Pho’s No Ramen, and Other Observations.
When planning this trip, I was more interested in going to Hanoi than Ho Chi Minh. Hanoi was supposed to be the quintessential Vietnam, which I sort of took to mean that everyone walks around in Non La hats, sipping Vietnamese coffee and … well, that’s all the references I really had. It seemed quaint. Turns out, that’s partially true. Hanoi is also kind of fucking nuts.
Some of the ways are really charming and unexpected. Badminton courts are everywhere and, if you get up early enough, you find the parks filled with elderly women doing tai chi and something that loosely resembles aerobics. Like coffee? So do they, and they make it sweet and strong as hell. It’s more like coffee flavored jet fuel, and it’s just perfect. Pho stands are ubiquitous as well, though I’m not a huge fan. It’s similar to ramen, if ramen had given up it’s flavor and self-respect. Plus pho comes with cilantro, and even if you ask for no cilantro, I’m pretty sure the bowls and utensils they give you come from the factory infused with cilantro essence. It’s crap, and I hate it.
Some of the ways are not as charming. Navigating the city on foot is kind of like playing dodge-ball in a minefield. Sure, it’s exhilarating, but one wrong move and your day is ruined. Sidewalks here are more of a cross between a parking lot, a street market, and an extension of the road itself than an actual area for pedestrians to walk. And it’s not enough that there are scooters literally everywhere, but they come at you from every direction; behind you, up one-way roads, tearing out of store fronts. You have to constantly be on guard or else find yourself becoming a moped ornament.
Scams here are pretty common and if there’s one reason I won’t be return here anytime soon, that would be why. Some are pretty creative, like building a knock-off version of a real, popular, hotel. Taxi drivers will then tell weary traveling the original location burned down and moved, then take them to the fake hotel, getting a kick back. They also take advantage of the currency exchange to short you or overcharge you, as dealing on the fly with hundreds of thousands of dong (ha!) can get complicated. We even almost got cheated buying postcards with the vender trying to sell us the wrong denomination. Touts weren’t as aggressive as I’ve seen in other places, though, and most took a polite head-shake and a simple no for an answer.
There is a lot to see here, though most of it is easy to accomplish in a couple days if you’re decent with time management. Hoan Kiem lake is the Central Park of the city, and the most endearing part of our Vietnamese trip. Multicolored lights decorate right the walking path that circles the lake, and there were at least a dozen locals taking wedding photos. There’s a legend that the lake is the final resting place of a giant turtle and magical sword, and the fantastical nature of the story speaks to me.
Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is pretty interesting but the real gold is at the Ho Chi Minh Museum. It’s the most bizarre museum I’ve ever been to, filled with strange exhibits that are supposed to illustrate his life and legacy, but who can focus on any of that when it feels like you stepped into a Clockwork Orange fever-dream. It’s as if Beetlejuice decorated Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. It’s insane, and worth every penny dong.
I’ve enjoyed the small sampling of Vietnam I’ve had. There’s always more to do almost anywhere you go, always more to see if you just had more time. Vietnam is rich in history and culture, and certainly has no shortage of places to visit and experiences to be had. I wouldn’t mind coming back for more at some point but I can’t say I’ll be in any hurry to get back here. Tomorrow is a travel day on the way to our next stop, Indonesia. Let’s see how Vietnamese coffee stands up against it’s rival on the island of Java.
Where we stayed: Charming Hotel II, Hanoi Old Quarter
What we did:
Water Puppet Theater
Ho Chi Minh Museum
Ho Chi Minh mausoleum
The Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton)
Hoan Kiem Lake
Temple of Literature