Northern Vietnam is one of my favourite regions in the world. In my recollections of travel, very few places evoke this level of longing. Central to this region in so many ways is the massive city of Hanoi, a locale known to have been inhabited for thousands of years. There is something abundantly special about the jagged and rugged streets of this concrete city. It’s like someone designed it on a grid, then dropped a big rock in the middle, forcing new routes to aggressively spider out amidst the original, organized arrangement. It’s very easy to get lost in here and we really did, plenty of times, over and over and over again.
The drive up was a long one, and reasonably unmemorable besides a standoffish run-in with a toilet worker on the side of the road, in the middle of the night. The city emerged from quite a distance, the land surrounding it being very flat and almost pastoral. The bus ride kept us on the same highway the entire time, even as we headed deeper and deeper into the populous metropolis. It wasn’t until the last 30 seconds that we were on a regular street and by that time, already hopping off the bus in front of our hotel. Teresa spoke with a gentleman on the bus and we had already arranged a place to stay at a negotiated price. Another beauty of Teresa’s skills; it would’ve been much more difficult to pull that off anywhere else we’d been.
The hotel was basic and relatively clean. The worst that happened there was the bathroom fan falling from its ceiling hold. It was basically a solid metal box crashing down onto the floor in this cramped bathroom when either one of us could have been using it. Having one of those fall onto our heads wouldn’t have been much fun, especially in Vietnam where we didn’t have health coverage and we might’ve been screwed even if we did.
The guy who ran the hotel also arranged an array of excursions in the Northern provinces. We still had 10 or 11 days left before our flight out to Malaysia so we had plenty to do in this time frame while maintaining the option to explore Hanoi as well. We opted for a couple of days up in Sapa where rice terraces rise from the crevice of a beautiful mountain range. We also decided on 3 days/2 nights on a boat in Halong Bay with a lot of activities and exploring packed in. It was two years ago so I can’t remember how much we paid for each one, but I’d estimate between the two of us it was about $150-$200 each for both excursions. We bundled them together to get a lower price.
We also got the hotel owner (and, to be honest, his kind-of-bitchy wife) to hook us up with a motorbike for our stay in Hanoi. We got a map, but as often was the case with some of the maps, they’d be missing streets, streets would be mislabeled, the direction in which the street is drawn would be inaccurate. So we’d have to make do with what we had. It wasn’t like we had 4G or LTE and were just able to use GPS like we would at home. It’s kind of fun that way though. Some people reading may think it’s no big deal, but to my generation, and those younger than me, reading a map isn’t always the easiest thing and we take for granted the ability to just find whatever we want whenever we want to.
So we got lost, but learned quickly to recognize certain landmarks and remember which streets were one-way and which ones were more accessible. The intersections were outrageous, from the old colonial area and everywhere else. Random 5 and 6 street intersections, not circular, but just a jaggedly protruding hexagon of insanity. I miss it so much!
I remember getting that first bowl of pho in the streets. Behind where we sat on tiny red or pink stools was a main perimeter street, walled off on the other side. At the top of the wall sat a set of train tracks and behind that was the freeway that we’d come in on, somewhere down the line. The pho was broth, a few diced green onions, beef, and noodles. There was some lime, hot sauce, and hoisin on the side as well. Teresa and I looked at each other like, “Did she forget something?” Teresa asked about the greens, or at least some bean sprouts. The lady laughed and told us that that is how pho comes in this part of Vietnam, and that this is how pho should be. Or rather, that this is all it needs to be. Simple, plain, straight to the point.
At the time, I disagreed. Honestly, I was kind of disappointed. Before I came to Vietnam, I didn’t mind pho, but it wasn’t my favourite and I rarely went out of my way to eat it. As soon as I made it to this amazing country, I fell in love with it. I appreciated it. It had already been a couple of months in Asia when we arrived in Saigon so I had already been learning to appreciate so much more than I previously had. But up in Hanoi, I thought that this dish was missing something. It didn’t take long, though, for that feeling to evolve once again into one of appreciation. I got up early in the morning every single day to enjoy a bowl of pho in the morning heat, as plain as it gets and delicious as all hell. One of the most enjoyable dishes of my life. Along that huge stone wall where the trains and cars whizzed by overhead, and where my motorbike was parked against one of god-knows-how-many thick-trunked trees that line Hanoi’s streets, was my first taste of that pure, plain pho that I’ll love forever.
Sorry to romanticize about noodle soup, I guess I just really enjoy some of the little things in life. I really wish I took more pictures of the city itself. I ended up losing a bunch of pictures that I thought had been transferred onto a USB, so that was a major downer upon returning.
Next time, the best bánh xèo with unlimited greens to boot, how much I love and appreciate finding bookstores abroad, and bong hits on the side of the road (on the way to the movies, of course). Check out my Facebook page for travel updates (Philippines in 4 weeks!!) and VLOGS!