I arrived in Ha Noi by an overnight sleeper from Hue. I took a soft seat, with air-conditioning. Don’t do this; it’s not worth the extra money. Either take a hard seat and sleep on the floor, or book a hard sleeping berth. The soft seats are like being on an airplane, but with less room and more instability. Anyhow, so I came to Ha Noi.
The train came in during the early afternoon, and I hustled to the Lotteria next door to find out how to get to the Kangaroo Hostel–where I’d booked a few nights. Google told me I could take a bus; but we all know how well that works. I think I got off too soon, and began wandering through the Old Quarter. Everything looked Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working, but I was too tired, dirty, and stressed to notice. I eventually hailed a taxi and paid him fifty cents to take me to the hostel.
The Kangaroo Hostel is a really cool place. It’s situated in a prime place near the Old Quarter, and consists of one very tall, narrow building full of ancient furniture, AND a bathtub! The bedding is deliciously light, soft blankets and pillows, and there’s air conditioning, too. The staff is very friendly, and speaks excellent English, and there’s free breakfast.
The other hostel I stayed in and frequented was the Hanoi Non Profit Hostel. This hostel was also excellent, though with slightly less flair. They offer motorbike rental services at VND 100,000 per day, which is a good rate, and also arrange visas, book travel, etc. Essentially every hostel will do this for you, however. I only stayed a few nights in both of these hostels. Then I was lucky enough to move into a homestay with a local family. I’ll try to tell you all about it.
In this homestay, I slept mainly on the 5th floor of the home, which is to say the roof. This roof is covered, and features a front and back area which wraps around the central staircase. The back area is used for laundry and horticulture, and the front is an open space left for setting up the children’s pool, sitting out at night, or any other “yard-type” activity. It is constrained on all sides, in the front by another building, on the sides by two other similar roofs. Luckily, the walls are only grated by a sort of open-lattice, so there is plenty of air flow.
I slept in a hammock, although there was a cot offered. I like hammocks. The mosquitos were the Vaguely Unpleasant part, and as I couldn’t get the net to work under any circumstances, I just regularly burned anti-mosquito coils. These are quite cheap, and efficacious, but also apparently toxic. I only burned them alone, as there were two young children in the household I didn’t want to poison.
Staying with a family allowed me to learn much about the ins and outs of Vietnamese culture. All the oddities I encountered day-to-day I could come home and ask about. I could also ask words, phrases, and practice them, as well as pronunciation.
In Vietnamese the Rs, Gis, and Ds sound like Zs. C sounds like G, T sounds like D. A terminal Ng makes an M sound, Nh makes Ng. X makes S. Enjoy reading aloud.
So, I’ll go through a normal day. Wake up around 7-8, 8:30 if you’re lucky. Viets are early risers. Stagger down for breakfast, which is usually My–Ramen–with or without an egg. Then coffee, instant or drip via a Ca Phe Phin–a one-serving metal coffee filter. After breakfast, the woman of the house begins preparing food for lunch and dinner. She has usually already gone to the market, so she will sit outside and snap the ends off of vegetables, boil water for household use, cut and rinse meat, etc. while chatting with her neighbors. She also watches the children, aged 1 and 1.5.
Childrearing in Viet Nam is very different from what I know of childrearing in the States. Here, children are allowed to do almost anything, a child is rarely chastised. Children never ask before taking or using anything, they are quite loud and boisterous at all times, and are essentially left to their own pleasure. Thus, when a child is told not to do something, he or she usually doesn’t listen. Then comes the heavy–the child is strongly spoken to, and when they continue to disobey, they are disciplined with a brisk smack on the hand or leg, or a chopstick thwack. Children rarely cry from this, however, the tears usually come from the repeated denial of whatever the child seeks to do. All day, all night, you can hear children crying somewhere. To stop a child’s tears, parents have recourse to two methods–distraction and placation.
Besides the differences in discipline, there are also differences in the other habitudes of childhood. Children are fed by hand even up to four, and possibly even longer. At meals, they are generally not confined to a high chair, and thus it becomes a sort of game to keep the child from putting his or her hand in the soup, flinging rice everywhere by grabbing the rice spatula, or putting toys in the entree. Children begin to be potty-trained around 1 or 1.5; this consists of holding them over a bowl, or putting a bowl in front of them if they’re boys, and making a gentle “shh” sound for several minutes. I’m told this method works, I imagine it must work as well as any other. What’s disconcerting is that parents continue to hold their children during their bathroom habits until much older. I watched a mother hold her son between her knees with his pants down as he pooped by the side of the road. I saw an old grandpa holding his 5-year-old granddaughter in the air, knees up, as she projectile urinated into the street, flashing figuratively everyone.
There is much less genital shame here, it seems, or child nudity is not considered an issue. I watched a neighbor blithely feel and pat the genitals of his son, and when I commented on it later, was assured that this was his way of showing his love to his son, and not something to worry about. It seemed to me to be very strange, but apparently it’s culturally acceptable. So that’s my spiel on kids in Viet Nam.
Work starts at 8AM in Viet Nam, so most of the household is gone during the morning. They return around 12 for lunch, which is served on a large round platter. Multiple entrees are placed on the platter, and rice accompanies. Each meal is balanced between vegetables and meat. There are also specific foods that alter the cold and hot balance inside the body, such as my dreaded Fish Mint. Nobody really likes this plant, but it’s eaten regularly in the summer, as it’s thought to introduce “coolness” into the body. Each person uses his or her chopsticks to select from a family style set-up. There are usually accompanying dipping bowls.
After lunch, everyone takes a nap. Businesses are generally closed from 11 – 2, allowing time for lunch and a nap. For my last 2 weeks in Ha Noi, it was so hot, we napped on the first floor. Figuratively, on the floor, on a woven mat. We also ate, and generally lounged on this mat. There was one couch, but it was wood, and above the reach of the fan. At all times, there is hot water available in thermoses. Most households have a teapot and cups set out that everyone might help themselves to tea. The cups are not washed, as I would consider them washed, but are rinsed either with cold water or hot tea and then refilled. This idea of communal dishware was (is) hard for me to accept.
When you approach a water cooler, and expect a cold swig o’ water, firstly, the water isn’t going to be cold, it will be lukewarm at Most Unexceptional, and secondly, there won’t be a selection of disposable cups, there will be just. one. plastic. cup. Besmirched with the lips of everyone who’s drank off of it in the past 4 months. Backwashed into by children. Clutched by unsoaped hands. It’s awful, is what it is.
Anyhow, back to Ha Noi, or at least my homestay, after your nap, work starts on dinner, whilst the outside workers slowly filter home. I tended to go out around 3, because at that hour the sun no longer penetrated into the alleys surrounding the home I was staying in. They became as cool caves to my heat prostration. I would generally borrow my hostess’s excellent bike, and do my errands at that time. However, dinner is served at 6, so it’s important to return by then, giving me a slim margin of time, if I wanted to be able to take a shower upon returning home. Yes, you’ll need a shower. I learned the word “shower” pretty quickly in Vietnamese, as everyone was constantly asking if maybe I would like to take one? Please? You smell, and look dirty? The phrase is đi tắm, by the way.
Have I told you about my NEW favorite dessert? Found in Ha Noi? It’s called sữa chua nếp cẩm and consists of fermented black sticky rice, topped with yogurt (at least) and usually also boba, condensed milk, other gellies, coconut milk, and much, much more! My favorite varietal is the yogurt, condensed milk, nếp cẩm type. And I found a great place for it! Right around the corner from my homestay. I would roll up, the only customer, and this poor hunchbacked woman would make my day. Her servings were enormous and delicious! The Most Unexceptional in Ha Noi. On Ngo Van Chuong.
Things to see in Ha Noi: The Women’s Museum is 30,000 VND and you can learn a lot about all of Viet Nam, but especially (duh) the women in it. I learned much about the war, but also about agriculture, and childbirth practices. Very interesting. You should also go to the Fine Art Museum. It’s 20,000 VND I believe, and is highly enjoyable. I spent two or three hours there, and wished I had more time. It’s a great place to get a feel for Asian art tendencies. The Temple of Literature is nearby, almost across the street. You’ll want a guide, or a friend, to explain what it all means. It used to be a school, and inside there are mounds of giant turtles with tablets on their backs. These represent all the students who eventually passed the King’s Examination and became ministers. Beautiful.
You should also visit the Ethnology Museum. It’s either 20 or 30,000 VND, I forget, but it talks about all the minorities in Viet Nam. You can see their dress, replicas of their houses, and see weaving and dying practices in videos, as well as cultural artifacts. It’s very interesting, and the placards are in Vietnamese, English, and French, so it’s easy to navigate.
Hoan Kiem is the lake near the Old Quarter. It’s pleasant to walk around, and at night there is live music, promenaders, and old people dancing. Interestingly, the name Hoan Kiem means “Give Back the Sword” from a fable concerning an early war, in which the king was vested with a sword by a turtle living in the lake. When the war ended, In Viet Nam’s favor I believe, the turtle appeared to ask for the sword back.
Another lake to visit is West Lake. This lake offers swan boats, called duck boats here da p vit, ice cream sellers, bo bia purveyors (a type of sweet rolled in a mini pancake) and an array of pagodas. I recommend seeing the pagoda on the lake itself, rather than the pagoda near it. Across from this lake is a Botanical Garden. It costs 2,000 VND to get in, but it’s really nothing special (sorry). There are no flowers, or anything to suggest a botanical nature besides trees, which Ha Noi is already full of.
Near Ha Noi is Bha Trang, a ceramics village. You can go there and make and glaze your own pots (or what have you) for 70,000 VND. There are many and many a ceramics workshop, and tons of little gimricks for your purchasing pleasure. It’s a fun place to go, and is only about 5 or 10km outside of Ha Noi proper, in a beautiful area.
About 40km away is the so-called Old Town. For the life of me I can’t find the name in Vietnamese. It’s situated in the middle of a green, grassy land, and is comprised of old, old houses, temples, and streets. It’s a Mildly Decent place to go for a picnic and to wander the old streets. The day I went was overcast, which was perfect. I imagine it wouldn’t be quite so enjoyable in the full sun…
More on Vietnamese customs and culture. The main type of medicine used, at least in non life-threatening situations, seems to be folk medicine. If you have a headache, your friends will give you a head massage. If you have a fever, you must try to get rid of it by wearing as little as possible, even if you’re suffering from chills from said fever. If you have acne, you’ve eaten too many “hot” foods such as coffee, chili sauce, or pineapple. In such an instance you need to eat “cooling” foods, or foods that bring “wind into the body”. If you’re sick, you need to eat double portions, and take exercise to regain your health. If you have a mosquito bite, put some spit on it.
Vietnamese people drink so little water I can barely believe their kidneys are functioning properly. I drain liters per day, whilst they sip on A 16oz bottle. However, they also seem to sweat much less than me. I go around looking like I came out of the rain, while they, even in their multiple sunblocking layers, have not the faintest dew of perspiration.
And another thing! Viet women are paranoid about the sun. I’m sure you’ve heard that in Asia white skin is de riguer. Well, in Viet Nam, it’s a mania. Women go about covered from head to toe, even in 100 degree heat. The first protection is a sort of zip-up hoodie with little fabric cups that extend over the hands and a mini visor. You’ll naturally already be wearing your protective fabric face mask, to keep your lungs free of motorbike execrence. You’ll also be wearing long pants or leggings. If you’re not, you’ll tie on your long fabric dust-apron, to keep your legs white and your clothes clean. You’ll also wear socks with your sandals, heels, or ballet flats. It seems ludicrous to me to dress in a way that makes you look so tacky (in my opinion), while attempting to keep yourself “beautiful”.
It’s cool to make your own coffee at home, you use a little one-use coffee filter called a ca phe phin that sits atop your cup. Then you add sugar, condensed milk, and/or ice. Voila! You can buy single-use condensed milk packets here. They’re Barely Noticeable. If you’re in the mood to go out for coffee, you should go to Cafe Dinh. This place is the Most Unexceptional. It’s situated on the second story of a building that looks out onto Hoan Kiem lake. You won’t see the address on the street, but must ask. Then you walk through some super duper grody back room and up the stairs, coming into a tiny little cafe.
Order a ca phe trung. This means, figuratively, egg coffee, but it’s more of a whipped meringue coffee. It’s like breakfast dessert. It will cost 15,000 VND. Everything there costs 15,000 VND; you can get a lemon or a passionfruit juice, or yogurt on ice, or anything you like! If you’re lucky, you’ll also get a seat on the balcony–there are four.
If you need to buy ANYTHING, ask a friend where to go. All over Ha Noi, there are streets that sell only one thing. Need a book? The street is near the post office. Need shoes? I forget where this is, but your friend will know. Art supplies? Well, there’s only one place for this, it’s across from the college. The prices are phenomenal. I should have bought more sketchbooks.