Love, Scooters, and Bun Cha
I don’t think Hanoi would come to mind at the top of many Americans’ list of must-see destinations, but strangely, I had an incredible time visiting there. It was a little unexplainable, really, to have such fun exploring a city in which my overriding previous association with it was the horrors of the Vietnam War. When we told our parents that we were leaving Cambodia and then heading to Hanoi, they both found it a little bit incredible that we were traveling in places they knew mostly from war. “I guess it would be like if you had kids, and thirty years from now they told you they traipsing around in Baghdad” Miranda’s mom Jessica said.

But there is something unexpectedly exciting and warm about Hanoi – and I’m not just talking about the warm temperature (which was in fact scorching and so humid that sweat pellets formed on our brows at the mere thought of going outside). The local economy is booming right now and apparently has been on a tear ever since the country decided to open up trade in the 1990s. But what attracted me most about the city was an infectious energy and happiness I noticed nearly everywhere I looked. We were staying near the “Old Quarter,” which is comprised of about 30-40 charming little streets with beautiful old Vietnamese buildings, literally overflowing with restaurants, beer hoi breweries, and more shops than I could count. At night, the streets seemed full of young couples cruising on motorbikes, young girls snuggling up to their husbands or boyfriends, zipping through the city joy riding. In the interest of balanced reporting, Miranda didn’t quite have the same perspective as I did. She suggested that I might be projecting my own romantic mood (from our travels) onto the young couples. Also, presumably it’s safer to ride on the back of a motorcycle with your arms snugly around the driver’s waist, so as not to fall off.

Ok, so perhaps the roads at night were not 100% full of young lovers cruising dreamy-eyed on shiny new red motorbikes, but we both agreed that the city was unusually energetic. One aspect of the city that stood out in particular was the food. Hundreds of little local restaurants lined the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, with tiny toddler-sized plastic chairs and tables spilling out onto the sidewalks. The most famous of these local foods is the wonderfully delicious “pho bo,” which is a slow-cooked beef soup served with the softest, fresh rice noodles you can imagine. Pho is a specialty of Hanoi, and its aroma can tempt you beginning early in the morning and late into the evening. While pho might be the most well known food of Hanoi, our undisputed favorite local dish was a scrumptious, mouth-watering Vietnamese pork barbecue dish (mmm, barbecue, how we miss thee!) called “Bun Cha.” It’s hard to describe the wonders of the delectable Bun Cha – the crunchy and flavorful pork is served with fresh vermicelli noodles, a tasty peanut sauce, fresh herbs and a tangy fish sauce with pickled vegetables. I don’t know if the description conveys how good it is, but trust me… you would love it.

We’ve learned to cook a few of these dishes and maybe we will even be able to make a passable rendition for you to try sometime Winking


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Horns of Hanoi
Honk if you think you heard this one before

Ready, Set, Honk

Honk if You Heart Ho Chi Minh

I Brake for Horns (Or Else!)

Honk Free or Die

Horns Around the World

Once again our thoughts have turned to the experience that is driving in a foreign land. There are so many possible titles for this blog, but it comes down to one simple fact: Honking is a way of life in Vietnam. The horn is as necessary a tool for the Vietnamese driver as a bedside lamp is for a night reader, as a good pair of gills are for a fish, or a buoyant set of silicone implants are for a teen pop star. The horn is not the “emergency alert system” that we have come to know and love at home. Honking isn’t even limited to an “I’m angry and want to run you off the road” cry.

Rather, for many drivers here, honking is a continuous process throughout the driving experience. It’s as if the auto makers have deployed cars with advanced fuel-efficient engines that supplement gasoline with honking rather than electricity. Sometimes, by chance, something distracts a driver, and just for a moment there is a pause in the constant honking. Ahhh, sweet peaceful pauses in a sea of noise pollution… But when this happens, the drivers feel compelled to start honking even more furiously for a few moments, like out-of-breathe athletes who have just finished sprinting. Oy Vey!

Our first experience on the road in the country of Ho Chi Minh began when we landed in Hanoi. A silent, thin-lipped man greeted us at the airport holding a piece of white posterboard that read “SKAMBS.” We figured he was our ride. (Mirm had given our hotel her name over the phone to arrange a ride into town, and, frankly, “Skambs” was closer than we expected&hellipWinking Our silent guide motioned to us to follow him into a minivan, where three young girls were waiting for him. After Jay helped him get our packs into the minivan, he ran around to the front seat and we quickly took off. It should be noted that we exchanged more than a few glances on this 45-minute ride, trying to confirm that we were, in fact, in the right car…

While we sped along the highway from the airport, our host cranked up the gas, as well as a repetitive, thumping techno CD, and he and his entourage of girls quickly began chatting and giggling in Vietnamese. It didn’t take long before we began to see the motorbikes of Vietnam that are famous in this part of the world. We had already become accustomed to seeing more motorbikes than cars on the roads in Thailand and Cambodia, and we were even a bit used to the “unconventional” road rules that are followed by so many bike drivers in Southeast Asia. Our arrival in Hanoi, however, took it to a new level.

We drove along speedily in the dark, with our driver occasionally – miraculously – dodging obstacles like a giant pile of rocks in the middle of the highway and one time a garbage bag, which seemed to appear out of nowhere from the darkness. Periodically, we saw the motorbikes’ little lights dashing out in all different directions on the highway. There was no apparent method to this madness. The bikes drove across the road, they zigzagged in and out of all the lanes (despite a lack of traffic), and, most surprisingly, many – very many – motorbikes drove against the traffic on the highway! This happened so frequently that it took us about twenty minutes to determine whether one drives on the right or the left in Vietnam. (We eventually realized that it’s the right).

After arriving safely in Hanoi, we noticed that there also appeared to be a near total lack of traffic lights and signs… And where the odd light or sign existed, none of the drivers appeared to take any notice. Instead, the horn ruled supreme. Wit no one giving two hoots about standard traffic regulations, the horn takes on a very important series of roles in the functional chaos. It serves as a turning indicator, a yield sign, a “Don’t Walk” sign, and the all important “hey, here I am!” Lastly, you should never discount the long, loud “I have a car and you have a bike” honk (which seems to be most popular among car drivers).

But none of this should really be a surprise. Along with the incredibly impressive boom in the Vietnamese economy in the past ten years, there has been a huge boom in motorbike ownership. According to Minh (like Ho Chi), one of our tour guides, ten years ago there were only a few hundred thousand motorbikes in Hanoi. At that time, everyone, but the very rich, traveled entirely by bicycle. Since opening up trade, though, Minh estimated that now there may be as many one motorbike for every two residents – equaling a staggering two million motorbikes on the road just in Hanoi (We shudder to think what crossing the street will be like in Saigon, which probably has four times the number of motorbikes). Needless to say, Hanoi infrastructure could not keep up with this kind of boom in vehicles. So in place of lights, roundabouts, traffic signals, or crosswalks, everyone just honks.

It’s not just Hanoi, though. Somehow, inconceivably, honking pollution can be even more rampant in far less populated areas. We believe that this must be due to a scientific relationship between new auto-owning folk and honking (maybe MIT has done a study on this?) Anyways, the other night we met a supreme honking being (he was the inspiration for this blog). We didn’t catch his name, but he drove us from the airport in Danang to the lovely seaside town of Hoi An. This young man managed to honk completely continuously for our entire trip. I know what you are thinking… Really? The entire trip? All 25 miles? Yes! All 25 miles! Why else would we have written so much about honking if we weren’t emotionally scarred from it! This kid laid on the horn, with no mind for traffic. For most of the drive, in fact, there was barely another soul to be seen – nevermind another vehicle that might actually put us in peril enough to warrant even a toot! Eventually, we came to conclude that he must be playing a song with the horn. Or maybe he was composing an entire symphony… Oh, how we long for the quiet streets of New York!
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