An introduction to the northern cuisine, colorful character and controlled chaos of Vietnam.

First meal in Vietnam: obviously a bowl of pho.
First meal in Vietnam: obviously a bowl of pho.

Landing into Noi Bai International Airport was a stark contrast to the peace and quiet of Luang Prabang and a somewhat jarring shock to the system. Long customs lines and endless LED screens demanding purchase of the latest Samsung smartphone bombarded us after disembarking from our flight. A 40 minute Uber ride later and we found ourselves at our hotel in the buzzing Old Quarter, ready to ring in the new year. We of course had to sample a bowl of delicious pho before turning in for the evening.

Happy Hanoi New Year!
Celebrating 2017 with drinks at Muse Home rooftop bar, adjacent to all of the NYE chaos.

The excitement on New Year’s Eve Day was as palpable as the city’s congested streets, a one-of-a-kind experience that will have your life flashing before your eyes with each death-defying step across the street. I’ve read and seen videos on how to correctly cross the street in Hanoi– keep your eyes forward, pace steady, don’t hesitate and the endless scooters will miraculously zip around you like a stone in a flowing river. As zen as that sounds, it’s quite the opposite. Throw in buses, cars and bicycles in the mix and you’ve got yourself a solid recipe for a new stomach ulcer (or five).

Un-pho-gettable, That’s What You Are

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Pho ga– it’s what’s for (breakfast, lunch, and) dinner!

While I wouldn’t recommend staying in the always hectic Old Quarter, where many tourists get the hard sell from souvenir shops and street food vendors, it’s not without its charm. The colorful balconies hovering over cramped streets filled with lush greenery call to mind that quaint New Orleans vibe, thanks to early French colonial influences. Also, the street food scene in the quarter can’t be beat with another delectable dish to try right around the corner.

Hazy Days (Galang Alang Alang)

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Can’t tell if smog or fog (or both)?

The next few days were spent lazing around our hotel room watching the odd HBO movie with bouts of venturing out into the helter skelter to forage for some street food. Poolside blogging with a bottle of wine was cut short due to the slight chill in the air (as mild as it is, it’s still winter here in Vietnam) and the questionable air quality of the city. It took a while for me to realize that people weren’t wearing face masks because they were sick (and being polite about spreading germs), but because there is literally so much exhaust and pollutants in the air.

And Now Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Feasting

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Delicious bon cha at Bun Cha Dac Kim #1.

Did I mention that the food here is amazing? With my knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine limited to basically pho and banh mi, I was excited to discover the plethora of food the city has to offer. I tried my first bon cha, which is essentially little burger meat patties in a delicious broth served with a side of noodles, fresh greens, herbs and squeezed lime. Divine! Another new favorite dish was the bon rieu nam bo (pictured third above) containing fish cakes and fried tofu in a tomato based broth. Thanks for the recommendations, Corinne!

Pow! Pow! Powerwheels!

Rare glimpse of a driver's education class in Hanoi.
Rare glimpse of a driver’s education class in Hanoi.

Just kidding! I don’t think driver’s education exists in this country. It is seriously every man, woman, child and baby panda for themselves out here in these streets. On the subject of honking: these warning mechanisms are not used in the way we think they should be in the states (i.e. to avoid an accident). Rather, drivers take their cue from irate New York cab drivers and Los Angeles road rage addicts. Honking is generally used to: 1) Announce to all those around that I am heading in your general direction and you should be aware lest you become street meat and 2) Aggravate, annoy and instill a deep-seeded hate within me that rivals the burning of a million suns. I fear I may now have Post Traumatic Honking Disorder.

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Finally some peace and quiet found at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

We did manage to escape the craziness of the Quarter by touring the famed resting place of Ho Chi Minh. The mausoleum’s somber gray exterior combined with the open, spacious walkways provided some much needed relief from the sprawling city that is Hanoi. While I feel fortunate to have celebrated the new year with some old friends and new faces half way around the world, I’m ready for a change of pace and seeing the gradual changes as we slowly make our way down the coast of Vietnam.