Our roving international correspondent, Bob Schiff, has been traveling throughout Asia, reporting on the obscure and exotic. Here is his 12th installment detailing his travels. Enjoy Shiff's musings on the locals, customs, accommodations, and certainly the visual and descriptive majesty of the sites he is visiting and documenting.
- When I first get to a new city I generally spend the first day or so getting acquainted and doing the tourist things. Then I put the camera and guide book away, settle in and "live" the city. I've done that here in Saigon; I have my regular spots for morning coffee, ATM, bottled water, cigarettes, etc. - and there is an acknowledgment of recognition with the neighborhood locals. Already it's been about three weeks and I feel a certain comfort here. I would like to hit a beach for a few days but Nha Trang seems to be a bit overbuilt and touristic for my liking and the southern island of Pho Quoc, which seems like a less developed alternative is booked out over the holidays. My next thought is to fly up to Hanoi and see how it has changed since I was last there. With another week left on my visa
it's off to Hanoi.
Pretty spectacular lighting. (Bob Schiff)
Overcast, damp and cold. A bone chilling cold. It's about 12 degrees centigrade (about 54 F) but feels 20 degrees cooler. After so much time in the tropics I'm freezing here. First order of business is to buy a coat. Still cold. Next, a scarf. Better. Next morning it's coffee followed by some warm socks. Still chilly so I buy a thin coat to wear as an additional layer under the coat I bought last night. OK, now I'm dressed properly. I could use a pair of gloves though.
Hanoi is much older then Saigon and as the seat of an overbearing government is a much more conservative place. There is more history here too. Much of it not so good. While not as modern or westernized as Saigon it too has gone through a remarkable evolution since I was last here. Bicycles have given way to motorbikes and there are now many tourist oriented shops, restaurants and hotels. Still there is an old world traditional feel to the place and a certain charm that still lingers. While Hanoi has gone through a period of significant advancement, progress is not as in your face as it is in Saigon. You might say it's more authentic. I also notice that the people seem more reserved than their southern brethren.
The Old Quarter of central Hanoi boarders the northern shore of Hoan Kiem Lake. It is a confusion of crowded narrow twisty streets and alleyways teaming with shops, small hotels and restaurants - most of them just small plastic stools and tables scattered on the sidewalk in front of a makeshift kitchen. Tiny plastic stools and tables are jammed between parked motorbikes on the sidewalks throughout the area. Hot grills, oil filled woks and huge steaming pots of soup are everywhere. Bia Hoi cafes - plastic stools on the sidewalk and 400 dong (20 cent) local brewed beer - too. It's all out there on the streets and it's all good. I've tried a few restaurants and while they have all been OK they can't compete with the flavors of the street food. It's where all the locals eat and it's by far the best. Many of the locals do not speak English and those that do know only just so much. Generally not enough to explain the food choices. Often I can get a general idea of what dishes are (and make sure none of them are dog meat) but mostly I just look and point and hope for the best. I have yet to be disappointed. One nice thing about Vietnamese food, courtesy of the French, is the availability of great baguettes. After mostly rice and noodles for the last two years it's refreshing to be able to get a real sandwich or lap up soup with a piece of crusty French bread.
Opera House. (Bob Schiff)
The nightlife in Hanoi is much lower key than Saigon. Most places adhere to the midnight closing restriction. Friday night I went to a big cosmopolitan club that in addition to your typical DJ also had an elaborate stage with platform lifts and live performances. Bottle service was the norm. Just as most places in other cities get rolling this place shut down. Bummer. Saturday night I went to a more grungy club with a dance floor and a shisha lounge upstairs. Felt like an opium den from bygone days. It must have been owned by someone well connected for at midnight they shut the front doors and kept the place rocking. By 2 a.m. and after too many $2 Tequilas the place was thinning out. I hopped on the back of a Xe Om and headed to another place I heard stayed open late. We headed down a dark deserted street lined with shuttered old buildings. It's spooky. Like a scene out of a movie. You know, the one where suddenly a youth-gang clad in black leather jackets appears wielding chains and knives. And my bike driver is in on the scam. What an imagination. The street ends and we come upon many parked motorbikes at the top of a path heading down to the river. Rickety wooden planks lead onto a dilapidated wooden barge moored along the bank. I'm reminded of the seedy after hours club I frequented in Manhattan in my younger days.
I've settled in pretty well and revel in the wonderful street food and soak up the easy-going city vibe. By day I walk around town taking breaks to read or write in one of the many cafes. Whenever I can fit more food I grab whatever looks good at the street restaurants - a sandwich of local cold cuts, pates and other unknowns in a fresh crusty baguette; a steaming bowl of Pho Ga (chicken soup) or Pho Bo (beef soup); Bun Cha (a grilled pork in fish sauce broth with various greens, rice noodles); and many other goodies that I can't even begin to describe. Early evening I generally grab a stool and have a few 400 dong (20 cent) Bia Hoi beers and then head back to the hotel for a rest. Evenings it's back out for more street food. For the first time since I've been in Asia I feel like I'm putting on weight. Good thing my visa is up soon.
A traditional house. (Bob Schiff)
I generally leave a place without regret but that's not the case for Hanoi. I savor each meal as if it's my last. This place is foodie heaven. Last night I indulged myself in a little French cafe - a glass of Merlot, a simple tomato and lettuce and sliced onion salad, a hearty duck cassoulet followed by coconut and chocolate ice creme and a jasmine tea - all for about $15 USD, and yes, it was good.
Today is my last day in Hanoi. I carefully planned the day to take in a morning weasel coffee (beans eaten by rodents, excreted and then roasted similar to coffee Luwak in Indonesia), two lunches at two of my favorite street food places and a few stops for coffee while trying to leave enough room for a full dinner. I did my research on the internet and the Lonely Planet and then actually went and visited two high end Vietnamese restaurants to evaluate which would win the prize to serve me my last supper here in Hanoi. Wild Lotus looked good. In fact the restaurant would look great even in Manhattan, but seemed too progressive. I'm looking for traditional northern Vietnamese fare like grandma would make if she could afford to use the best ingredients and prepare them with professional kitchen equipment. I decide on Club Opera, a cozy restaurant with low ceilings and dark wood housed in an old French colonial building.
Before dinner I take one last long walk around town. It is hard to pass by the enticing smells of all the street food; Club Opera is clearly up against some stiff competition. I'm in a melancholy contemplative mood and sorry that tomorrow I will be leaving. Tonight even the incessant calls from the Xe Om and pedicab drivers doesn't seem to bother me. I can feel the hardship of the many ladies bundled up against the cold under the tented straw hats that symbolize Vietnam balancing their wares from long bamboo pole carried on their shoulder. Around the lake is a kaleidoscope of bright lights reflecting off the water in a multitude of colors. It almost seems like rays of hope against the winter cold and harsh past of this ancient city.
The bar at Club Opera is warm and cozy. I start with a vodka martini and in consultation with the bartender chose my last meal. A young lady is playing traditional music from a stringed instrument that seems to fortify my reflective mood. I order a shrimp and green mango salad and a fried duck with tamarind sauce together with a glass of cabernet. The food is good but not what I had in mind. I didn't want some modern creative interpretation or some Asian fusion resulting in a dish with no pedigree but that's what I got. At almost $50 USD it was outrageously expensive for Hanoi. Oh well, should have stuck with the street food.
Mellowed by the drink and saddened in the knowledge that I will be leaving tomorrow I take one last walk through the Old Quarter and back to my hotel. I almost stop for one last meal on the streets but don't think I can fit another morsel of food. During my month in Vietnam I have only visited Saigon and Hanoi. I am so taken by the experience but have that feeling of unfinished business. In the words
of General MacArthur, "I shall return." Soon.
Street vendors at a local market. (Bob Schiff)