from walking too far. But that would allow one enterprising (ie. unscrupulous) ice-cream seller to trundle towards the middle of the beach and thereby ‘capture’ more customers by being the most convenient cart to them. The only way for each cart to be assured of claiming at least half the potential ice-cream lovers is for both carts to set up side-by-side in the exact centre of the beach.

Certainly, Hanoi has more than two ‘ice-cream sellers’, and features a slightly more complex geography than a theoretical, one dimensional beach as well, but I reckon that the concept is still helpful in explaining why everything from dog meat to exercise equipment has its own little concentrated neighbourhood. And now, after all this theorising, I’m in the mood to traipse half-way across the city for a 10,000 vnd (50 cent) kem ca ra men.