Amidst the smell of exhaust, noise of motorbikes and honking; customers slurped the morning special – every mornings special – vietnamese beef pho with a hint of tomato flavor in the broth.
The middle aged proprieter sat on her minature stool surrnounded by cookery pots, a stack of bowls, a spread of noodles, meat, snails and herbs…she placed a handful of noodles, ingredients and her special broth into one bowl after another. She was unbothered by the river of motorbike traffic and chaotic noise that flowed literally only a few feet in front of her.
Her many content customers sat inside her establishment – all seated on kindergarten sized red or blue shin high plastic stools along with matching kindergarten sized tables. Not a single word was being spoken…
This was momma’s house! She feed the early workers – her regulars. The cook, the preparer, the gateskeeper… She landed her kind eyes on me as I walked up. All I had to do was point at a bowl and direct my thumb to press against my chest…with a Good Morning smile of course.
This aromatic and tasteful bowl of pho made the previous nights’ rough train journey all worth it!
Just a few moments before taking a seat at this miniature table and stool set, I had checked into my hotel in the old quarter and had thought to myself ‘what the hell am I doing?!’ I was in a mental funk as a result of a very poor nights’ rest on board the overnight train from Nanning, Guangxi to the city where I was now in – Hanoi, Vietnam. Crazy how one bowl of pho can completely change my mindset I now thought!
My previous fatigue-clouded perception morphed into a desire to explore and discover new things about this land and its people. I had ground to cover. Time was limited since I was only doing a quick entry and exit to stay in good standing with immigration for the Peoples Republic. I only had about 50 hours here…I was burning daylight! What the hell was in that pho?!
I decided to order a motorbike taxi from Grab (the same thing as Uber in the states) to see what it’s like driving (in my case riding on the back of a motorbike taxi) amidst thousands of other motorbike drivers.
After the driver handed me the official green ‘Grab’ helmet to put on, I jumped on the back. (Putting my life in the hands of a complete stranger…the crazy things I do for an experience…) The young skinny driver flicked a half smoked cigarette in a nearby flower bush and hit the throlttle. He ripped through the gears and navigated his way alongside thousands of other commuters on motorbikes like a pro.
Hanoi has a population of about 7.5 million. There are roughly 5 million registered motorbikes on the road…So yeah, traffic is chaotic – at most intersections, there are no lights or no patrol officers, only a hectic slew of people on two wheels going about their business. It seems to work out somehow.
We passed a variety of motorists including restaurant proprietors transporting their days’ ingredients from the market – produce, meats, noodles, kitchen cookware – all on motorbikes.
Young people, old people, (some who should not even be driving a two-wheeled machine) even 3 generations crammed on a single motorbike – grandma chillen on the very back while the young child sits up front – both arms stretched out and take hold of the handlebars…
Old women and men peddlers wear traditional peaked bamboo hats walking on sidewalks (at times crossing busy intersections) while balancing a carrying pole containing a variety of produce on each end.
Not only was I inhaling the occasional lung full of exhaust fumes bursting out of a nearby accelerating motorbike, I had the priviledge to inhale other aromas as well. Wafting smells of foods being cooked from resturants and roadside vendors rose in the air (sometimes in clouds of smoke) as we literally drove right through them. Grilled meats, aromatic broths, exotic fruits (particularly jackfruit and durian) and the occasional aroma of fried food entered my nostrils…I wont ellaborate on any unpleasant smells, however, know that the slew of aromas is what make a place unique – in my humble opinion.
If you want an adrenaline rush, get on the back of one of these taxi’s and if you want to live on the edge just a tad bit more, give the driver the universal signal for hauling ass – twist your half fisted hand in an up and down motion (sound effects optional).
After this unconventional way of seeing a few areas of the city, I was a square and did what most tourists do – explore the old quarter, discover a few Vietnamese dishes, visit Ho Chi Minh Mosoleum (It was closed since I arrived late in the afternoon), walk through Ba Dinh Square, walk through Dong Xuan Night market for shopping, visit Hoan Kiem Lake, and ventured out to Ha Long Bay for an afternoon cruise the next day.
These may be the usual things to do here, but trust me, there is a ton of options to choose from. It just depends what your into really. Food, museums, adventure, tours, cooking classes (many other classes as well), getting pampered with a massage and/or spa, learning about the historic events of the past – you name it, this vibrant city has something for everyone.
The highlight of my visit was exploring Ha Long Bay on an afternoon cruise and kayaking near a local floating village with the notorious limestone formations as the backdrop. A part of me wanted to dock my hard-plastic yellow kayak to a floating houseboat, get on board and meet the families…How would a random tourist be given that privilege without making a wrong impression? Too bad I can’t speak the language…
Im sure everyone going to Hanoi is aware of the beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage Site https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%E1%BA%A1_Long_Bay so I won’t elaborate on the beauty here…know that its definitely worth checking out.
The morning after, I boarded a bus that would take me back to the People’s Republic. Outside of the window, the chaotic city life eventually transitioned to countryside mountains, hills, an occasional rice paddy… The greenery conducive to subtropical climate now took over the land. I was out of the city of Hanoi (and traveling onward to another concrete jungle on the other side of the border) in a very short time it seemed. I thought to myself ‘what would my life be like if I had chosen to work somewhere in Vietnam instead of in China? Out in the country perhaps…’
A few hours later we arrived at the border. Standing in line to get my passport stamped, I felt saddened since I didn’t know where or when I’d get another bowl of that magical bowl of pho…till next time Vietnam, till next time…
Here are a few photos for your entertainment…