As an undergraduate student I was fortunate enough to study abroad in Australia for two semesters. While there, I embarked on the traditional backpacker’s tour, jumping from hostel to hostel across the country. Backpacking in Australia is what I imagine being in a traveling rodeo is like; you run into the same people over and over, stay at the same hostels and hotels, you even visit the same tourist destinations. The number of backpackers and students planning trips to the Great Barrier Reef, Fraser Island, Byron Bay, and Sydney at any given time is surely mind-boggling.
While down under, I had the opportunity to travel to Hanoi, the capitol of Vietnam, an opportunity I certainly wasn’t going to pass up. After a layover in Taiwan, my group and I landed in Hanoi late one spring afternoon. By the time we went through customs, gathered our bags, exchanged currencies, and hailed cabs, it was soon approaching 10 p.m. As it was a few weeks away from the humid rainy season, the air was crisp and the temperature was mild.
Having skipped the in-flight meal, and having experienced the sensory overload that is a Southeast Asian metropolis, I found myself very hungry. I then proceeded to leave my group and venture out alone in search of a late night meal. I was very proud of myself as I navigated the narrow sidewalks for a full minute and a half before I found myself utterly and completely lost.
Navigating Hanoi by foot is a charming experience perfect for pleasant post dinner strolls or late morning window-shopping. Central Hanoi has ample restaurants, shopping, and attractions sure to keep any interested visitor occupied for days on end. There are also a number of wide tree-lined streets and idyllic lakes in the heart of the city, providing a welcome refuge from the hustle and bustle.
The streets and neighborhoods are even remarkably organized by consumer product. After wandering with no particular destination, I often found myself passing tire store after tire store. The next block might be the pirated music district followed closely by tailor-town and the wooden artifact borough. This makes finding your way around surprisingly easy in a city as large and full of life as Hanoi. While Hanoi may be ideal for walking, in order to fully enjoy it, you must first learn the science of crossing the street.
Before I left, I spent an inordinate amount of time devoted to the discussion of this particular subject. Never would I have thought that such a seemingly simple task would prove to be so perilous. In a city of over six million people, there are approximately, and this is putting it generously, three stoplights and four crosswalks. Furthermore, in a remarkable feat of urban living, it often appears as if all six million own scooters and are avid Evil Kneivel fans, effortlessly playing chicken with on-coming pedestrians and motorists alike.
Everyone who has been to Hanoi gives the same advice as to how to cross the street, look straight ahead and keep a steady pace, as the endless rush of scooter drivers will go around you based on how fast you are walking. Easier said than done. Crossing the street in Hanoi requires a level of faith similar to that shown by Indiana Jones when he was forced to walk the invisible bridge to reach the Holy Grail. Closing your eyes and putting one foot in front of the other has never been so difficult. Tourists tend to gather like flies at street corners hoping there is strength enough in numbers to gather a courageous battalion to forge the asphalt river infested with motorized piranhas.
Everything changes at night. The inescapable smell of Hanoi, an odor of fish and sewage, intensifies, but a more serene and revealing cityscape emerges. Gone are the screaming scooters and their wail, gone are the rickshaws, and gone are the tourists with their deer-in-the-headlights stare. It is easier to read signs and enjoy the architecture without worrying about running into, or being run over by, something.
Children hard at work or in school during the day play in the streets more freely. Merchants do not watch your every move in anticipation of the next sale. Restaurants gain a more quiet appeal and storefront eateries appear less intimidating without the long line and unfamiliar language. With a number of centrally located lakes, parks, and tree-lined streets, Hanoi is indeed a walker’s paradise.
After walking in circles for what seemed like hours, it was at one of these very eateries that I eventually came upon and decided to grab my first sample of authentic Vietnamese food. This particular eatery was about ten feet wide and 20 feet deep and was very dimly lit. It was a sparsely decorated wide-open space with high ceilings and a makeshift open kitchen in the front left area that consisted of a wok and a few unidentifiable ingredients scattered nearby.
Three small tables in the back made up the dining room. The chef/owner/waitress was preparing a meal for the customer in front of me while her children played in the back. Not knowing what the proper ordering etiquette was, I tried to glean as much information from the customer ahead of me as possible, looking over his shoulder like he had the answers to a pop quiz.
After getting a minimal amount of useful information from the previous customer, I looked at the cook as jovially as humanly possible, raised one finger, nodded and smiled. I highly doubt that this was the proper ordering method, but the ignorant American approach worked just fine this time as she got the message and began to prepare a meal.
I watched intently as she prepared the food: pouring the batter into the sizzling wok, spreading the brownish (to this day I do not have the slightest idea what it was) filling, and rolling it up into a sort of Vietnamese burrito. I then eagerly sat down to enjoy my long awaited mystery dinner.
And enjoy it I did. The home-cooked meal was delicious and satisfying, just what I was looking for. Furthermore, I got the entire thing for about the same price as two items on the McDonald’s Dollar Menu. I left with a full stomach, content with the knowledge that I had just gone out alone, in a foreign country, and ate as authentic a meal in as authentic a setting as possible.
For that brief period of time, I forgot I was far away from home, far away from the creature comforts that we have all come to rely upon. For that brief period of time I was devouring my late night snack, I also forgot that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to get back to my hotel room. At least now I could cross the street.