Friday, 4 November 2016

A Homecoming or OMG, I forgot how GOOD it feels to be in Ha Noi

Noi Bai.  A word that spells deliverance.  Noi Bai is the name of airport of Ha Noi.   And Ha Noi is where I want to be because I seem to remember that this is one of my favourite places to be.  It's been 7 months since I've been here, but the details of why that is have become fuzzy.

During the immigration line-up I chat with an older New Zealand couple. It's their first time here and they're all excited.   It's my FOURTH time and I don't feel that excitement anymore that one feels before entering an unknown mystical place.  That would be silly. It has been replaced by the joyous anticipation I used to feel when I was about to come home after a long journey.

The first steps have become routine.   Walk over to the Arrival Duty Free store (!), pay US$ 18 for a carton of Winston cigarettes. Walk the kilometer or so to the domestic terminal to catch the # 17 public transit bus.   Sounds boring already, doesn't it?  

No worries, it's about to change !

I can see my bus sitting in the bus depot from a few hundred meters away.  I  convince myself that I would run and wave at the bus driver if the bus starts moving before I get there. This is NOT something I usually do.  And just when I have made that new resolution, the bloody thing pulls away.   Oh, OH, time to put my feet where my mouth is !  I don't think the bus driver EVER has seen a WESTERNER running towards his bus (I don't remember ever seeing a single other Westerner on that bus), so he stops the bus, and opens the door with a wide GRIN !  

I know the ticket seller will approach me now to sell me the 9000 VND ( US$ 0.40) ticket for the 75 minute bus ride into town but I have the 10000 VND note ready.  

As soon as the bus starts winding its way through the villages and fields, I am content !  

The green of the rice fields is so GREEN. The Viet customs of decorating the front portals of their elongated 3 story concrete boxes with amazing multi-coloured balconies and turrets is soothing to the eye.  But what I most like is the constant smiling and chatting of the passengers with the bus driver and among each other.  Been on a Vancouver public transit bus lately ? Making eye contact is almost equivalent to physical assault, it seems.

Halfway through the journey, the ticket collector (!) gathers a screw driver from a tool box, folds up some plastic bags into tiny squares, proceeds to open the side window right behind me, and starts tightening something (that he stuck the folded-up plastic bags under) on the outside of the MOVING bus.   Another thing I love about this country. Something broken?  Just fix it!  And everyone still seems to be sufficiently right handed to do it !
When I turn forward again after having taken this picture, everyone is looking at me and smiling and giggling.  

Then the bus crosses the large bridge over the Red River and I know it's almost time to walk.  After a few blocks along the main road, I turn into the French Quarter.
And in a flash second I REMEMBER why I love it so in this town,. This is not a town of quasi-humans moving in internal combustion metal cages through a concrete wasteland.  This city is ALIVE !  No-one is shielding themselves from contact with other human beings !
But Ha Noi is changing.  And not for the better,unfortunately.  I notice changes from February in the various streets I walk through from the bus depot to my hotel.  But it really hits home just before I turn into the tiny street to my hotel.  

In February, the entire sidewalk was occupied by parked scooters, little red chairs, people eating and chatting, and dogs and children running through the whole.   Now a new building (hotel?) has sprung up and within 50 meters two new 'proper' Cafe's with wooden chairs and tables inside and fancy signage outside. No doubt to attract tourist money. Of course, there can't be any sitting and eating and dog and children playing on the sidewalk right in front of those new places. 

But at least the tourist writing this blog does NOT come here because I want to sit on a nice chair in a 'nice' Cafe. Seeing the social life of families with children and dogs IS what makes this place charming.  Put in a few more of those 'nice' Cafes, and I might as well stay home.  Too bad!

A small remnant of what this street used to look like, but paling in comparison to the LIFE that could be witnessed here before.
The receptionists at my hotel have changed again, but one of the new ones actually manages to pronounce my name.   During previous visits I was known as Mr. Hans, that being the only 1-syllable word they could detect in my name and felt confident pronouncing.
Yes, I realize that by occupying a room like this, I am indeed CONTRIBUTING to erasing the old-style LIFE from the streets of Ha Noi ;-(
The room is ready and I don't have to get used to it. After all, it's the Royal Room, LOL. And this is the 4th time I'm staying in it !

A quick coffee, a quick shower, and my stomach is telling me that it's time to eat.   Over to Chuong Chuong 50 meters down the street for my usual dish:


On the other hand, the smiley disposition of the locals also seems to colour off on the tourists, who are here in numbers that ballooned compared to my last 3 trips.

There are two young white guys in white shirts standing on the street. One of them wears a Yarmulke. He gives me a Viet-like smile when I am about to pass them and asks "Are you Jewish by any chance".  It's a good thing I'm almost speechless, so that I only manage out to squeeze a smile and a 'No" and don't get to telling them what ethnic or national trough I actually descended from.  Because that could have killed that smile instantly.

At 6 pm I'm getting wobbly on my feet.  Ah, that's the sign that it is 4 a.m. in Vancouver. Flying from Guangzhou to here I had to change my watch again; 10 hours time difference now.

The bells of the near-by cathedral ring at 5 a.m. (!) and darkness is slowly being sucked from the sky at 5:45.  My sink laundry has had time to draw on the balcony overnight. 

I've been up for a while and I'm sipping wine and smoking while typing this on the Royal Balcony (LOL).    

They're expecting other royalty tonight, because yesterday I found out that this room will not be available tonight. 

What to do? I do NEED a balcony. Otherwise it's either not smoking for 5 hours after waking up (NOT) or waking the hotel staff sleeping on the lobby floor to go out (NOT). So yes, I need a balcony.   Fortunately I find another room with a balcony in a hotel just down the street.  Nothing royal about that room, but the name of the hotel is LUCKY 3.  Nomen est Omen?  Never know!

It's not even 7 am when I head down to the lobby for breakfast.  No one is sleeping on the floor anymore, but the floor is still being swept.  It was the thought of a spicy Pho Ga that drove me down here so early.  Westerners seem to eat Pho for dinner but the time that it should be eaten is breakfast!  At least that is what is being practiced in Vietnam and I'm not one of those Germans that think of pointing out to the Vietnamese the error of their ways. Au Contraire, LOL !    

Even though this is a tourist hotel, with place mats and knives and forks on the tables, Pho Ga (Pho with chicken) is fortunately on the breakfast menu. But where are the chopsticks?  Doi Dua is Vietnamese for chopsticks as a quick Google search reveals, but I don't have to use the new word because the proper utensils arrive with the dish.

Just look at the colours!  Doesn't it look appetizing ?  And it tastes amazing. 

 Why haven't I been able to find a place in Vancouver that makes anything comparable? Maybe because restaurants in Vancouver shy away from serving something this simple?   This dish only has 6 simple ingredients, and that's including the boiling water !

I walk over to the new hotel to see whether an early check-in is possible to give my hotel more time to clean before the new guests arrive. Nope.  

Ah well, I'm going to use the time until regular check-out to walk to Ga Ha Noi to buy myself a train ticket for tomorrow night.  Yes, one can get the train-tickets online or through the hotel, but that causes the price to almost double.   

High Fashion, a reflected German, and a rooster
When enter the waiting hall, I see the sign tourist information the very same second that the woman sitting behind the counter there spots me.  Face it, a tourist in Vietnam will be spotted at a distance the very moment when only half his body remains exposed by the curvature of the earth !

The bad news is that the last  berth in the 4 berth sleeper cabins is already booked. But the good news is that I don't have top berth in the 6 berth sleeper. I had trouble getting up there when the trains were packed during this years Tet.  I have a middle berth and I feel confident that I'll be able to manage the climb into bed. I pay 526,000 Dong for that berth in a night train. would have charged me more than double for the same berth ;-) That's US $26 I saved by walking for half an hour.   

But saving money is by far not the important aspect here. I got to experience more Vietnam and go shopping for foodstuff.  The price for the latest bottle of Dalat Vang Trang (White Gold) has dropped to CAD $4.83.  And ever since passing by a Banh Mi stand along the way I have an overwhelming craving for a Vietnamese sandwich !   Oh, Oh, I must watch it or I'll get FAT here ;-)

Another thing I noticed: the 22 degrees Celsius at 9:30 am are making me SWEAT ;-)  Must replenish that fluid loss with wine .......

As soon as I have typed the above sentence with the sandwich, the urge is anchored in my brain. Banh Mi !  Banh Mi! Banh Mi !  I WANT Banh Mi !!!!

I surrender to the desire and walk back towards the train station. The place is exactly where I remembered it and I'm getting one from a list of 10 different ones.  I didn't really want omelette (the fabulous one in Sai Gon didn't have that), but as soon as I take a bite I am in food heaven (Sorry, Tony).   You can taste how happy the chicken was as soon as the egg yolk hits your taste buds!  This is friggin AMAZING.!   So is the price I pay for it.  25,000 VND. exactly CAN $ 1.50 or US $1.12.   This is a joke right?   It must be a way of the universe killing itself laughing at the folly of man.   I pay $15 for something in Vancouver and most of the time I only eat it because I'm really hungry (Hunger forces it in), and here I pay 1/10th of that and  a simple sandwich causes me to rave like a lunatic. The moral? You figure out where insanity has taken over: Here or There ......

But the temptation is everywhere ..... as I am about to find out ......

I check out at noon and walk over to today's new hotel. Yes, my room is ready, BUT ....

I have to ask the receptionist a few times to repeat what she just said before I believe it.  What she says is that the room I booked is NOT available because it was already booked.  But they are willing to give me an upgrade to a better room IF...... wait for it ...... I pay extra money. She even says "Can you do us a favour?"   Since I know that they use the Vietnamese version of and are really really good with booking, I see this as another small scam attempt.  Hotels are good at those There is the train-ticket scam (she EVEN asks me whether I have bought my train ticket already, LOL) . And there is the scam warning tourists of the 'taxi scam' (The hotel driver gets to do the highly lucrative airport transfer instead of a taxi).

So I say NO.
She looks down at some ledger for 5 seconds, looks up again, and says "We can give you the FREE upgrade".   There, that wasn't that difficult, was it ?

Room 801 is the 'VIP suite'.  1st of all. A suite means that there should be at least a divider to turn the room into two rooms. Or at least have a huge sitting area taking up as much space as the bed.  Just calling a room a suite doesn't turn it into one !!!! The room itself is not quite as nice as the one I just moved out of, but the balcony is MUCH bigger. It's a terrace above the streets of Ha Noi. Too bad that there also a terrace one floor above me and some female sun worshiper is exposing herself right at the balustrade.  

View from the 8th floor terrace. A trained eye will detect the two gorgeous facades I already took pictures of earlier (7 or 8 pics back)

By 12:30 nothing holds me in the room or even on the terrace.  It's sunny and 26 degrees. And unlike Vancouver that doesn't feel like 34 degrees or some other atrocity. NO, it feels like perfect 26 degrees ;-)

I start wondering around streets I haven't walked yet but in general aim for Hoan Kiem Lake.  This is where I run into 2 students interviewing foreigners to improve their English.  The questions range from "What do you like about Vietnam?" (the people because they smile) over "What should be improved in Vietnam?" (Don't change a thing because you risk erasing those smiles of the faces of the Vietnamese) to "This is a rude question: How old are you?" (50  "OH, You look MUCH younger !" Thank you! That's exactly what I wanted to hear). Of course, the group cell phone selfie at the end is obligatory but I forgot to take a picture of their picture.  But what is staring back at me from their cell phone definitely does not look like 50.  It's in the eyes.  It's that glint of happiness to be back here ! 

Last October I ran into students just like that but was too immature to help them in their efforts. It seems that at least one insecurity has been overcome during the last 12 months ;-)

Park maintenance

But the day is young.  I keep wandering around and notice that I could eat again.  What was that food eaten by Bourdain & Obama in that place in Ha Noi not that many months ago?  I keep ogling the signs and there it is: Bun Cha.  Got to get me one of these !!!! I keep waling past a few places serving Bun Cha and then I see one that looks promising:  Kitchen erected in a nook of a building; the obligatory tiny red chairs and tables, and of course, the piece de resistance:  Dishes are washed in colourful plastic bowls right down there in the gutter.  There is a reason why quite a few storm drains in this city are grease-encrusted ;-)

Just when I have formed the thought that this could be The One for me, the owneress turns to me and points at a table with a questioning look. But OF COURSE !

Every heard a restaurant being referred to as a 'hole in the wall' ?  This is where that expression comes from ;-)
 Bun Cha here goes for 35000 VND , about US $1.60. When she at first brings the bowls, I don't think I will be able to finish it.    This is a lot of food !
 But once I have been told how to eat it and have started digging into the amazing mixture of peppers, garlic, pork greens, and whatever else, a sweat appears on my forehead, a crazed grin on my face, and a monkish grumbling humming escapes from my throat, as I realize that this is one of the best dishes i have ever eaten and I can't stop until I have ladled the last bit of broth and peppers out of the bowl.  WOW. THIS is good stuff !   
The lady in Blue (with the rice hat) rearranged my dishes and told me to put all the ingredients into the soup dish (not pile everything onto the rice dish as I had started to do)
Cam On !
Hai San Bien. So I can find it again ;-)
Collision Course.  And this is still harmless ;-)
By 6 pm my legs get wobbly again and I pass out on the bed.

I just booked a hotel room for the coming night, even though I will be spending the night in a train. Why?  I have to check out of my present hotel at noon today.  The train doesn't leave until 10 pm (Yes, there is a 10 hour gap in there).  The hotel cost me US $15.  So I'm spending $1.50 per hour of not having to wander the streets or having to hang out on some cramped lobby couch, or having to go to my train bed unshowered. 

That's money well spent, I think.

At about 1/4 to 6 a.m. I am rewarded for all this early rising.  

Light is flooding the sky .... 

 and after a while I can see the red dot of the rising sun

A rising sun. There was something I'm meant to do .....  RIGHT:  I know of no better place in Ha Noi to greet the rising sun but from the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake.   Time to hit the streets !

When I get to the lake, the large number of people already gathered there or simply ambling around the lake proves that I was right in my assessment. 

At this hour there are VERY few tourists on the streets.  But the Vietnamese are out. The older generation seems to gather around the lake to perform their morning rituals, while younger generations are out on the streets shopping.  This is the time when the pavement vendors have placed their wares on the sidewalks of the city.

O.K. I admit it. I entered this particular street because I know that there is a store that sells wine.  But it is still closed at this hour, so after wandering by the Cathedral ......

 .... I am drawn back to Hoan Kiem Lake, as if by magic. 

Yes, this place gives you exactly what this guy obviously is getting out of it ;-)

All this before breakfast.  When I take the elevator from the 8th floor down to the lobby to find the breakfast area I realize I should have walked up a flight of stairs because breakfast is served on the top floor of the hotel, a very nice feature I have enjoyed numerous times in these parts.  I will never forget munching on marvelous croissants in Phnom Penh while admiring the view over the Mekong River an hour after sunrise ;-)

But I don't think I'll be disappointed today. No Mekong River, but is there a better way to start a day than with a fruit plate like this?  After the fruit plate it is a mixed bag. The baguette is a bit to airy and crunchy but the home-made jam that comes with it is fab.The cheese promised with the baguette turns out to be one of those Happy Cow processed cheese products. The home made orange marmalade is an eye opener: So this is why people eat that stuff. I've only ever tasted the transparent store-bought variety, which has absolutely nothing to do with the utterly opaque and fruit-bit-filled concoction on my bread.  YUMMY.

When I look down from the public rooftop terrace I realize that my room was indeed the best room in the hotel and qualifies for the title VIP room ;-)

There is my laundry drying !
I briefly scan over the headlines with Google News Canada. In the top 5 are two stories that summarize some threads concerning the fear leads to restricted freedom theme I have been touching recently:
1) A judge ruled that the Canadian spy agency CSIS broke the law by keeping data on people longer than 10 years.
2) Quebec spy on reporters using their cell phones.

Oh Canada !  is all I can say. This is so saddening, I don't even have the energy to release a sarcastic Go Canada Go !

But back to eating, a much more pleasant theme. The whole breakfast was satisfying but also light (there was a reason for not ordering bacon and eggs). This of course means that in the not too distant future, I can eat again.  Should I continue with a Banh Mi or should I skip that to attack another Bun Cha?  Choices, choices .....

I head back to the store selling wine in the street with the pavement veggie and flower sellers. At 8:30 there is NO sign that the pavement only 2 hours ago was filled with mandarins, cabbages, pineapple and the like. There is no trace left of their activities.  I think they even swept the pavement already.   

But the store is now open.  And this is a memorable moment. In Vancouver Vietnamese restaurants, people just look at me blankly when I try to order wine in Vietnamese (as practice for just this moment), In Da Nang my begging to sell me wine resulted in store owners shrugging and lifting up bottles of Vodka and spring water with questionable looks.  But today I actually finally succeed in overcoming the language barrier:    Xin Chao (Hello)!  Xin (Please), Dalat ruou trang (Dalat white wine).   The store owner woman just nods and reaches for the wine cabinet. 

 I DID IT !!!

The only problem is that now she continues talking in Vietnamese, whereas 2 days ago she communicated in English and signs.  No worries, no reason to let my pride deflate, I still managed to FINALLY buy a bottle of wine in Vietnamese !

On the way back I witness more of the unbridled commerce in the streets. You can buy ANYTHING here. The fact that ALL the sellers of bag-sealing equipment are concentrated in ONE street while ALL the sellers of LED lighting sit in another street only accentuates the fact.   You can buy from the gazillion of fancy to bare-boned stores, from the old ladies sitting on a curb behind their tray with maybe 10 packs of cigarettes, from the women wearing the pointed hats pushing their bicycles laden with fruit or flowers through the streets or even from the older man sitting on the curb with only a bicycle pump in front of him.   But those images also tell a sad story.  With all that tourist money flooding in and mostly going to those who already HAVE (i.e. hotels, restaurants), life for the HAVE-NOTS is nevertheless getting more expensive simply because of the influx of money.   And I don't think the old man is sitting behind his bicycle pump on that curb because he can think of no better things to do with his time.

But there is another side to this being able to BUY ANYTHING.   I catch myself several times walking along the streets and find  that my mind has wandered off and is thinking "What could I get; what could I buy?"  Oh, oH, OH ! Gotta watch that; that's not why I'm here. I don't want to carry around an extra suitcase and ship more useless crap to Canada. There are enough people doing that.  However, there are some things that I have to buy.  Noodle soup for the train. Cigarettes. A bottle of wine. And I'm trying to do it right, or at least better than before.   Go to the fancy stores with the huge selection and the shiny exterior and the employees get minimum wage and The Man makes the profit.   Go to the mom & pop shops and mom & pop make the money.  So my newly found philosophy is to spend money at the low end.  See how that works.

Almost 11 a.m. This is why I HATE changing hotels. There is always that time of a few hours just before check-out time until check-in time when one is kind of tied to the area.  Or maybe I should check out early.  YES.  Better than to sit around here and write a blog while it's sunny outside. I'll move my stuff to the new hotel, and then visit the Hanoi Opera House. From there it's not far to yesterday's Bun Cha place.  Now here is a plan.  It might not be the Year of the Snake anymore but that does NOT mean that I should relax on my cheeks.

5 minutes after having that thought I'm checking out and walking to the cheap ( US $14.50) hotel I've booked. And as soon as I arrive, I'm glad that I've booked this one.  There is a toddler scooting over the lobby floor and his two parents, presumably the hotel owners, are checking me in.  My money actually goes to a much lower level of income earners than if I had checked in at the Hilton (The Hiltons are rich enough, me thinks ;-).   The room is very bare bones but still has a fridge (barely barely working; the ice box is slightly cooler than room temperature ;-), a shower head on the wall between the toilet and the sink, AND there is an ashtray sitting on the small table.   See, the reason they don't allow smoking in most hotel rooms is not the fear of fire but the fear of losing rich American tourists that would make a face when smelling cigarette smoke (They don't make a face when breathing the admittedly slightly polluted air when walking the streets of Old Ha Noi ;-).

Noon.  Time to see the Ha Noi Opera house and the Hanoi Hilton .

 It's a sad walk.  Everywhere there are signs of the Old Ha Noi being replaced by something that is all too familiar.

But at least the ever-present green along the streets brings peace to the mind.

This looks familiar !
The Hanoi Opera Hilton is an atrocity.  This gorgeous building was designed and built to offer anyone located in the large space in front of it a pleasant visual experience.  That was until someone gave the permission to let the Hiltons build an arched hotel complex right in front of the Opera house smack in the middle of that space so that guests of the Hilton rooms now can admire the famed architecture, but everyone not staying at the Hilton has to crane their neck and doesn't get the proper perspective to appreciate the Opera House.  
Thanks a lot Paris' Parents !

 There is a Cafe (part of a chain) right in front of the opera and a fancy 19-11 bar inside.  I'm hungry, but according to my reaffirmed philosophy I shouldn't really go into either of them.
entrance to the fancy bar inside the opera house

The loo close to the Opera House. FANCY FAUCET !
When I come to yesterday's Bun Cha place, there are no more tables and chairs on the sidewalk and the operators are rinsing and sweeping the sidewalk.  The way these places work is that they prepare all the meat beforehand on a type of Hibachi and then sell that food.  When the pre-prepared meat is gone, that's it, restaurant closed for the day.   I am too late and and I'm disheartened !

There is only one thing that helps when I'm in this state: Chocolate. Given that it also has become bloody warm outside already (NO-ONE is wearing a padded jacket today !) I head straight for the nearby even if admittedly a bit too fancy place that I know has a Kiwi/Chocolate ice cream cup that is out of this world.

  Vancouver has two hugely popular Italian ice cream places and I even tried one of them again recently, but if this Vietnamese joint was located next to them they would have to close their doors.
The ice cream cools me down and the chocolate calms my mood.  I remember that I somehow forgot to pack my lens-cleaning pen and that so far I was lucky not to get a finger print on my camera lens.  Hey, there is a camera store right across the street ! 

They even carry such a device and the plastic/cardboard packaging that it comes in is adorned by a Canadian flag.  

When the clerk is gone to the cash register to get me my change, I notice a large well-worn Canadian flag sewn to the backpack of an older traveler standing next to me.   

"Here I try to get away from it, and the Canadian flag is on your backpack and my lens-cleaning pen" I joke.  He quips back "There is no getting away from it !" and regarding my lens-cleaning pen "Probably made in China anyway".  The last statement is most likely true, but then why does this Canadian pen cost me CAD $4.50 here in Ha Noi when I had to pay more than CAD $20 at London Drugs in Canada?  Same old, same old: there really is no getting away from THAT !

At 3 pm I have a hard time waking up from what was supposed to be just a short rest on the bed.   WOW.  I'm worn out !  After checking the weather forecast I speculate that it might be the 28 degrees Celsius out in the streets that are responsible for that ;-)   Good thing I rented this hotel to bridge the time. The thought of being this worn out and having to squat on some hotel's lobby couch is appalling !  From the forecast I also learn that my leaving is well timed.  Tomorrow will be the last sunny day in Ha Noi before a week of rain and clouds ;-)

At 4 pm I realize that I haven't really had a proper meal since the light breakfast at 7 am.  Time to head to Chuon Chuon again.  After a quick look at the menu, I order the usual food but Gin & Tonic to drink.  It's cheaper than wine and when it arrives it's even cold, which yesterday's wine was not !

Where are they all going ?
Good enough for this Mega post.  This was it for Ha Noi on this trip. In five hours I will be in a night train heading south and probably will be fast asleep in my berth !

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