• Whitney

Hanoi, Vietnam

The constant beeping, much like a never-ending morse-code, calls out through the city all day, and all night; A kind of chatter through the streets, conveying joy, fear, anger, all with a high-pitched beep. My initial response is to be unnerved. Much like a smoke detector that needs its batteries changed, you finally seem to forget about it until another beep startles you. If you ever thought about taking anti-anxiety medication, this is the city where you will need it. There are lines on the streets and lights at the intersections, but they mean nothing. Instead, people fly up and down curved alleyways, around sharp corners and zip through intersections, going all directions at the exact same time. The beep of the horn is how they communicate, and though it isn't always the most effective way (we saw several minor crashes), it seems to be the only way to travel in Hanoi.

Hanoi is the closest thing to New York City that I have ever experienced, and when I think back on old episodes of Anthony Bourdain's show,"No Reservations," I understand exactly why he loved Hanoi the way he did. Hanoi is reckless and wild, so full of life, energy, hope, and despair. It is a never-ending whirlwind of turbulent, unexpected events. It is not an easy city to live in, and it is not an easy city to visit, but if you are lucky enough to immerse yourself in the culture of Hanoi, you will thrive. Truly, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

We set out from our hotel in search of authentic Vietnamese food and stupidly, tried to cross the street at an intersection. We waited for the light to change and it did, rendering the traffic as hopelessly entangled as it was when we were not supposed to cross. So that's how it is, huh? In fear of looking like a stupid tourist, I began playing frogger to cross the street, darting quickly, stopping abruptly to miss being hit, and sprinting again until reaching the opposing corner. This is just how it's done here. It would take me a day to get used to this chaos, but within 24 hours, we were looking at other helpless tourists, big eyed and frustrated, trying to cross the streets, waiting for some sign that the street would be clear and then looking back at one another as if to say, "We are so much more knowledgeable and cool than those morons." Yes, brilliant decision, us risking our lives to cross every street, but what other option did we have?

My mistake when traveling on foot is that I always assume every city is a grid, like New York. In my mind, if I walk down two blocks and to the right, I should be able to walk back by taking opposing directions on different streets. This, is stupid of me. In fact, most cities are not built this way. This is why Ian and I are always lost!

We found a narrow alleyway, off of the main strip, and it looked welcoming, but not too touristy. We walked pass several restaurants, trying to find something that said "vegan" or "vegetarian." You don't want to walk too slowly, because the restaurant owners will suck you in. We found a menu with vegetarian options, but there were two fat white guys out front, sitting separately, and I figured that this would not provide an authentic experience for us. We turned the corner and saw another menu with vegetable hot pot on it. That was good enough for me! I was familiar with Chinese hot pot, but not Vietnamese. I just assumed that if it was vegetarian, the broth would be vegetable-based, and the rice noodles would definitely be vegan, so this would be a vegan meal. Though it was not what I expected, it was definitely vegan, and I consider that a win!

Most of our time in Hanoi was spent traversing the busy streets, searching for the best pho or banh mi, washed down with golden Bia Ha Noi (local beer) or hearty coffee. We shopped in the markets, looking for unique spices and culinary delights, but Vietnamese cooking does not contain a lot of spices, per se. It's more about fresh herbs, which we couldn't travel home with. I definitely learned a lot about the food here. For example, in my mind, pho was always a dish made one certain way. However, in Vietnam, pho is just a base, a blank canvas, if you will. You get a bowl of broth with noodles. Sometimes the broth is dark and flavorful and sometimes it is very light (Do keep in mind that all the broth we had was vegetable based). Then, you have chili paste, pickled garlic, limes, pickled chili peppers, & soy. You use these things to make your pho how you want it to taste. See? It's much more personal than I thought.

I also expected the pho to have cilantro, but no pho place ever had cilantro, and we went to some seedy, back corner, locals only shops. Also, Ian has a theory that the most authentic pho shops have the smallest stools. The stool situation is comical to say the least. It's like a child's plastic stool factory went out of business and everyone in Hanoi took the leftovers. Some stools are only about 8 inches off the ground! If you're lucky, you may find one that rises just above your knees. Either way, if you have bad knees, you won't be sitting anywhere in Hanoi.

When we were in the Toronto airport, we cashed in $300 American dollars and we received 7.2 million Vietnamese Dong. While, being a millionaire felt exciting, I was instantly worried that we would be robbed carrying around that much cash in such a poor country. Our last trip to Morocco was full of vulturous people, pecking away at your pockets at every corner. I instructed Ian to hide some in a sock, some in a makeup container; I put a wad of cash in my bra... You get the idea. However, I never once felt like we were being watched, stalked, or even remotely being taken advantage of. In fact, we found the Vietnamese people to be extremely warm, kind, honest, and hard-working. Even our tour guide told us what places would try to rip us off, who would ask for tips even though it wasn't customary, and who was overcharging us. Typically, a tour guide is trying to rip you off! I have never traveled to a place with such a low currency conversion that took so much pride in themselves. It was absolutely inspiring to say the least.

The only hard pill to swallow came as a surprise to me. You see, when I was researching Vietnam, I read some reviews for the war museum in Saigon. Americans were leaving one star reviews because they said it portrayed a negative picture of the USA. I laughed because, that's kind of like a German leaving a one star review because the Germans are portrayed negatively in an American WW2 museum. I'm not saying that I agree, but I understand the perspective. So, I didn't go to the war museum because I was in Northern Vietnam, but I did go to the Vietnam Women's Museum because Vietnam has some badass females in their history and it's refreshing to see women being celebrated instead of burned at the stake for being powerful and smart. However, on one floor, it talked about women in war, and everything was fine until it got to the war with America. It spoke of female spies, women fighters, and had propaganda posters. I was shocked at how angry something deep inside of me became. Obviously, this is their country and their perspective and I thought I had mentally prepared myself to be okay, but I really wasn't and it shocked me.

Overall, I think that Hanoi is an incredible city, rich in culture, incredible food, and warm people. It is close to many beautiful, less populated areas, but also buzzing with the energy and excitement of a big city! I'm not kidding about bringing Xanax, though. It is not an easy transition from Western culture... but at least they have Popeye's Fried Chicken in their airport!

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