Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
Cody and I arrived at Hanoi’s bus station just after dawn broke. The pale tones of twilight softly pooled in from the east, dissolving yet another night into day. I was restless, sore, and exhausted after twenty-four hours of travel. There is no amount of over-the-counter Asian-generic-Valium that can undo the physical weariness and boredom of that much movement, that little rest. As we stretched and gathered our backpacks from the small hill of taped-up cardboard boxes and battered luggage thrown from the trunk of the bus onto the concrete, Cody realized his beloved spearfishing gun was missing. He’d attached it to his bag by the side straps, the sharp end pointed down (he’d lost the black cap, so this was his last-resort safety measure).
He questioned the two weary men unloading the bottom of the bus. Both shook their heads and one held out his hands, as if to say, “No English.” Cody bent down, searching the depths of the now-empty compartments but to no avail. It was gone. Someone had stolen his gun and there was nothing to be done.
I stepped away from the station and soaked in a new world. There was none of Don Det’s mugginess here in northern Vietnam. The morning was crisp and the bikers weaving in and out of traffic wore colorful windbreakers. Everything was so alive; the streets were filled with power walking pedestrians, speeding vehicles, and the air was cluttered with honking, voices shouting, the screech of shop owners rolling up metal awnings. After spending so much time in Laos, a country whose largest cities can be walked end-to-end within an hour and whose population probably equals its number of livestock, I was thrilled by the flood of bodies.
The first item on our to-do list, before sustenance or accommodation, was to pump some caffeine into our bloodstreams and awaken our half-asleep brains. We wandered down a side street across from a bricked-in, perfectly square, man-made pond. Middle-aged Vietnamese people wearing various athletic accessories flanked us. There were wrinkly little women swinging their arms in loops, men stretching in neon, 80’s-style spandex shorts and matching headbands. An energetic beat banged out of scratchy boom box speakers from across the pond. I spotted a group mid-Zumba routine, their arms and legs in clumsy parody of the instructor’s.
The first open store we came across only sold wooden crates of fresh fruit and vegetables. However, after the smiling saleslady declined our business, she pointed for us to stay and banged on the closed metal awning of the shopfront beside her. As it raised, a pair of pink slippers, pink flannel pajama pants, a matching pink sweater, and finally a pair of bleary eyes and a messy black ponytail became visible. The eyes blinked, taking in the scene. It was obvious that foreigners didn’t come around these parts very often. The two shopkeepers spoke in the sharp, almost sing-song inflections of Vietnamese. Then the pajama-clad woman nodded at us.
She scooted back into the dark and reappeared with a plastic, lavender kiddie table and two matching stools. I hoped she spoke English; we had no Google Translator to reference, no idea how to even say “hello” in Vietnamese. Just two ignorant Americans abroad, I thought.
“Coffee?” Cody asked, his voice tentative.
The woman responded with a word that sounded a lot like “cafe.” Cody and I exchanged a glance and a shrug; close enough. She pointed at the miniature table and chairs. We thew our stuff down and squatted on the set. Satisfied we wouldn’t run off, she shuffled back into the shop, which was really just a living room with an open front facing the street. There was a small kitchen area off to the side. The main room had a mantle with a television set, a round metal table surrounded by chairs, and a staircase from which a mewing sound kept coming. A runty calico kitten crawled into view; it was tied to the steps by a piece of rope around its neck. Its oversized, wet, green eyes seemed to weigh its whole head down.
A few moments later the lady came up to us holding a can of condensed milk. It had a puncture hole in the top and the side was glazed with syrupy, white liquid. She shook it at us. I nodded.
I’d heard rumors about Vietnamese-style coffee, but was still surprised when it came out in all its intricacy. A dented tin contraption sat on top of a teacup immersed in a bowl of hot water. It looked like a can of tuna without the label. I lifted the metal bit to find dark liquid dripping through a thin grate into the cup below, spattering drop-by-drop onto the thick pool of condensed milk that coated the porcelain bottom. I opened the tin’s lid and saw it was filled to the brim with hot water. Loose, brown coffee grits swirled around.
The liquid took several minutes to migrate through the grate and into the teacup. As we waited, a little girl in a school uniform hopped down the stairs two at a time and the shopkeeper placed a bowl of steaming porridge on the round table. The girl spooned globs of it into her mouth, her eyes glued to the weather forecast on the television. When the kitten stumbled over a pair of rubber slippers and tangled itself in its rope leash, she leapt from her chair to save it.The kitten scrambled over the tiles, pounces on a pair of pink, plastic slippers and stared out at me with wondering green eyes. I smiled at it and the little girl giggled and waved at me.
"Hello." When I responded, she giggled more.
"Hello." I said again.
I just smiled this time and she wandered back over to her breakfast.
When the coffee was finally ready, I swirled the black liquid with the condensed milk, transforming it into creamy goodness. You know how coffee-lovers always say things like, “I don’t want Starbucks, I want to go somewhere with good coffee.” That’s the first thing I thought of when I sipped this cup; it’s so good. I could taste the richness of these beans, the hint of refreshing bitterness beneath the sweetness of the milk. The taste lingered after I swallowed.
I tugged my sweater a bit tighter around my torso, holding the hot little cup of coffee between my palms. Motorbikes rumbled past on the streets, zipping out of tight, cobblestoned alleyways that looked like a tight squeeze to walk in, let alone drive through. Everything was colorful, from the pastel-painted buildings to the neon jackets and hats everyone has donned to the huge stacks of fruit that vendors had piled onto carts and were pushing slowly through the streets. I could already tell I was going to like it here, even if I'd just arrived.
After coffee, I was energized again. We paid and made our way back to the main street. Most shops were now open and many were serving large, steaming bowls of noodle soup to patrons at more plastic kiddie tables set out on sidewalks. Each dish was accompanied by a plate stacked high with greens, limes, and chilies. I hadn’t passed more than a few of these street restaurants before I felt my stomach gurgling for attention. It was time to check another need off the day’s list. We stopped at one of the busier open-faced shops with a “PHO” sign out front. That was one of the few Vietnamese words I recognized; I’d had pho in New York. I thought it was another version of ramen.
We ended up inside a restaurant, sitting at a fancy table made of thick, glass-like plastic with metal legs that didn’t wobble like the kiddie ones. It was decorated with a blown-up image of a 90’s Britney Spears album cover, from back when she used to wear pig tails and all-denim outfits.
“Duck or pork?” The waiter asked.
For the first time in weeks I’d been offered a protein option that wasn’t pork or chicken! Cody and I both ordered duck without hesitation. And the heaping pile of hot, salty broth, slender, slippery rice noodles, soft, fat black liver chunks, chopped scallions, and slices of golden-skinned, tender roasted duck meat that arrived at the table only a few moments later was breathtaking as it was delectable.
So far, I’d decided, the Southeast Asian country with the best breakfast options was Vietnam. We left the restaurant stuffed, the fresh smells of chili, lime, and mint on our fingertips. It was time to take care of the last item on our to-do list: accommodation.
Cody and I found ourselves pricing out hotels on a large avenue. We’d heard that rooms were a bit more expensive in Hanoi and wanted to do some scouting. We were still about a thirty minute walk from the French Old Quarters (the traditional tourist district) and there were no other Westerners in sight. But then we spotted Flamingo Hotel, whose shiny marble front and automatic glass doors just looked too enticing to pass up. All that fancy glass meant there was air conditioning, right? As we made our way to the front desk, we had to step around workers rearranging the letters on the big blue and silver sign out front. Inside was cool, clean; there was a glass display on one wall that was filled with old cell phones. I wondered if they were selling the brick-like Nokias or if they were just for show.
The front desk had a pretty clear room rate list sitting on it: 600,000 dong (or about $27) per night. It was way above our budget. We were about to walk out when a manager came around the corner, called out to us.
“Wait, what will you pay?” He sounded desperate. I was surprised that it was possible to haggle in this kind of place. Cody and I both hesitated.
“Um, 400,000?” Cody said. The manager frowned. We began to turn toward the door again.
“Okay, sure! Sure. But I can’t include free breakfast. That’s too much.”
Who gives a fuck about free breakfast? We can stay in a real hotel for less than $10 each!
We followed the eager manager up a dimly lit set of stairs and through a dirty hallway. The gray carpeting was stained, the walls were bare. But when he led us through a door on the second floor, we stepped into one of the nicest hotel rooms I’d seen in a while. He explained that it was cheaper because there were no windows. But there was a flat screen television on the wall and a king size bed with a spotless, white duvet. The bathroom came with little bottles of shampoo and conditioner, toothbrushes, bars of soap, and even a razor and shaving cream set. The shower head was as wide as a dinner plate, waterfall style. Freaking luxury to two people that hadn’t bathed in almost three days.
“Yeah, this works.” I nodded. Definitely works.
The manager grinned, looking relieved we actually wanted to stay here. I noticed that the hallways were silent; were we the only customers? Did it even matter?
“Actually, because it’s my wife’s birthday, you can have free breakfast!” The manager told us. He clapped his hands together.
We had ourselves a deal.
- Hotel Room: Whatever you’re willing to pay
- Coffee: $1.00
- Giant bowl of duck pho with all the greens and chili your heart desires: $1.00
- If something gets stolen from a bus, most likely you’re not getting it back. Don’t fret, just remember that most material objects are replaceable. Or keep your stuff safer.
- Write down a few key phrases before you go to a new country, just in case you don’t have a SIM card to help you.
- Always be ready when the opportunity to haggle arises.