Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Walk slowly into oncoming traffic
I arrived in Vietnam in a sweat.
I made my flight, though I still don't know how, after having run through two sets of customs, criss-crossing the Kuala Lumpur (KL) airport numerous times, trying to check into my flight in less than an hour. Oh, the joys of international budget travel.
Once I arrived in Hanoi and got through the slightly extensive security checks, I grabbed my bag and headed over to the ATM to get some cash for the cab ride into the city. While there, I helped a fellow backpacker figure out the exchange rate, and we ended up sharing a cab from the airport. (This, the day after I saw a movie about a girl sold into a prostitution ring by doing the exact same thing! What was I thinking??) Luckily, my life is not an action film, and my new Aussie friend and I have been traveling together ever since. Much cheaper to go as a pair than to go it alone, we decided.
Hanoi is the craziest place in the world to cross the street. You can always tell who has just arrived in town, as they rush right out into the thick motorbike traffic, then stop about a quarter of the way through and run back to the nonexistent sidewalk. Once they've regathered their courage, they venture out in the road again, faces pale, stopping suddenly in front of multiple motorbikes, then making a mad dash for the other side, narrowly missing being hit. Did I mention that crosswalks are only a suggestions here? As are red lights.
There's a trick, you see, that can only be learned by watching the locals cross the street. You must walk out slowly, facing the oncoming horns and lights. Continue walking at the same pace, and try to make eye contact with anyone you can. This way, the drivers can judge your speed and neatly and easily steer around you. It really is as simple as that. Of course, it can be quite hard to remember with hundreds of motorbikes careening past.
Hanoi is a city of street stalls, home-brewed local beer, beautiful architecture and very friendly people. The tastiest food can always be found in the street, as can the cheapest beer and the best entertainment (see paragraph above about watching newcomers cross the road). I tasted tons of classic Vietnamese fare, ranging from pho bo (rice noodle soup with bean sprouts, beef and fresh herbs) to steamed snails on the street, and it was all fabulous. I think the elderly Vietnamese woman sitting next to me while I was eating the snails was especially pleased with my choice. She knocked back two entire bowls of the stuff, while continually urging me with hand signals to eat more and more. What a treat.
Probably my favorite food discovery in Hanoi came care of my father and older sister and a restaurant called Little Hanoi 1. Featured in the Lonely Planet guidebook, and therefore frequented by practically every Western visitor to Hanoi, this place has what may be a perfect meal (and great date idea, people!): Roll-your-own fresh spring rolls.
Made with fresh or dried rice paper rounds, inside, you layer fresh rice noodles, the protein of your choice--crispy fish and caramel beef were our choices--slices of pineapple, bean sprouts, mint, basil and lettuce at the bottom of the rice paper. Roll them up in a round (sort of like a tortilla), dip them in a fish sauce mixture and enjoy a little slice of heaven. Oh, and if you couldn't tell already, they're also incredibly healthy. So eat up!
I promise to post a more detailed info on the fish and beef later, but the above guidelines should be more than enough for you to have a go.