Summerized Blog

Hanoi impressions

Hanoi is a lovely city. And it’s quite a change to have gone from sweltering heat in Saigon, to drizzly rain in Hoi An, to a fall-like crispness in Hanoi. And from our limited perspective, Saigon has a more LA style culture — more raucous and casual; while Hanoi is like a sophisticated San Francisco.

On the plane, we met a Hanoi-based civil engineer who was working on a project in Hoi An. He kindly gave us a ride part-way into town.

Upon arrival, we went to a cafe for lunch, and the hostess told us "Hanoi is much better than Ho Chi Mihn City." The truth is, they’re very different, and we like them both.

We’ve noticed more old French buildings in Hanoi. And in some parts, it has very wide avenues, presumably a legacy of French occupation.

The food is less spicy here than in the south, yet tasty and nuanced — local pho (with beef rather than pork in the north) is a perfect example of this. And we’ve been sampling some of the amazing French food and pastries as well. French bread is great here and elsewhere in the country — it seems chewier here, and more "melt-in-your-mouth" in Saigon.

Our least expensive meal in Hanoi was delicious homemade pho at about $1.25. Our most expensive meal was at Bobby Chin’s, at about $78 — it was tasty too. Bobby Chin’s is a trendy new fusion restaurant at the edge of the lake, and they clearly know their tourist audience.

One night we went to a place whose only dish is fried fish. It’s a humble restaurant frequented by locals and tourists. They bring out an red-hot bucket of charcoal, lined with brick and mortar, with a frying pan on top. Fish is frying in oil, and they periodically toss spring onions and dill in with it. You put rice noodles in your bowl, toss some fish and veggies on, sprinkle in a few peanuts and some fish sauce, and enjoy. After dining at this restaurant, we crossed the street to a patisserie run by underprivileged youth and had some great pastries.

Another day, we had breakfast at "Cafe des Arts," owned by a Frenchman who started the business eight years ago. "Do you accept the egg? Because, me, I accept the egg." He was referring to bird-flu fears, and chicken and egg disappearing from menus. We accepted the egg, and some lovely croissants.

For the first few nights we stayed in the old quarter, which is a small, and of course old section with very narrow streets. It’s frenetically busy. There are simple little pho shops next to touristy souvenir shops here. And each "guild" has its own street — there’s the candy street, the tinsmithing street, the gravestone street, the appliance street, the water buffalo udder snood street… In fact, here is the chrome coat hanger street.

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And here’s someone on modular foam flooring street loading huge amounts of goods onto his motorcycle.

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People put huge and bizarre loads onto their bikes here — we have seen giant dead pigs, giant caged live pigs, twenty live puppies in a cage, twenty live geese in a cage, fifteen foot long poles, sofas, etc on motorcycles.

We thought we were prepared for the motorcycle traffic from our experience in HCMC, or even New York traffic. We weren’t. Here, sidewalk merges with street, outdoor cafe, parking lot and fruit stand. In time, we found out what happens when one of those motorcycles loaded with four hundred pounds of live shrimp, starfruit and roof shakes collides with a bicycle carrying a family of sixteen. And we have been honked at for NOT continuing to slowly walk through the thirty motorcycle deep walls of traffic. This photo doesn’t do the traffic justice. It was taken from the City View Cafe on top of a four or five story building by the lake — the tallest building we could see! They have great zoning laws.

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Next to the old quarter, and at the center of town is pretty Haon Kiem Lake. Legend has it that an ex calibur-like sword used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam was seized by a giant golden tortoise that emerged from the lake, and returned to it’s heavenly owners.

It’s a pleasant walk around the lake, and there’s a shrine on an island in the lake that you can reach by a short footbridge. Around the lake, we noticed L’Occitane, Clinique and Longchamp had staked their claim — they seem to be some of the first western luxury brands to make inroads here. We’ve enjoyed the relative lack of western brands here, with exception of Lipton, Nabisco et al.

Another thing we’ve noticed, both here and elsewhere in the country, is the number of young guys playing  networked video games in the internet cafes. Apparently they’re very cheap to play, and the internet cafes are cheap too — pennies per hour. But no girls are playing the games that I’ve noticed.

One night we went to see Vietnamese water puppetry. There is a national troupe that has been around for a couple of decades. Water puppetry involves a pool of water several feet deep, and some people standing behind a scrim at the back of the pool, so you can’t see them. They operate wooden jointed puppets that emerge from behind the scrim and move around to tell a story to live, traditional music. There are various mechanisms the puppeteers use to make the puppets move, and it’s a fun art form. The music is folky, and if you get into it and don’t think about the different-sounding instruments, it kind of sounds like Vietnam’s version of country-western music.

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Hanoi’s history museum is housed in a great old building with French and Vietnamese aspects.

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We particularly enjoyed the Museum of Ethnology. There are something like 152 ethnic groups in Vietnam, including the majority ethnic-Vietnamese population. There are a dizzying array of beliefs, costumes, languages and traditions — it’s hard to remember who builds the stilted houses and wears the hot pink hats versus the domed houses and green and yellow hats.

Some of the other groups are related to those in the South Pacific islands. We saw examples of structures that reminded us of historic Hawaiian ones. The most dramatic house made a great backdrop for some wedding photos that day.

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The museum building itself is also interesting; it’s modern, geometric, and based on circular forms.

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I absolutely love the form of these fish trap baskets, all of which are perched on a bike someone used to sell them off of.

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We also went to the Temple of Literature, which is kind of the original university of Hanoi, and a great example of traditional Vietnamese architecture. It was founded in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius.

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And here is a great authoritarian building by the lake. Not sure what it does, but it makes me think of James Bond again.

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And I like this graphic sculpture on the lake for the same reasons:

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Oh also, one night we were walking around the lake to dinner, and happened to see a stage setup next to the lake. There was a single spotlight shining in the sky, and the stage had a large cutout of Uncle Ho in front of a flag. A crowd formed as we were walking by, and some announcers started speaking from the stage. Then, a group of male dancers in shiny monochrome lycra bodysuits leapt onto the stage, and started dancing to some very militant-sounding orchestral music. The dancing was very choreographed and looked like a sort of Soviet "ode-to-the-motherland’s-military-might-and-grain-producing-capabilities" interpretive dance. Unfortunately, I don’t have fabulous photos of the dance troupe…

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Under the light of the Asian moon…

"Under the light of the Asian moooon…" drawled the radio. I’m remembering a bus ride we took while near the Mekong Delta.

"He doesn’t know what the words mean; he just likes the sound," said Hue, referring to our bus driver.

"I love those dark haired ladies and the things they say," twanged the melody.

It was some American country western singer. There seems to be a recurring soundtrack in Vietnam — an eclectic selection of western songs that are popular here. We’ve heard this song several times, along with a saccharine selection of George Michael, Richard Marks and Vanessa Williams tunes, as well as part of the soundtrack from Top Gun. At first it seemed like a completely random combination of tunes, but at one hotel, they actually played Kenny G-like easy listening versions of all these songs on one album. The plot thickens…

The Tailors of Hoi An

The city of Hoi An — so exciting with its beautiful old historic buildings. An old center of trade between Eastern and Western cultures. Traditional lamp-makers and woodcarvers! And of course, custom tailoring — cheap high-quality custom tailoring.

Hundreds of tailors courted us from the sidewalk. "Some pants?" "You like Dockers Mister?" "Want to see latest J. Crew catalog?"

We brought in clippings from Vogue, thrilled about having the latest fashions at a fraction of the price. The tailors assured us they could recreate the most complex couture designs. We were measured in exhaustive detail — distance between earlobe and metatarsal was solemnly recorded.

The second fittings were a little bit of a let down — mod mini-dress became generic x-large muu muu with four pockets and satellite dish sleeves. And there were four inches between me and zipping up my new pants. Apparently, the tailors are still getting used to the western booty.

But we were optimistic about the third and fourth fittings.

Crinkle.

"No, that’s not a paper lining, I only use fabric of course."

"…Ok, I’ll uh try those pants on again."

"There, finished!"

"Um, aren’t the pants supposed to be able to close in the front? And isn’t this belt supposed to wrap around my waist twice rather than one and a half times?"

"Heh. I make for you in fifteen minutes."

Cargo Club

We ate at a wonderful restaurant called "Cargo Club" in Hoi An. Housed in a traditional old building, they served delicious Vietnamese and French food, and great pastries. The chairs looked like what Marcel Breuer would build if he only had bamboo.

But the restaurant’s name inspired some other thoughts. For a few years, New York seemed to be really into theme bars and restaurants. Beauty Bar had the aesthetic of a 50’s salon, Lake Bar looked like an old lake house, Barmacy was like a pharmacy, Slaughterhouse Floor Bar was… Well you get the picture.

But what if you took it a step further? My proposed Cargo Club is for a "visit Europe by going to the Italy pavillion at Colonial Williamsburg" crowd. Themed on cargo cults of WWII, the aesthetic would be jungle / mess-hall collision. Palm, longan and banana trees all around, wooden crates and broken televisions transformed into shrines could be used as seating, maybe some big oil drums as tables, and decorative snakeskin lutes on the walls. The VIP room could be a stilted house over a stream stocked with catfish. The menu would be heavy on Spam, manioc and wild boar dishes, with a sprinkling of items like marshmallows and S&W Fruit Cocktail. The amuse bouche could be larvae baked in banana leaves. Dinner would be served on army issue plates, with bamboo cups full of Johnnie Walker and coconut. And the soundtrack would be comprised of the occasional plane buzzing by, tribal music, jungle screetches, and maybe some scratchy swing dance tunes.

It could be the next Trader Vics.

Hoi An

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We took a quick flight to Da Nang, in Central Vietnam, and a cab to Hoi An. There’s a huge change in the weather from Saigon to Hoi An — Saigon is kind of sweltering and humid, and Hoi An is chilly and rainy, like Oregon would be right now. It rains every day all day right now — I think more so than usual. We saw some flooding on the river. Some unfortunate boat passengers had to wade ashore.

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Despite the weather, Hoi An is a gorgeous little town. It was a major international seaport from the 17th to 19th centuries, where Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese and others made stops. Hoi An has wonderful old wooden buildings including homes, shops, warehouses, and pagodas. Many of the homes and warehouses have a really nice sort of muscular structure with thick beams, aged colored walls and wooden shutters.

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We see lots of heavy curving roof tiles, called "yin yang" tiles for their under/over positioning.

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This beautiful old Japanese bridge shows some of the international influence.

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We saw some beautiful old pagodas and temples in town. And of course, I found the graphic ceiling and view through the incense coils more interesting than the dragon sculptures.

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On our second evening here, we hung out with two nice Australian women. We were looking for the monthly "lantern festival" but were unable to find anything but a few lantern shops with their lanterns lit. "This is the festival," was the answer to our queries. In addition to tailoring, the town does specialize in lantern-making and wood carving.

The old part of town is small and pedestrian friendly with lots of touts trying to sell you umbrellas or ponchos. The big business here is custom tailoring. There are over two hundred tailors in town, and everyone is trying to pull you into their store. Most stores have similar designs to one another, and there seem to be sort of micro-trends here as far as what sells (loose-fitting pants and military style jackets right now).

And, (supposedly) they make the silk that’s used in the clothing here. Here I am, making a new friend — a silk worm.

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We tried out a tailor, with mixed results. Jason’s clothes are turning out great. I was probably too ambitious in choosing a couture dress from a picture in Vogue and experimenting with fabrics and colors. The result was not exactly what I’d had in mind. Today’s strategy is to choose from various tailors’ existing designs. I was just talked into three pairs of pants, a shirt, a pair of shorts and a coat, after walking into a shop intending to buy one pair of pants.

Some culinary specialties of the region include White Rose, shrimp in delicate, white, rose-shaped dumplings; and Cao Lao, a bowl of really great doughy noodles, croutons savory pork slices, beansprouts and lettuce.

While exploring the shops, I met a really interesting elderly man. He was friendly with kind eyes. I didn’t understand everything he was saying, but he’s had a very interesting and difficult life. He was a chief of police, in or near Saigon, when he was young. He showed me a handsome picture of himself in the South Vietnamese army. He was apparently sent to a "reeducation camp" after the war, and that must have been a harrowing experience. Recent reading about the war has told me he’s probably had a very difficult time since the war, as a veteran of the south. He’s wanted to come to the US since then, and has never figured out how. He showed us some documents from the US government from 2004 or 2005, which indicated that certain veterans of the South Vietnamese army may emigrate to the US. The paper had various stipulations about who can come, and the man was trying to get our help reading it. He only partially understood the government-speak of the document, and frankly it was confusing us too. It seemed as though there’s a possibility he could come, but he really needs to talk to a bilingual person at the embassy, and we told him that. After all he’s been through, it would be great if he and his family could come, but we suspect he may fall through the cracks.