Hanoi - what a place! Everyone is so very busy - seemingly every second. The old quarter is a warren of tiny shops, each displaying a pile of the street's specialty product. There is a whole street for lacquer ware, one for flowers, shoes, baskets, brushes, sewing thread, coffins, even one for packing tape. Sales are brisk but supply-side economics hasn't arrived and competition is fierce.
Like Saigon, the scooters are everywhere. They flow through the narrow streets without any pattern or discernable reason to succeed. Scooters are parked in tight knots blocking most sidewalks and alleys. These little 40cc putts are able to carry: (Jean has picture proof) … one neatly attired office worker; or up to a family of 5; or 2 people and 3 big pigs; or 2 people and one small cow. The loads on the bicycles are equally impressive - with bundled piles often coating the bike into invisibility - skills leaned on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, no doubt.
The new Air force Museum is near their Air Force Headquarters and guards strut their AK47's. The grounds are littered with F-4 carcasses and other assorted airplane parts. It also has a big display of anti-aircraft weapons of interest to me and every other pilot who flew over here. From reading their bombastic descriptive captions, it is amazing that any of us ever got back.
Jean is told of an under-tent restaurant where most traditional dishes are available, each prepared in little booths surrounding the family-style seating area. We walk over the French railroad tracks after seeing Uncle Ho's tomb and the Ethnographic Museum. The restaurant is off the beaten track and we get lost - and then found by a gentleman who taught himself English while working as a driver at the Korean Embassy. He kindly walks blocks with us until the restaurant is in view. It is packed - mostly by Viets from the offices nearby, and a very few "round eyes" - looking both embassy and business types.
Jean is in cook's nirvana, and as always, the local foodies reciprocate her interest with detailed menus, cooking tips, and ingredient translations - some requiring hilarious pantomime for the meat courses. "If you eat that, you will die!" - a quote from a culinary coward we once met in Africa - is again invoked by Jean or me, just before some unknown substance is wolfed down, smothered in fermented fish sauce and a Campbell's Soup smile. Mmmm Mmmm Good!
A beautiful Vietnamese lady sits on the bench next to Jean - impossibly high cheekbones, flawless milky skin, and a neck that must be graced by additional vertebra. She flashes a smile as I show frustration over which dipping sauce I should use with which plate of delectables. She tells us about the food and offers hers to taste. We give her a souvenir San Francisco pen, but ask to borrow it back to take food notes. She then gives us a pen - made in Vietnam. Ours? Made in China.
The men seated next to me offer me a taste of something to "make strong." I am beginning to think sending over Viagra could save all manner of species that Asian men think "makes strong." Snake blood, tiger testes, bird nest, duck embryo, bear paw, rhino horn … are some that I have passed up … well except for the duck embryo. Jean was not impressed.
Beer is about 25 cents a mug on the street - literally - as the kegs of Bia Hoi (fresh beer) are plopped outside where locals squat at the curb for an evening cool-off, along with their city.* All the food is fresh, frequent and fabulous! After a few days of playing tourist in Hanoi, and drinking and eating ourselves into a state of gluttony, it is time to move on. Our car, driver and a sharp young translator await. Let's see what we shall see.
- Roddy Rotund
* Our personal best is 17 cents for a liter of beer in Istanbul - a record that probable will never be broken.