entrees, Hanoi, travel, Vietnam

Getting Hanoi’d

02.08.11 | 4 Comments

As a last Asia-hurrah, John and I decided to take a two-week trip to Vietnam in September before our return back to the States. We figured, why return home with money with Vietnam so close by? We don’t have to be practical for at least a few more years!

Getting there wasn’t a problem, but the 24 hours between our return from Vietnam and our flight from Shanghai to Phoenix presented a bit more of a complication. I had to tell my preschool, which had two months prior gone through hassle to get me a work visa, that I was leaving, but please don’t cancel my visa until 16 days after my last day of work.

After a day of arguing with our landlords in Shanghai about lease agreements and how much extra money we should pay them, we hopped a late flight to Hanoi. We arrived in airport at 1 AM, paid our visa fee, and exited through customs. The hostel we booked arranged for an airport pickup, but we were strictly instructed to make sure that the person who picked us up had my name typed on a sign, the name of our hostel, and the booking confirmation number so that we wouldn’t be scammed or mistaken for government agents and left at the mercy of a crop duster.

We found the man with the required information and followed him to the curb, where we waited 5 or 10 minutes for his friend to pull his fraying white sedan around to us.

Neither of these men spoke English, they just loaded our bags and motioned us in the car. Just after a toll booth, the driver pulled over. My heart rate spiked sharply; since being robbed and stabbed a year and a half prior in China, I have since been acutely tuned-in to situations when could easily turn awry. We didn’t know who these men were, where we were going, or how to speak their language. Even though I was with John, a 6’6” imposing man, these two men could easily drive us out into the middle of nowhere, pull a weapon on us, take our things, and leave us stranded and out of cash, wounded or maybe not. I have been in a very similar situation, and it’s hard to unlearn that fear.

My heart eased a bit as we later rolled into what was obviously the metropolitan center. The drivers dropped us unceremoniously in front of a store front with a gate pulled down and alerted a sleeping someone inside to our presence.

After falling into bed in our room lit with orange light spilling through the curtains, we awoke the next morning to the constant buzz of motorbikes. After a quick breakfast of Vietnamese baguette with jam and cheese, we set off to wander the winding streets of Hanoi.


In Hanoi the streets are not laid out in any sort of grid or, seemingly, any sort of system at all. One straight street changes names three times, and all the others branch off diagonally and circularly from there. We didn’t really have a destination, so instead we wandered and looked and absorbed, my favorite way to travel and familiarize myself with my surroundings.


Hanoi is filled with motorbikes. There are hardly any passenger cars, and all of the motorbikes run on gasoline, unlike China, where at least half the motorbikes are electric. We had heard about the motorbikes, and heard horror stories of foreigners unable to cross the street, but experienced in the chaotic Chinese traffic patterns, John and I had little trouble navigating traffic.


We eventually reached Hoan Kiem lake and strolled around it, counting 18 couples dressed in full wedding regalia getting their bridal portraits done.


After an unmemorable lunch (it seems that my first meal in a new place is almost always the least remarkable), we headed to the Hanoi Hilton to tour the prison where my home state Senator famously spent 5 years.


The Hanoi Hilton was quite fascinating, though to me the most interesting aspect was how its history is portrayed. The first half of the museum explains in detail the suffering and torture that Vietnamese prisoners endured in the first half of the 1900s, and how some of them escaped through the narrow concrete sewer pipes.

The latter half showcased the foreign prisoners the camp held during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. They had John McCain’s flight suit, still streaked with dirt (or blood?) and many pictures of the inmates celebrating Christmas and having movie nights, as though they were hanging at boys’ club filled with happy-go-lucky guests just chillin’ and smokin’ and writin’ letters home. I wondered what means of persuasion were used to get those smiling photographs.



After our tour we wandered a bit more before making our way to a restaurant recommended by the hostel as having authentic Vietnamese. The restaurant, dirt cheap by American standards, was quite well-decorated and obviously not the sort of place that served locals. Most of the seating was outdoors under purple and yellow draped cloth. Surrounding the dining area were food stations, each station specializing in one or two dishes. The waiters would fetch the dishes from corresponding stations, so it was like eating at a full-service upscale food cart park. The results were scrumptious.

Unfortunately I can’t remember the Vietnamese names of many of the things we ate. We got fresh spring rolls, which we ate at nearly every meal.


Banh Xeo, crackly thin pancakes pan-fried around a sprout filling and cut into 6 pieces which you wrap with lettuce and dip in heavenly sauce, was our favorite. Ever.


This is probably a papaya salad or something. It was forgettable, even as we were eating it.


Fried dumplings of inferior caliber.


And some outstanding salty, tender chicken served atop a moist pile of sticky rice.


It had only been a day, but I knew that the one word that would encompass our whole trip would be: nom.


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