So, last Saturday at 12:30 pm we were woken from our post flight nap by a gentle knock on the door, to meet the lovely Bom and Mit, Lily’s brother and his girlfriend, who invited us down for our 8th meal in 24 hours in really graceful English. We both fell for them from then on, and are massively relieved to meet Mit, who can speak fluent English and who comes round to the house everyday! Mit is only 22 and has only learnt English at school, but she sounds as though she’s lived in the UK for years, she’s very impressive. They seem willing to help us with all their free time when they aren’t at work, translating, talking, taking us around on their mopeds, taking us to eat at their cousins’ – looking after us as though we were family.
On Loi’s lunch menu was – deep fried tofu with a soy dipping sauce, stir fried morning glory with coriander, and a mixed mushroom stir fry. Her cooking is quite delicately flavoured, she is a devout follower of Buddhism and so I don’t think she uses much garlic, or other pungent aromatics that I’ve grown to use in every dish. She also doesn’t use fresh herbs on everything the way I’ve been taught to do from cookbooks and from cooks with Vietnamese descent, which from what I’ve read must be a Northern thing, since in the South crops are more abundant and the land is more fertile.
They all very soon made it clear that we were welcome to stay with Lily’s family until Lily’s herself comes back from Singapore in a couple of weeks and needs our room. Loi, Lily’s mum, repeated about 3 times that she was happy to have us. This was such a big gift, since as soon as we’d arrived at the airport I’d started to freak out slowly on the inside about the scale of my project and how I was going to accomplish what I’d been intending given my unfamiliarity with the Vietnamese language.
Arriving in Hanoi had been a little bit of a shock for me, I think perhaps because of my visit as a child with my family where I was very sheltered, ferried around as we were for 2 weeks to hotels with tour guides the whole time, and with my mum speaking a bit of Vietnamese herself. That and all the beautiful Tranh Anh Hung films I’ve seen, and my experiences of Vietnamese life with my family in Marseille with its ancient Phoenician architecture, I was probably expecting something quite stylised…
After another post lunch nap we went down for dinner (lunch leftovers – the waistbands on my trousers are exploding) and then a trip to the weekend night market in the old quarter, which is especially lively at the moment because it is the Mid Autumn children’s festival, and so all these special toys and drums are being sold. It’s a neon overload, the shiny bright new Chinese toys starting to replace the handmade traditional ones, according to the changing demands of the kids.
I’ve never ridden a moped before, and was pretty scared, since I managed to fall off a stationary pedal bike recently and cut up my leg. Now I feel like renting a moped myself to get around on everyday. It’s thrilling, once you get used to the way people drive out here, which is kind of like how people walk on pavements in London – just go straight for the available space, slow down when necessary but never stop. Don’t worry about zebra crossings, they don’t seem to mean anything. Which makes walking much harder than getting around on mopeds – it’s best to go in groups, you have to be ever-alert of your immediate surroundings, and pretty assertive with incoming mopeds and your right to street space. I’m not great at the ever-alert bit. You shouldn’t be assertive with incoming cars: only mopeds.
We stopped for a seasonal fruit snack of ‘sau’, which Thuy told me is growing all over the trees on the streets in Hanoi at the moment, and the delicately sweet, freshly pressed sugar cane juice (a new for me), before mopedding home again.
I then had my classic bedtime freak out where I was worrying so much about the project ahead that I just lay in bed for 3 hours without being able to sleep, heart racing. Up til now things have been so hectic I was trying to just focus on the practicals of getting us to Vietnam for 3 months, rather than the smaller details of my itinerary. But I listened to Roxy Music for a bit and told myself that I always do this at the start of travels for some reason, and eventually relaxed, getting to sleep about 3/4 am local time.
So by the time the lovely Mit and Bom drove us to Trang Tien plaza at 10 AM to meet my friends Thuy and Giang, I was exhausted.
Giang and Thuy are friends I met in London through the network ‘Vietpro’ last year, when they were studying for MAs in the UK. I’ve only met them once but had been chatting to them a lot in preparation for this trip since they’d gone back to Vietnam. Seeing them again was great, they’re full of energy and drive, and have travelled in Europe a lot more than I have despite being roughly the same age. In Ciao Caphe near Trang Tien plaza Luke and I sat down to breakfasts of stir fried veg and straw eared mushrooms with rice. The food was a little oily and expensive, with no protein source – I think we’d probably picked the wrong place to go for vegetarian food. And strong but sweet iced coffee, that you mix up with condensed milk, while Giang grabbed my notebook and drew me an improvv’d map map of Vietnam (I don’t have a map yet), and a map of the day’s itinerary around Hanoi’s old quarter. Thuy was saying how lucky we were that it wasn’t raining like the day before. We’d just reached Hoan Kim Lake when the downpour started, and had to run for cover under some trees, sharing our one umbrella between 3 of us plus a poor stranded young couple.
Luke was the only one with foresight enough to bring a raincoat and I started shivering with cold as the water soaked completely through my clothes in a matter of seconds, so Giang rescued us by calling a taxi and taking us to a bar, Gecko, that she used to work in, telling us tales of how one year the rain lasted for 4 days and flooded Hanoi completely, leaving all the tourists stranded in Hanoi and in her bar. Food provisions to Hanoi got cut down severely, so they did their best to feed people pancakes, beer and stir fries on dwindling supplies until the floods were over.
Hot tea in the cosy, empty bar and Giang’s favourite – apple crumble – warmed me up, lifting my spirits and making me sleepy. After we’d ordered, all the waiters started taking naps as Giang put Eric Clapton on the jukebox and her and Thuy tried to remember all the different 36 street names in the old district of Hanoi, all named after products that used to be sold at the markets here – things like silver street, drum street, chicken street… Giang entertained us with stories of her adventurous motorbike travels all over Northern Vietnam and the characterful foreigners she’d met working at this bar, next door as it was to a famous beer joint, where a pint of ‘bia’ costs 15 pence. By the time they reached 36 the rain had died down, we left the bar and bought cheap coloured ponchos and continued our tour, heading for Hong Ma, a famous dried fruit shop where Giang took us straight to the free samples section. There we dined well. My favourites were caramelised plum with ginger, and an untranslatable fruit covered in chilli and salt. We’ll be back for souvenirs, no doubt.
We wondered through the streets chatting, Luke snapping and practising with his new camera, stopping later for a second meal where I ate mock prawns (not great, kind of slimy) in lemongrass curry, and the others had much better fresh, hand-made-tofu curries, and we shared some sweet pineapple spring rolls. We parted full and happy, only to be picked up by Mit and Bom on their mopeds and driven to their cousins for dinner! Crossing the red river bridge on the back of Mit’s electric scooter, the battery started to die down and Bom had to ride next to us, pushing us along with his leg – then I really did start to worry, especially since Mit never wears a helmet and I don’t wear one when I’m riding with her, even though it’s illegal. This feels pretty cool most of the time and a good opportunity for photos, but yeah, taking corners with Bom pushing us with one leg was really frightening.
Whilst we were riding over the bridge, Mit was explaining to me that the bridge had been built by the French, and then said to me that she’d told her cousins about my French colonial ancestry – my great great grandfather was a French soldier who married a Vietnamese woman at the time of the invasion, hence my mother’s maiden name is Domine. And her cousins wanted to my family for bringing modern infrastructure to Vietnam – this was a little bit of a shock to hear, I said ‘I suppose that’s one way of looking at it’. I remember my mum saying something similar to a guide back in 2001, and the guide just nodded and smiled awkwardly. It was an awkward moment captured on screen. The sense that Luke and I have got from talking to people is that there is a huge generational gap over here, people born in the 1980s and onwards leading very different lifestyles, equipped as every young person seems to be with mobile internet and mopeds.
At Lily’s cousins’ we dined on fried tofu, omelet, watermelon (much sweeter over here compared to the watery, flavourless ones you get in the UK), taro and morning glory soup, potatoes and boiled bamboo shoots with coriander (mui tau), accompanied by the noises of 4 young children. And we were treated to a starter snack at lily’s oldest aunt’s house first, who used to lead the nursing team at Hanoi hospital and whose husband was a high ranking officer in the Viet Minh army. Here I discovered the joys of ice lemon tea and salt and chilli dry dipping paste for pomelos (chinese grapefruit). Practising my Vietnamese, I haltingly said I loved the dipping sauce, and was promptly given the rest of the box by Lily’s aunt to keep as a souvenir.
The cousins were so kind, they invited us on a weekend trip to Halong Bay! I couldn’t believe it, and I’m extremely excited. Halong is probably my best memory of Vietnam from when I came back in 2001. Happy and full, we wandered with the family to drink raw cane sugar and snack on toasted sunflower seeds (there’s special knack to removing the shells with your teeth), sitting out late into the night at a local street stall with low plastic stools, as the kids played all around us.