Vietnam Day 1: Food, Fumes, and Friends in Hanoi

travel

Well, today was so action-packed that I thought I might revive this blog while I’m in Vietnam.

Background: I booked a ticket to Hanoi, Vietnam in August on a whim after finding a deal on tickets ($600 RT). I proceeded to plan very little (though I did do research, including enough to write a guide for REI). I’m here for 30 days on my own.

I arrived at my hostel around midnight after an 11-hour flight from Seattle, two-hour stopover in Incheon, South Korea and a 5-hour flight to Hanoi. It seemed like a pretty quiet, chill place until the train went by and karaoke started next door, but I’m still quite happy with it. There are curtains on the dorm beds which reminds me of my single person tent on the PCT — separate but not entirely alone. There’s a bathroom in the four-bed all-female dorm, which echoes like an operatic tinkle house. On the other hand, I managed to poop at around 2 a.m., which is a miracle because 1) I am almost sure everyone was asleep or at least enclosed in their curtain rectangles enough that they couldn’t identify the culprit and 2) it usually takes me dayyyyys to get my gut on board when I’m traveling (a problem which also inspired an article.)

Much like the PCT, it took me almost no time to start talking about poop here.

I managed to sleep until around 8 a.m. this morning which is also a minor miracle, considering I slept for about 15 hours total on my trip 10 day trip to Scandinavia in September. I’ve heard jet lag isn’t as bad going west as it is going east, and so far that seems to be true.

Okay, Hanoi: The hostel served toast and a single fried egg for breakfast, and then I headed out to get some U.S. dollars changed to Vietnam dong. The exchange rate is bonkers here, so bonkers that I’ve taken copious notes in order to wrap my head around it. 50,000 VND is about $2 USD. For those who are out of math practice (AKA me), here are some other ways to think of it:

100,000 VND = $4.28 USD
250,000 VND = $10.70 USD
500,000 VND = $21.39 USD
1,000,000 VND = $42.78

I exchanged $120 US dollars this morning, which quite literally meant I was a millionaire twice over. In the meantime, the Vietnamese have basically given up on anything less worth than 1,000 VND and have changed their lingo accordingly. So, if someone says, “This is 100 VND,” that’s actually one hundred thousand VND, and they will look at you like you’re stupid if you try to hand them the equivalent of $0.0043 USD.

After exchanging the money and feeling like a bank robber, I walked to a local travel agency and booked a popular and very SEO-friendly food tour, Hanoi Street Food Tour. I say “walked” — it was more like a live-action version of Frogger. The streets in Hanoi are filled with motorbikes, cars, vans, cyclists, and pedestrians. There’s a kind of organized chaos when it comes to crossing the street: There are crosswalks, which doesn’t mean vehicles will stop, and pedestrian walk signs, which also don’t mean vehicles will stop, and stop lights, which also… well, you get it. I got advice early that went something like this: You just have to walk with confidence, and the traffic will go around you. Well. The bikes will. Don’t step out in front of a car. But you’ll be fine!

On the other hand, on my first flight I sat next to a man who grew up in Vietnam but lives in Seattle, and on one of his last trips to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, he was hit by a motorbike and cracked his skull open.

Seattle has actually prepared me for the walk-with-pedestrian-pride bit, though — Seattle drivers seem to get irritated at you for not assuming they’ll stop at a pedestrian crossing, even when they’ve given you no indication they will. It was easier to pick up on crossing a busy street like there wasn’t heavy machinery pummeling toward me than it probably should have been. Honestly, I found crossing the street in the UK more difficult. At least cars here are on the same side of the road as I’m used to.

In the food tour group, I met two folks from New Jersey, a man from Israel, an Australian couple and a woman from South Africa who lives in Korea. The group ended up being really fun. We tried Bun Cha (a pork noodle dish that President Obama tried with Anthony Bourdain, although at a different restaurant), a dried beef papaya salad, egg coffee (in which egg and sugar are whipped into a foam and put on top of Vietnamese coffee), Banh Mi (which is made with part rice flour and makes the crust extra light), local beer, rice paper rolls unlike any I’d had before, some of the tastiest fried spring rolls I’ve ever had, glass noodles, and sticky rice with ice cream. But apparently, every guide gets to choose their own dishes and restaurants, so the itinerary changes based on who you’re with — which is awesome, in my opinion.

fried-fish

The food tour took us to established stalls, but there are people cooking directly on the street in pans like this one, sometimes with small plastic chairs and tables (like, real small, close to what we might consider step stools in the west) nearby. Apparently, that’s because serving food on the street is technically illegal, so you need to be able to clean up fast should the police come by. This woman was frying fish, tons of it, and said she provides hundreds of meals a week to the local hospitals for patients who are elderly or poor to eat.

One of my biggest fears coming here — and before most of my international trips, really — is that I wouldn’t make friends or have people to talk to. Today was a nice antidote to that fear. After the food tour, the Australian couple (Paul and Rosa, who is actually Finnish) the South African woman, Meryl, and I walked around the shops. I bought 40,000 VND “I’m traveling in Asia” shorts (about $2 USD). Apparently, it’s common, accepted practice to haggle in SE Asia, but I just don’t have it in me to haggle for $1.50.

Paul and Rosa were nice enough to let me tag along on their night’s itinerary, too — dinner at a fancy* restaurant run by students and a traditional water puppet show, whose storyline I couldn’t follow but was entertaining nonetheless.

*Dinner was around $7 USD a plate, which is “expensive” for Vietnam, and the food was really good. The servers placed the intricately folded napkins in our laps. They spoke excellent English. There were fancy cocktails. There was also a rat that ran down the wall into a hole in the floorboard, which the server promptly plugged, and set all of us laughing, and then trying to cover our laughter, which made us laugh even more.

A few fun facts that have not been fact-checked:

  • “Cảm ơn” means thank you. But it is not “come on,” we learned thanks to the Australian couple, who said it in front of our tour guide, Rosie. “Come on” means “shut up,” Rosie said. Thank you is more like, “come uhhnn.” So I’ll have to be very careful not to say “shut up!” when trying to express gratitude.
  • “Phở ” is not “foe”, which you may already know if you have an obnoxious foodie friend. It’s “fuh.” But today I learned that “foe” means “bitch.”
  • I will probably be having stress dreams about trying to say “thank you for the phở ” tonight.

Lead image is the red bridge on Hoàn Kiếm Lake. It leads to Đền Ngọc Sơn, or Temple of the Jade Mountain.

2 thoughts on “Vietnam Day 1: Food, Fumes, and Friends in Hanoi

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