From Hanoi, with love... you long time!
May 24, 2009

My friends' wish has been fulfilled. I finally had to wear a face mask. Though for health reasons as opposed to complying with their constant nagging, I reckon it would still do the imbeciles just fine.

I was Hanoi bound and the company was generous enough to provide me with a top-of-the-line 3M face mask as a preemptive measure in traveling amidst the H1N1 flu outbreak.

"Sweet!" I initially thought to myself.

My childhood dream of dressing up as Shredder had come true. For none of my previous attempts back then ever succeeded without my babysitter chasing me around the house. Let's just say my lack of resources to an actual face mask forced me to rummage through her closet and improvise on her garment to make one of my own -- causing lack of support on her part.


Vietnamese sunrise. Circa 5am. Sigh.

My hour-long stint at the departure gate got me engrossed in observing a heated discussion between four Vietnamese ladies in their 50s at the nearby seats. Tourists they were, I would imagine judging from their uniformed caps with charming little flags jotting out of them. What got me initially intrigued to their debate was simply nothing more than the sheer magnitude of the volume at which they were conversing. In essence, I could've put myself at risk of minor hearing damage had I placed myself any closer to them.

As I stepped onto the grounds of Noi Bai Airport, though, many more resemblances of the commotion between the Vietnamese ladies took place. From the baggage claim area, to the immigrations and customs clearance, to the arrival hall, taxi stand, and right into the lobby of the hotel, people were quarreling everywhere.

What's the deal with all these conflicts? Why was everyone unhappy with things? Has it got something to do with the political climate? Or was there a natural disaster making its way to the land? What the hell is everyone aggressively talking about? These were some of the many questions I had lingering in my head as I scrutinized the way the locals communicate.


"Kris won?! Argh! I tabled $400 on Adam Lambert damnit!"

Moments after I stepped into our office in Hanoi, I noticed the same thing. Three of my newly acquainted Vietnamese colleagues were in the middle of a squabble; outdoing each other's voice by the second. I couldn't take it anymore. There has got to be a justification for all these cacophonies. Swiftly, I stepped into the middle of their dispute and demanded an explanation; to their bemusement... before their burst into laughter.

Apparently, they were just figuring out what to eat for lunch. And as it is over there, the way they talk to each other may seem belligerent to foreigners, usually in the manner of a WWE wrestler before a ferocious grapple. Though in actuality, all they could be doing was just throwing out a 'knock knock' joke.

As a matter of fact, the language in itself is wordy by nature. For example, "I say, quit staring at my crotch, kind sir!" translates to "Tôi nói, bỏ thuốc lá staring tại tôi crotch, loại sir!" in Vietnamese. Well, bad example. But you get the idea. It is still, quite enchanting.


"So why did the chicken crossed the road again?"

In his book, 'A Cook's Tour', Anthony Bourdain recalled his experience with the Vietnamese traffic and penned down the following,
"There isn't a single second when we're not paralyzed with fear, bracing for impact, or at least certain that if we were to speak, or distract him (the driver) for even a split second, it would surely cause our instantaneous deaths."
Not too long after journeying into the heart of the city, I suppose Bourdain was rather accurate in describing it as near-suicide, or so to speak. Traffic lights were just as relevant as deodorants to bus conductors. Cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians roam the street with equal rights. As much as a bike can be seen cruising through the walkways, a man can be seen happily making his way along the circumference of a roundabout, together with the other vehicles.

And there was never a pause in the flow of traffic. From dusk 'til dawn, the roads were packed. Not to mention the amount of honking they resort to in their day to day driving. Upon a clarification from our driver, I soon learned that honking is just a mere way of saying "excuse me" or rather crudely, "make way" to other road users. So by translation, people over there excuse themselves on average 384,493 times per day. I'm going to get the driver one of those 'Honk if you're horny!" bumper stickers someday. Just for the fun of it, you know.


No you do not wanna mess with her.

My first morning in Vietnam was spent gorging upon a bowl of phở (pronounced 'fur'), one of the nation's most prominent dish. It's basically rice noodle soup with thinly sliced beef served with basil, sprout, peppers and lime, paired with condiments ranging from their infamous fish sauce to salted garlic.

Usually served during breakfast, lunch and dinner, phở represents the very essence of Vietnamese cooking; basic, no frills and unpretentious. The straightforward preparation of their food limits the gap between nature and a dish. Very minimal 'manufacturing' is involved. And that very fact was evident enough, at least to me judging from the scarcity of factory produced food in their consumer goods market. In sum, I guess the philosophy goes: if you want noodle in broth, skip the chemical laden pre-packed ramen in boiled water and get yourself sorted with some rice noodle in soup proper. If you run out of beef, maybe thrust a spear right into one of those wandering around out there in the lawn.

My only qualm with their food however, was the lack in taste. As much as you can mix and match with the number of condiments that they have, there was still this barrier that seems to be blocking my way into journeying the tantalizing euphoria of tastes that I've encountered with food from other parts of the region. A far cry, in other words, from the blend of spices that we grow up consuming in Malaysia. Alas, perhaps that is the very reason behind the negligible amount of obesity cases in their country.


Breakfast of champions... Vietnamese style!

I didn't get to do much sightseeing during the trip; as always the case with business trips. From the hours I spent in the car looking around whilst holding on to my seat in fear of again, 'instantaneous death', colonial French architecture was present in their buildings; both retail and residential. Tall 3 to 4 storey buildings stand attached to each other heralding signs from none I could decipher anything.


Ain't no curb too high. Ain't no divider low.

The view from my hotel room wasn't too bad either. Overlooking the lake belonging to the Hanoi Zoo, the different parts of the city weren't too obvious from up above. The government buildings aside, everything looked rather similar. Being an administrative city, in contrast to the more vibrant Ho Chi Minh down south, Hanoi is more laidback and modest, possibly, escaping the modernization of commercialism that its sister city is going through.

You get a lot of adorable sights down the streets though. Kids jumping around encircling old ladies carrying baskets of fruits on their shoulders walking back and forth families sitting down over a cup of Vietnamese coffee with their dog licking itself nearby, is a regular sight.

I manage to jaunt into a record store and spent quite some time there talking to the shop owner. In his 60s and not letting a second go without puffing a smoke, he walked me through the range of collections in his possession. From the pricey audiophile record of Chopin to a 60 cent pirated copy of the Black Eyed Peas' latest album in a photocopied album cover, he had it all. And he knew them all as well. He brought out all the John Coltrane, Ray Charles, Diana Krall and John Scofield records I asked for and duly played them out. I did mange to leave him in a bewildered heap when I asked for a Ramlah Ram CD nevertheless; though he did ran through his store just in case there was one somewhere in there. Bless the man.


Now where has that Grease soundtrack gone...

Hanoi isn't really a place to shop though. Maybe the plethora of shopping that I've encountered people doing in Bangkok, Singapore and our own Kuala Lumpur could easily dwarf the opportunities for retail therapy here. Then again, do bear in mind that I am a member of the male gender hence my judgment on shopping is just as good as Ozzy Osbourne's take on the global economic crisis. For my female counterparts deemed the 48 hours they had for shopping still inadequate.

We did drop by at the night market at the Old Quarter. Not surprisingly, exceptional bargaining skill is required in order to shop here. Nevertheless, the language barrier was still a constraint, as demonstrated by the following dialogue, which I had with one of the sellers there.
Me: Okay, these three... how much?
Seller: Up to me.
M: Alright, how much?
S: Up to me. Up to me.
M: I know, how much?
S: Up to me! Up to me!
M: Sure, your call. Just tell me... how much?
S: Up to me! Up to me! Up to me! Up to me!
M: Hang on... you mean, 'up to you'?
S: Ah... yeah yeah, solly... up to you, up to you!
M: Right, I'm totally gonna write about you man.
S: Yeah, up to me, eh, up to you hehe...
Again, bless the man.


"Dlink this! Make you stlong! Make good love!"

I left for the airport on a sunny Saturday afternoon, going through yet another duel with death along their divider-less road, enduring perhaps my last few dozens honks before we reach there.

Trying really hard to sum up the trip, looking at the paddy fields out the window, I barely managed to construct the right words together. There's this uncertainty about the country and I just felt that there are more to uncover. Being there on an official visit bars you, somewhat, from exploring its subtleties. I do believe that behind the loud conversations that locals have on the streets, there are a million stories to tell.

I guess a trip to Ho Chi Minh would allow me to uncover those stories. As corny as it may sound, I should've dropped by one of the museums to at least discover the place a little deeper; in the interest of time. The locals told me that you'll be able to get a more extensive introduction to the country via Ho Chi Minh; which is possibly a valid pointer. I could perhaps echo the same notion.

At the end of the day, should you plan to go there, the decision is all, up to me!

I mean, you.


Hanging well, Hanoi.



Photography by Azalia Suhaimi

About
  • Asrif, b. 1983
  • Subang Jaya, Malaysia
  • asrifomar[@]gmail[.]com
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