February 5, 2019
I decide it’s time to explore Hoan Kiem Lake, described in my Rough Guide to Vietnam as, “the city’s spiritual, cultural and commercial heart”. But before I do, coffee. I had a cup before I dashed out of the hotel in the morning, but halfway into my first day I’m craving more. Plus, memories from the Vietnamese restaurant that lived a block away from Vassar where I attended college have me excited to revisit this country’s coffee. Coffee, as it turns out, is Vietnam’s second largest export after rice. They are also the second largest exporter in the world after Columbia. Just in case you’re having a moment and thinking, “I’ve never had Vietnamese coffee before”, their single largest buyer is Starbucks. But those are the beans, not their signature style. Served hot or iced, Vietnamese coffee itself is a very, very strong black as tar coffee made in a French press style, (hello 100 years of occupation) with condensed milk added. Born out of necessity, no doubt, there is no dairy in Vietnamese cuisine; dairy cows not thriving in fields of rice paddies I suppose. But the motor oil coffee combined with the burst of sweet syrupy condensed milk is quite the delight. I risk life and limb crossing the busy fairway to the Highlands Coffee I spy that teases this beverage plus a view of the lake. The “risk” element comes from the simple fact there are no traffic lights in Hanoi, so you walk a la a trust exercise across large streets and pray no scooter or car hits you. So we are clear, they wont stop. Scooters swarm around you calculating your pace against their trajectory. Your job as pedestrian is to stay steady. As I try to find my way up to the third floor where the Highlands Coffee is situated I get an assist that leads to an unexpected detour in my day and this post. More on that, after a word from our sponsor.
Turns out there are no commercial breaks in blogs. Searching for a way up to the third floor, I take a cue from four other coffee seekers stepping onto an elevator. One gentleman holds the door for me and so I say “thank you”. It’s the smallest elevator I’ve ever been on. “You’re American?” asks, well, let’s call him, Tom. Names changed to protect the innocent. Tom’s dressed in a casual grey suit, button down shirt and no tie. He lives in Denver, having immigrated to the United States when he was 8 years old, running in some way from the war, I gather. With him are a middle aged couple and their daughter. The daughter, let’s call her Lily, speaks some English; the parents none. As I wait my turn in line wondering how adventures in ordering will go, Tom surprises me by buying me a coffee. “Sit with us”, he offers. Touched by the kindness of strangers and happy to make my first trip friends, I eagerly accept his offer and we all settle outside with a view of Hoan Kiem Lake I was hoping for.
The first bit of of business is dominated by Tom & Lily’s desire to connect on apps and social media sites. Tom is having problems with WhatsApp, (which if you don’t know and are traveling abroad you should; it allows you to communicate via text or calls using only data not minutes) so he’s eager for me to download Viper, which apparently operates in much the same way. Lily wants to become Facebook friends. She asks me if she could practice her English with me. It all seems perfectly natural but my phone is taking forever to load, seemingly frustrating them and I’m more interested in conversation. Meanwhile Lilly’s Mom keep talking to her in Vietnamese which she translates, “My Mother says you are very handsome man”. Still got it. At least that’s what I think the first time she says it. By the third, it’s a bit odd, but wait for it. The Dad never really does anything but smile dumbly. When Lily can’t find the words to translate “divorced” to her mother she does so by holding her hands together as if in prayer, then exploding them apart into Jazz hands and then dropping them, lifeless, into her lap. I’m trapped for a moment in time marveling at what a brilliant, concise depiction of divorce this is. Meanwhile Tom is pushing me asking why I haven’t purchased a SIM card for my travels here. I’ve seen several shops selling them already, for only about $8 you can buy one for local calls and data use. The thing is, I try to unplug while traveling, even though you really can’t anymore. Mores the pity. I use my phone for photos, making notes for this blog, keeping important addresses or phone numbers and if I am really fucked, to locate myself on Maps. I don’t need to get on social media sites faster and I don’t anticipate any phone calls. My plan includes international data, (most do now), calls are .25 cents a minute which is an okay deal for me as I will only use in emergencies. It’s more than I care to explain in this moment and it wouldn’t matter. The real purpose of why is quickly revealed; talking to girls. You know, cause obviously I’m here to find a wife. Tom is poised and ready to step into the role of matchmaker. And Lily isn’t his niece. I was innocently enough thrown, “Uncle” is a term of respect for older men in Vietnam as much as it means, well, Uncle. And that makes Lily, the first contender to be my future wife. I put that one together somewhere around the time I am invited to stay with Lily and her family as their guest at her small nearby village so we can get to know each other better. That took a turn huh?
Tom keeps returning to the fact, as others do during my trip, that I am in Vietnam to find a wife. No amount of protest on my part ever changes their minds. Tom tells me I haven’t allocated enough time here, but I’m lucky I am good looking and can maybe still pull it off. Still got…never mind. There’s a second act too, setting up a business. A mere $20,000 I’m told can serve as start up to open a coffee shop out of the city. Tom is always hunting for partners, he wants to connect on a venture. Okay, but let’s back up. Even before arriving in Vietnam I had learned via my research, (and I am talking about nightlife guides of Hanoi & Ho Chi Minh City) about vietnamcupid.com . Sure, it’s a dating site. But it also seems targeted at white men visiting Vietnam for the purpose of finding a girlfriend while traveling and or a future wife. I’m trying to walk the line here, cause I really don’t know know, but, well, however that sounds, it also seems fairly chaste. I’m not in Thailand, where prostitution and sex shows are legal. One nightlife article I read even warned, if you’re looking to hook up or just have a one night stand, it’s nearly impossible with Vietnamese women on the first date(s). They are fairly conservative. Literally one article suggests focussing your efforts on European or American tourists if that’s your aim. U-S-A! U-S-A! And while it’s a little gross since Lily is 21 and without prompting I’m told she’s very serious about her studies and “no boys”, Tom only talks of marriage and chaperoned getting to know each other time. Important to contextualize, it is SO poor here in Vietnam. I do believe it’s about a better life. After this encounter I clock every middle aged white guy with a 20 year old looking Vietnamese woman walking down the street and wonder. Playing fair, I also see plenty of middle aged white guys with 20 year old looking women walking in Los Angeles. I am not defending nor condemning any of this. Yes, I feel uncomfortable at times. But it’s not my place to judge. I’m just a guy writing. And besides, we’re leaving the coffee shop and checking out Hoan Kiem Lake.
At first I’m awkward and wondering how I’m going to get out of this but it plays out to a different tune. We get absorbed by the crowds as hundreds of people are flocking this
first day of Tet to visit the holiest of temples situated on the lake. As we walk across one bridge I notice I am literally a head taller then everyone in the crowd. At 5’7” this has never happened to me. I laugh at how fun it feels. Lily can’t be more then 4’10”. Neither of her parents crack 5’2”. That’s about average for what I see in Vietnam. Tiny people. Funny thing, Tom and Lily turn out to be superb guides; answering questions, protecting me from street urchins, directing me to sites I can’t miss. I ask if it’s a Buddhist temple but I am told no. The temple has no religion, it’s to pray to the ancestors, to pray to the country itself as it watches over us. I’m momentarily dizzy with smells of incense, cigarettes, food, gasoline, and the polluted dank lake. Tom hands me “lucky money” he purchased from a street vendor and at the most sacred spot at the lake tells me we are to climb stone steps, make our offerings, and pray for happiness and wealth in the New Year. When it’s my turn I climb the steps, place the fake American money in the fire and as the incense wafts across my face, find all the solemnity I can muster and to pray for exactly those things. When I descend down the steps, Tom asks “did you pray to find a wife?”. Mom? When we wander out of the temple crowd I excuse myself. They are going to hire a modern rickshaw to take them around the lake but I am choosing to walk and I guess separate myself. It’s time. There is no animosity. They are lovely in parting and, truthfully, I am only grateful for this experience, their time and their kindness, whatever other motives may or may not have existed. I only wish Lily had sent me that group photo we all took as she promised and mildly worried she reads this post. Fair travels young maiden. I wish you all the joy.
For the rest of my day I wander Hanoi aimlessly. The morning mist burns off, replaced by an aggressive sun. I take in the well dressed families for Tet. Cartoon pigs to celebrate the year are everywhere. Girls snap that come hither selfie pose. All the food looks foreign and exotic. I eat BBQ at lunch which has me doing all my own cooking on the street. I wash it down with a Tiger beer. Friend Eugene said his father who served in Vietnam called them, “Tiger piss”. He’s not wrong. One British woman is staring at me as I do my cooking. “Did you do better?” I ask. She concedes “I had no idea what I was doing that’s why I’m watching you”. This late lunch results in me getting rather sick. Only time it happens in Vietnam. Not bad considering how much street food I eat. Like the mad man I am, I pop an Imodium (prepared traveler, yo!) and just force myself to keep going. I drudge through crowded streets. Hawkers compete trying to lure me for food, drink, a massage. The honking of the scooters never stops. At night I find myself at Bia Hoi Junction. Four streets converging on a mad, outdoor beer and partying playground. I’ll be back here again during my trip. Tonight I get served a quick check for ordering just a beer and no food, an insult I come to understand. You don’t just drink, you are always supposed to snack too. Two Thai girls, Eve and Yiem bail me out. Kindness of the strangers again. Just call me Blanche. After we spend the next few hours talking and drinking. They give me a hard time that I came to Vietnam and not Thailand. They showcase loads of national pride insisting Thailand is far superior. The beaches, the people, the food, and the women are prettier says Yiem, as she frames her face like Madonna voguing. They also complain everyone in Vietnam is so rude. I’ll hear that again. I drink shitty Tiger beer after shitty Tiger beer. The girls keep saying they are wasted but I can never tell. As a bartender I find that a new experience. Strangers keep walking by, seeing Yiem, then motioning dance moves. She confesses she’s spent every night of her vacation here dancing the night away at a nearby club. She lives to dance. A police officer comes into the middle of the junction and yells over a microphone. The various establishments pull up the small plastic stools and tables they have crept out into the street to accommodate their growing patrons. The cop doesn’t even get half a block away when they put them all back out. The party rages on. Eventually I make it home. My eyes and nose burn from the pollution. My head throbs from the non-stop honking. My body fatigued from all it’s been through. There wont be much sleep tonight. I vow to attack again fresh tomorrow.
corresponding photos below….