Của thiên, trả địa (That which belongs to heaven, returns to Earth)
“Can you please check to see if it’s okay?” said the young Vietnamese lad, as he handed back my camera. We were lost somewhere deep within the old quarter of the bustling city of Hanoi, and to bookmark our travels, I had stopped to ask a stranger to take a photograph of me and my family.
Not too fancy a request many would think. But it was the manner in which this total stranger behaved which, to a large extent defined Vietnam. After taking the pictures, he handed the camera back — with both hands, and a smile. And then, he waited while I checked and approved the pictures that he’d snapped. I suppose had I said, “oh no, these aren’t too good”, he would have taken a few more. But they were fine; and after a few thanks and nods, we all went our separate ways.
Hanoi is unlike most capital cities. Bustling with over 7.5 million people, an old charm hangs over the entire city — even in the up-market, modern areas. Everyone seems happy; going about the trials and tribulations of daily life. If you’re lucky enough to wake up early in Hanoi, you’ll get to see a crowd of people jogging around Hoan Kiem Lake, and a handful of others doing Tai Chi. If morning’s not your cup of tea, then early evening. And chances are that you’ll be approached by a couple of smiling young students from the local university, who surprise, surprise, aren’t looking to lure you into a dingy bar to spike your drink with a date rape drug to eventually leave you in a bath tub with one kidney less, but who honestly just want to know a little more about who you are, and where you’re from. This sort of curiosity is a dying art — we’re not only growing older, we’re also becoming far too paranoid of the average person on the street. One unfortunate reality of this lovely town is the mass of tourists that are always present, with a copy of Lonely Planet Vietnam (travel guide) in hand. This sad lot is, inadvertently, limiting its experience of this lovely country to what’s been written by a couple of travel guides. The key to memorable travel is getting lost. And then finding your way; and in doing so, finding yourself.
In most East Asian countries, the food is always one of the plus points — barring the Philippines that is. As lovely a city Manila is, there’s just too much deep fried pork there. Vietnamese cuisine also had a significant pork section, but what sets it apart from the curries of Thailand and the dim sum of Singapore and Hong Kong is the Pho, which can best be described as a noodle soup with vegetables and beef (or seafood/pork/ whatever). The entire city is abound with eateries big and small that serve this wonderful dish — many establishments just have one thing on the menu — Pho. Go sit down and be served.
Mind you, the best Vietnamese food is found on the street. The dirtier the establishment is, the tastier the food. We’ve sat by open sewers, on dingy plastic stools and had some of the tastiest grub of our lives. Whenever we decided to go indoors, to an upscale tish-tosh eatery, we’ve only been disappointed. Stay outdoors. And if this Pho doesn’t interest you, there’s also a wonderful barbeque section — thinly-sliced beef shows up on your table raw, grill it on the table to your liking.
Having spent some time in Cairo (and hence added caffeine into my list of addictions), I was pleasantly surprised to find that most Hanoians share my problem. A day is not complete without multiple cups of Ca phe da, aka iced coffee. Did you know that Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee after Brazil? Anyway, this iconic drink is made by the drip method, with large amounts of ice, and a handy dose of condensed milk. Most Vietnamese coffee has a chocolate overtone, which coupled with the sweetness of condensed milk masks the caffeine kick, so be warned: if you have a cup post 8pm, you’re in for a long and jittery night. There are other variants as well — coffee with yogurt, and/or coffee with egg — which are all worth at least one try.
Vietnam is a reasonably sized country, with a north to south distance of 1,650 kilometres. Hanoi is in the north, and the other, perhaps more well-known city, Ho Chi Minh, is in the south. In the centre lies the scenic old beach town of Hoi An. But just a few hours bus ride away from Hanoi, in the north-eastern part of the country, lies the magic of Vietnam — Ha Long Bay.
Consisting of over 1600 island-like formations that jut out of the water, this geographic marvel is more suited in a Tolkien fable than real life. If you’re lucky enough to experience this bay during misty weather (as we were), islands appear and disappear at will from a distance of a 100 metres or less. Once nestled inside the bay, life as you know it ceases to exist. Mobile networks do not work. There is no interfering sound, no traffic. Sometimes an occasional floating village comes in view and promptly disappears with the fog. But nothing else.
Like most of Vietnam, Ha Long Bay, is from another time — a slice of heaven that has been returned to earth.