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Last night, we met up with Tina’s coworker from Operation Smile, Jimmy, and went to his place to have a beer with him and his roommate. As much as I tried to listen to their funny stories of life in Vietnam, the sweat that dripped down my face and back as I sat there was pretty distracting. In an uncharacteristic move, given my hatred of canned beer, I downed a cold one, desperate for some relief from the heat.
Once we’d sufficiently bathed in our own sweat, we took a taxi to the Hoa Sua training restaurant (28 Ha Hoi Str, Hai Bà Trưng), which is staffed by former streets kids who are learning culinary and service industry skills. Our table was nestled among tropical plants in an elegant courtyard, next to a stately colonial building. It was really hot and I saw my first cockroach of the trip (surprising, considering how far in we are) crawling on the wall – EEK! My research shows that this place typically gets excellent reviews, so I’m guessing it was just an off night, because the service was awkward and the food was only ok.
On the bright side, tonight I took my first motorbike ride. Pure terror gave way to excitement about two –thirds of the way through and I had a blast.
We finished our night at Wings, a pool hall atop a club named Faceclub (nee toilet or Lu-something?) after the owner’s Facebook obsession. At Wings, I ordered bottled water, but the waiter brought a bottle with half of it already poured into a glass with ice. I pulled the ice out with my fingers and drank it anyway, only later realizing that because I never personally saw the sealed bottle of water, it could’ve been refilled at the tap. There were other people drinking it who didn’t appear to be immediately keeling over, but I was nervous about getting sick later that night. Who am I kidding? Nervous doesn’t begin to describe the thinly-veiled panic attack I launched myself into after committing this amateur mistake. Facts and figures from the travel clinic that had given me my vaccines prior to leaving the U.S. crashed against each other in my head. The typhoid vaccine is only 50-80% effective, so I’m freaked out about carrying it around with me for awhile and coming down with it later, or, just as disastrous, remaining asymptomatic and infecting people at home. Forget Typhoid Mary – I’ll be Typhoid Betsy. My body could be a time bomb right now. Of course, there are plenty of other delightful waterborne diseases I could’ve just caught, such as Hep E, as well as parasites and bacteria, whose long incubation periods mean I might not show symptoms for weeks.
Water Gate 2009, as it will come to be known to Tina and I, reminded me of the exhausting need for constant vigilance in a country where the tiniest slip-up, such as rinsing your toothbrush under the tap or forgetting to tightly close your mouth in the shower, can make you deathly ill. I’m tired of constantly using hand sanitizer, with scrutinizing bottles of water on the street to make sure they are only Aquafina, Joy or La Vie (and not say, Aquafima, which looks identical to Aquafina except for the one letter and the fact that it could make you sick), with watching little kids drop their drawers and squat to pee among the trash on the sidewalk, not caring who walks by and gets splashed.
Just as frustrating is the way that we’re continually begged to buy things, which happened in both Ho Chi Minh City and now Hanoi as well. Every time we pass a store, cart, fruit lady, person walking with random crap, taxi, motorbike, rickshaw, etc. with something to sell, I hear: "TAXI! HELLO!" and “Woohoo! You want buy?” and “Fan, see?” Number one, I can see what you have there. No need to tell me what a fan or taxi is. Number two, if I wanted it, I’d approach you, or at the very least, not be purposefully ignoring you right now. Have your solicitations ever changed someone’s mind and convinced someone to buy something they hadn’t already wanted?
Another fabulously flawed marketing strategy is the motorbike drivers who cut me off as I walk, pulling sideways across my path so I have to stop and then say, “Motorbike?” “Of course,” I want to yell at them, “Allow me to pay for an illegitimate taxi ride from someone who almost killed me. Pretty please.”
There’s no sense to what people have tried to sell me. Today, a little girl tried to sell me an obviously used (most likely stolen) umbrella. She said, “Umbrella!” and I pointed to the bright pink umbrella I was already holding over my head. She answered, “Please, madam” and followed me for another half block, even though I had shaken my head no and said the same out loud.
Here in Hanoi, I've been assaulted by a fruit lady, not once but twice! She had a long, thin pole over her shoulders with a basket dangling off either end, and would begin our encounters by charging me and yelling, “Fruit?” The first time, when I shook my head no, she ran into me head-first, turned her contraption so it blocked my path and shouted, “PHOTO?!” Maybe she wanted me to pay her to take a picture with (or of) her fruit? I was so startled I darted around her and almost got hit by traffic. I was already walking in the street because all of the sidewalks in Vietnam are either a)broken and full of debris or b)covered in plastic stools/people/food and trash or c)completely taken up by parked motorbikes. Often, it’s all three. The second time I saw her, I knew what was coming and tried to jump out of her way after her initial, “Fruit!” This time, she hit me with her baskets – whether or not this was done on purpose remains unclear – and I ended up with scratches on my arm.
This morning, we moved to the Gia Bao Grand hotel because its sister, the Gia Bao Hanoi, was totally under construction and the sounds of hammering and drilling woke us up at 8 a.m. This room has prettier furnishings than our first, a window (not typically included in a standard hotel room in Vietnam), a higher floor and better amenities. Our buffet breakfast was yummy; then we headed to Sinh Café to book our Halong Bay Tour.
The Sinh Café tour company is a major entity in Vietnam, so famous in fact, that imitation companies have popped up with the same name but significantly worse quality tours, so it’s important to be careful when booking tours and make sure the company really is the original Sinh Café.
We finished our day at the majestic Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi (15 Ngo Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District) where we ate our weight in sweets at the afternoon chocolate buffet. Our perfect table was tucked under a glass ceiling in the sun room, which jutted out over a landscaped courtyard. The buffet began with a choice of warm or cold chocolate drinks. We chose cold and ended up with something close to a Starbucks Frappuchino, minus the espresso. Long tables stretching across the room offered everything from éclairs to mousse, to fondue fountains. We heaped our table with plates of fabulous chocolate desserts, to the shock of our fellow guests who had politely placed only two or three items on their plates. As we continue our feast, I noticed that others, inspired by our groaning table, filled their plates as well. My favorite treat was the chocolate spring roll, whose dark chocolate filling contrasted nicely with the crispy, almost salty spring roll wrapper. High on endorphins, or whatever it is that causes chocolate to make me so happy, we ate well past the point of satiation and rode out our food coma by watching the dramatic spectacle of a thunderstorm raging above the glass ceiling.
In a futile attempt to walk off our bloated bellies, we strolled around the Hoan Kiem Lake, the center of the city’s historic district. In Vietnamese, this name means, “Lake of the Returned/Restored Sword.” Folklore tells centuries of stories about Kim Qui (the “Golden Turtle” god) who currently lives in the Hoan Kiem lake and has been periodically helping the Vietnamese defend themselves against foreign invaders since the 3rd century B.C. In the fifteenth century, a fisherman named Le Than presented a sword to the emperor, Le Loi, claiming to have found the blade in the lake. Le Loi used the sword for ten years while he defended the country against invaders from the Ming dynasty in China. Once the wars ended, Le Loi returned the sword to the turtle in the lake. Today, the Turtle Tower (Thap Rua) in the lake commemorates the turtle and the peace facilitated by his magical sword. A 220-pound preserved turtle can also be found in the Ngoc Son Temple on Jade Island in the center of the lake and turtles are occasionally sighted swimming in the lake today.
The Ngoc Son Temple is a popular tourist attraction, reached by crossing the arched, red wooden Huc (Rising/Morning Sun) bridge. Inside, the temple had different altars covered in incense and fruit offerings dedicated to Tran Hung Dao, an ancient military hero, and two scholars named Van Xuong and La To, the latter being the patron saint of physicians.
We finished our evening at the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. Water puppetry originated in the 11th century, as a form of entertainment in the villages of the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam. Today, it’s mostly used to entertain tourists. Musicians played traditional instruments as puppeteers stood in the water behind bamboo screens hanging down from an impressive temple set, then used various puppets to act out scenes in which puppets walked on water instead of a stage. These included a funeral procession, a man plowing a field with an ox, a group of dancers. My favorite vignette involved two phoenixes who kissed each other, causing a little white egg float to the surface in between them and turn into a baby bird.