more about food

we eat and we eat and we eat.

we go to bun bo nam bo. they serve only one dish: bun bo nam bo, of course, and they bring it to us as soon as we sit down at a metal table. the only question is: drink? so we get two Saigon beers. bun bo nam bo has vermicelli noodles, thinly sliced grilled beef, and lettuce and herbs in a sweet and savory broth, topped with chopped peanuts and crispy fried onions.

we go to cha ca la vong. they serve only one dish, too – you guessed it – cha ca. it’s fried fish with tumeric, dill, spring onions, fish sauce, rice noodles, peanuts, chilis, herbs. they cook it on a metal pan right at the table in front of us.

my airB&B host, Hien, invites us to his cafe, a little place called canopee coffee shop tucked away in an alley. his family cooks lunch for us. we meet his wife and daughter and mother and grandmother and we all sit down together and eat they food they’ve made: fresh rolls and boiled chicken and chicken noodle soup with fresh lemon leaves snipped from the balcony garden. I am proud to be one of the few to finish my whole bowl of soup. it is one of the most pleasant meals we have in the city, and some of the most pleasant company.

 

beep beep

we are in a taxi cab. our driver speaks little english, but we manage to communicate. we are stuck in rush hour traffic, surrounded by motorbikes, honking and swerving. it is chaos all around us. bradford imitates the sound of the motorbikes: “beep beep,” he says, and we all laugh. I repeat it, and so does the driver. we are all beep-beeping at each other.

the next day bradford and I decide to rent a motorbike ourselves. the whole process is startlingly simple. before we know it, we are the ones actually beep-beeping, zooming around the city. we ride out and around the west lake. we go to an english language bookstore called bookworm. I get the goldfinch and dubliners and bradford gets the essential hemingway reader and we get packs of vintage postcards.

when our motorbike nearly runs out of gas, we are struggling with it on the side of the road for only a minute before a man on his own motorbike stops to help us. he shows us how to lift the seat to fill the gas tank and he escorts us to the closest gas station. he has a big smile. he asks if we are from Washington, D.C.

we ride around until it gets dark and all the lights go on: the neon signs, the lanterns. I’m excited to see more of the city this way.

 

 

 

bai tu long bay part 2

what we do on the cruise: we relax and we read on deck and we kayak and swim. we stare out at the limestone mountains, and our minds go clear, and we breathe easy, and slowly. we hear the sounds of birds and see hawks swoop in the air. we hear monkeys chattering. we eat, a lot. we take a rowboat to a floating fishing village. we take a rowboat to an oyster farm. we take the rowboat back, and we get stuck in the rowboat in the middle of a downpour. we wait out the rain and the wind in an enclave near the rocks. we walk up the side of a mountain on steps carved from the limestone and we explore the caves. we swim some more. bradford gets stung by a jellyfish. we immediately leave the water. he is calm, admirably calm. our tour guide kayaks back to the boat. Bradford’s skin bubbles up and we can see where the tentacles hit from his arm down to his hand. the kids gawk at him. our guide comes back with two limes cut in half. he grabs Bradford’s arm and presses the lime against his skin, pushing down and away, toward his hand. we are surprised at how effective this is. the redness and the swelling goes down instantly, and the pain does, too. we kayak back to the boat. we relax, we eat. we cruise back to the shore.

 

halong bay + bai tu long bay part 1

as soon as we step onto the van for the three hour trip to Halong Bay, I feel relaxed. Hanoi has been wonderful, but it is intense, overstimulating. a sensory overload. I am happy to be headed somewhere peaceful.

we have booked a junk boat cruise, three days, two nights. we are in a small boat with two families, eight of us total. there is a woman from Australia traveling with her two boys, and a man from Israel traveling with his two boys. the kids are close in age. they make fast friends, not the least bit impeded by the fact that the younger Israeli boy speaks no English. they play a card game called “spit.” they slap the table and yell “spit” and giggle endlessly.

we are cruising Bai Tu Long Bay, the smaller, less traveled bay, though we still see plenty of other junk boats as we go. the presence of the other boats does little to distract from the landscape. the mountainous islands loom large. I read that “halong” translates to “where the dragon descends to the sea,” and that legend has it that the islands were created by a dragon. it makes sense. the islands look to me like seamonsters, like dragons, ancient creatures, mythic, almost as if they are living and breathing. I half expect to see them turn their heads, their craggy faces staring back at me.

when it’s sunny, we eat on deck, fresh seafood from the bay, along with a few other Vietnamese dishes. a sweet and spicy tomato soup with prawns, clams with lemongrass and chili, light, crisp salads with chopped peanuts and sesame seeds, pork and plantains cooked in a clay pot, more prawns, grilled this time, fried fish. breakfast is more western: eggs and toast and sausage. Bradford drinks Halong Beer and I drink fresh fruit juice: pineapple, watermelon, lemon.

 

temple of literature + fine arts museum

at the temple of literature, before we can even take in the sights, we are cornered by three kids, a boy and two girls, wanting to practice their english. they are all ten years old, all in the same class. the boy tells Bradford that he loves history and he will give us a private tour. he will tell us all the historical facts about the temple. the boy leads the way. the girls lag behind with me. the boy moves quickly, leading us through the courtyards, past the gift shop, past the altar, where the air is heavy with the smell of incense.

all three children speak english incredibly well. the boy speaks at a dizzying pace and sometimes fumbles over his words. the girls laugh at him. they ask me questions. do I like Vietnam? how long have I been here? they look over at the boy. then they ask me, quietly: “do you think he’s boring or do you think he’s interesting?” I try to be diplomatic. I say, “he’s very nice.” they shake their heads. “no,” they say, “there are only two choices. boring or interesting.” it’s clear that they think he’s boring. later, when I ask them what I should have for lunch, they think for a minute. “Pizza,” one of them says. the other agrees.

at the fine arts museum, we are happy to be out of the heat. the cost of admission is about $1.00 USD, the same as most of the other cultural attractions we’ve visited. the museum is in two big yellow colonial buildings that once housed the French Ministry of Information. we walk all over. we sit and stare at a large statue of a skinny buddha for a long time. bradford says, “it looks like he’s breathing.” I focus on the statue’s marble ribs, and the longer I do, the more I think he’s right, and I start to see the chest expand and contract.

Place Coffee + Quan An Ngon

on our way to the military museum, we see a sign for a cafe called “Place Coffee.” it is in the lobby of a hotel, it seems, and Bradford asks for an iced coffee to go. the woman at the counter looks concerned – we quickly realize this isn’t really a coffee-to-go-type place – and Bradford tries to tell her it’s okay, not to worry, he’ll drink it there, but when she comes back to the counter she has the iced coffee in a plastic bag tied tight with a straw sticking out the top. it is beautiful and perfect and we both smile and say thank you a million times. the coffee is delicious and tastes like rich dark chocolate.

for dinner we go to Quan An Ngon, our first sit down restaurant. it’s a collection of street food vendors in a courtyard, but with one menu, and tables, and servers who come and take your order. our server is practicing his english. he is a university student studying IT. we talk about music, and then we sing backstreet boys together, I want it that way, and we laugh. he couldn’t be more friendly. we eat more pillow cakes, and green papaya salad, and beef phở. the phở, in particular, is fantastic. the flavor of the broth is more complex than any of the other phởs I’ve had before. I taste what I find out is Saigon cinnamon, and star anise, and clove.

at the end of the day I’m thinking about the kindness of the people we’ve met, how welcome we’ve felt. we are starting to get a feel for the city.

military history museum

it’s hard to connect the place I’m in to the past I’m familiar with, the black and white photos in history books, the scenes in American war movies and Tim O’Brien novels. I can hold these two things, two places, two concepts in my head at once but it is difficult to make them connect.

but at the same time, paradoxically, the connections are everywhere. there are reminders of past occupations in the architecture and in the food I am growing to love, French and Chinese influences.

the military museum is another reminder, a strong one, a moment of reverence and reflection. there is an assortment of artifacts on display, some horrifying in their violence: spiked things placed in trenches, rifles, cannons, landmines. a tiny embroidered shirt and a toy belonging to a child killed in a bombing. soldier’s boots. sandals crafted from old tires. looking at these things I wonder: how can we do this to each other? people, over and over, since forever, have killed each other, brutalized each other, and for a moment I just let myself feel stunned and confused. because it is stunning and confusing, and to pretend that it is anything else seems crazy.

 

street food, beer corner

the key to crossing the street is to walk slowly, though it seems counterintuitive. like crossing a river on stepping stones. walk, pause. walk, pause, and the motorbikes curve around you.

we walk the half hour from our apartment in Ba Đình to the old quarter. it’s still raining, but only lightly. I am caught up in everything. I have the feeling that I cannot see enough. it is all a delight: the buildings, the tiled sidewalk under my feet, the giant trees with knobby roots, the makeshift restaurants that spring up on street corners, the little plastic stools where customers sit and eat.

we take a street food tour. we are in a group with 10 other westerners, mostly couples, one mother and daughter. the guide is a wonderful young Vietnamese woman who asks that we call her “Miss Moon.” she is outgoing, charming. she leads us into little corners, cubbyholes of restaurants. we eat everything: bún chả, a dish of grilled pork and rice noodles, pink dragon fruit, honey pineapple, bánh mì, spring rolls and pillow cakes, both deep fried and filled with chopped pork, chicken, beef, and crab. my favorite is bún riêu cua: a soup of crab, tofu, and rice noodles in a tomato and tamarind broth. it is topped with fresh herbs, mint, basil, shredded banana flower, and morning glory stems.

we sit at a place in the old quarter called beer corner. we drink glasses of fresh beer that costs 25 cents usd with an Australian couple we met on the tour. we end up sitting and talking for hours: there is so much to see on this one corner it is astounding.

the rain has stopped this morning. the plan is to wander, and to sit some more.

hanoi + being a tourist

when Bradford and I step out of our studio apartment in Hanoi, we are wearing the tourist uniform: teva sandals and fanny packs. comfort and utility. even if we weren’t dressed this way, there is no hiding that we are tourists, no way of getting around it.

After 24 hours of traveling, 7 of them spent in the airport in Hong Kong, where we look out the windows and marvel at the mountains and watch the republican debate and eat congee, we get to Hanoi. we shower and we head out. right away we are struggling, underprepared. we want things we don’t have the words for yet. we decide to sit at sidewalk table next to a woman grilling skewers of meat and see what happens. another woman comes over with a tray of fresh herbs, rice paper wraps, fish sauce, chopsticks, napkins, a pair of scissors. we watch the family at the table next to us cut the meat off the skewers with a pair of scissors, put it in the wrap, top it with herbs, dip it in the sauce, and we do the same. we know that they know we are doing everything wrong and paying the wrong price, but it’s so delicious that it’s worth the self-consciousness, the embarrassment.

we keep walking and we wonder: how do we cross the street? it seems impossible. there are motorbikes zipping everywhere. we watch two motorbikes almost collide head on, only to swerve at the last minute. both continue on their way, unfazed. the traffic rule seems to be do whatever you have to do to get to where you’re going. the flow of traffic never slows. motorbikes are parked on the sidewalks, in alleys, in homes.

we see a vendor selling rain ponchos in all kinds of prints and colors. we see these ponchos on motorbike drivers: polka-dotted, plaid, bright blue, orange, striped. this is next on the list. it hasn’t stopped raining since we got here.