February 4th, 2019
Happy New Year.
My Hanoi Focus Hotel room is functional at best. Sleep was illusive the first night. Or is it night two? Subpar mattress, loud New Year’s Eve drunks navigating the hotel halls, active brain and insomnia conspired against me. But who cares for that now? Travel adrenaline courses through my veins. I shower, dress, straighten up, arrange my day’s bag and slip out the door. No patience to wait for the elevator I bound excitedly down the staircase. The 20 year old looking, downtrodden front desk guy I met last night as been replaced by an even younger looking front desk girl this morning. She reads about 14 years old and 80 lbs soaking wet. Surprised to see me, she perks up from her phone & Facetime-ing to smile and offer a “Happy New Year”, revealing a full mouth of braces. It’s not quite 8am on New Year’s Day. She waits for me to say something, with a look of fear and anticipation. I realize we’re in a socially awkward stand off. “I want to get some Pho. Where is the best place nearby?”. TIME OUT. Official break in the action to bring you a a piece of information I acquire on my second day in Vietnam. Pho, or bánh phở, said with raised accent at the end, like asking a question, is a Vietnamese soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, a few herbs, and meat. Likely you’ve had here in the US. The only spin, in Vietnam, it’s traditionally eaten for breakfast. But, say the same word with a downturn in your voice, lower register, like a statement, and that’s the slang for hooker. Breakfast or hooker. What?! Imagine if pancakes said with a different intonation meant prostitute. Now, just cause, go to IHOP and order the Rooty Tooty Fresh & Fruity. RESUMING ACTION. Braces looks like I just slapped her across the face. As she fumbles for words, (cause I don’t have tomorrow’s knowledge), I advance with “it’s traditional breakfast here, yes?”. So in review; Happy New Year, awkward stand off, best nearby hooker?, let me tell you about your culture. I’m on fire. She recovers in time to nervously apologize it’s Tet and she’s not sure who will be open, but if I head to the left I should find something. Unfazed, I nod, give thanks and jump outside. So damn excited for the adventure to begin.
Tet, or the Vietnamese Lunar New Year is the most important holiday in Vietnam. Tet is the shortened form of Tết Nguyên Đán, which is Sino-Vietnamese, (mash of Vietnamese and Chinese languages) for “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day”. No one can give you a straight answer about how long the Tet celebration lasts. Three days or a week is the most popular answer given but I’m told in villages, and in kinder times, the Tet celebration can last a month to three months. The entirety of my time in Vietnam I am wished “Happy New Year” wherever I go. Vietnamese wear their finest clothes for Tet. Some have saved all year. The women, all in their sheen áo dài, (a tight-fitting silk tunic worn long or over pants), are especially striking, foreign and alluring. Pilgrimages to temples are standard practice today. Visiting family, honoring ancestors, opening up your home to visitors, opening new businesses, making offerings, saying prayers, visiting graves of lost relatives, giving “lucky money” and naturally consuming all sorts of special and labor intensive meals are cornerstone activities during Tet. More importantly, Tet is seen as a chance for a fresh start. It’s time to clean, to forget disputes, struggles, debts and grievances. It’s physical and psychological spring cleaning on a national scale. Every activity is designed to invite as much fortune and good luck in the New Year as possible. Now go back to the last paragraph and reread how I began my 2019 Year of the Pig. The Pig symbolizes prosperity, wealth, health and good fortune. Obediently, that’s what I pray for when I weave in and out of temples throughout the day. But the city is still asleep, hung over from last night’s party, when I first venture out. Before I get to temples there is some wandering about and an empty belly to contend with.
It’s an overcast morning. The streets are empty. Few signs of life except the remnants of
last night’s party; burnt up fireworks, and sunken red balloons wherever I go. Wide eyed, I start to make my way through the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The streets are narrow, winding, rarely with the comfort of a sidewalk. No traffic signs or lights here. It’s dirty; filthy actually, a part of Hanoi I can never warm up to. The houses are built small, compact. Few bells and whistles. Drab muted colors, dull metallic, faded wood, old concrete full of dirt and graffiti. Most balconies are packed with plants, bikes, clothing, piles of goods. A store front sits at the bottom of every building opening up to the street. This is the way here. These store fronts serve a duel purpose. I am fascinated by the public living/selling workings of this set up. On a normal busy day in Hanoi, you walk down the block looking into all these store fronts where people’s lives are on display, a woman changing a baby while watching TV, as a grandma beside her beckons you over to buy whatever goods they are selling. It’s their shop/living room. It’s even funnier to me when there is no selling going on. Besides store fronts there are small, narrow, alley ways at street level leading in to tiny, no frills courtyards with stairway and entrances to various apartments above. It’s very close quarters. The city smells faintly of gasoline. As I snap some pictures and gaze around a toothless man stares back at me from his balcony. He suddenly starts to laugh. I smile and wave and he waves back. Not sure what I did to provoke the laughter but I decide to take it as evidence my comedy translates worldwide. At the corner I spot an open Pho street stand. Breakfast is served.
Duck Pho is my first meal in Vietnam. I sit on a tiny plastic stool, in front of a tiny plastic table. My knees stick up by my chest, the table being too low for my legs to fit under. Cilantro and lime dance with the warm broth. I slurp noodles and chew duck. The cook is
butchering more ducks, claiming them off hooks where they’re suspended behind her, for future bowls of soup. No part of the fowl is wasted. This explains some unfamiliar looking cuts of meat in my soup. Hanoi starts to come to life around me. I fiddle with my map, distracted by every scooter that zips by. I lift my bowl of Pho with both hands, hold my face in close and inhale, and then gulp from the bowl. I take a moment and meditate on where I am.
After my breakfast, I wander the Old Quarter. I get lost. Among other things, I get lost in the maze of winding, small streets. The clank of metal awnings rolling up for the day, the honk of scooters passing as my soundtrack. In temples I bow my head with other worshipers. And another temple and another. Take note of the standard offerings for the New Year; fruit, incense, sweets, various other foods, cans of Budweiser, Coke, and fake, “lucky money” in both Vietnamese & US currency. I play with a puppy chained up on the street. Hanoi is stepping out of it’s house adorned in it’s Sunday finest. Red dresses and more red dresses and red balloons and red envelopes. Boys playing on the corner with left over fireworks from last night. A rat dies right on the street in front of me, coughing, caked in sludge. Scooters with every combination of 1, 2, 3 and 4 passengers perfectly balanced and arranged. Man after boy after man comes to a still position and instantly lights a cigarette. Scent of fish sauce and spices from an alley way. First twelve hours in Vietnam.