Good Morning Vietnam: Pt 1 – heading North

Most definitely my favourite country visited so far, Vietnam was a juggernaut (and i cringe as I write this as it is so clichéd) “assault on the senses”. The mass of people, mass of traffic nay motorbikes, mass of street food and mass of smells and sights are overwhelming, enticing, unforgiving and seductively addictive.

We started in the North of the country, Hanoi and made our way down to the south and Ho Chi Minh City*, covering off mountains, rivers, lakes, karsts, ancient towns and beaches en route. But what is a karst I hear you say… well dear reader, read on and you shall learn – as I did. I know nothing about rocks or geographical phenomenon. I still don’t to be honest. But grew to love strange monolith-esque formations that rise out of the land and sea. Indeed, as I write this post retrospectively now, on a Thai island in the Andaman sea, I am looking at a fiery-red sunset close down the day behind a karst sat amongst the islands of Koh Ngai and Koh Kradan.

Hanoi was cold. And it rained a bit too. Jackets were needed. Luckily I had purchased a knock-off faux Superdry-esque Chinese jacket in Northern Laos so was prepared. Laos too was proper cold – blankets at night time and even heaters in our hotel rooms – we were totally unprepared and had to shop for warm clothing in a small northern Laos village. Cue hilarity from the local Lao ladies, as none of the women’s jackets fitted me and most were throwbacks from the 1980’s. I got a nice brown number and Zaki got a bright blue velvet jacket with rockets on it which he chose. We are a CLASSY family. Anyhow, I digress, despite being colder than we had anticipated, Hanoi was amazing. Crazy, busy, loud, overwhelming, quaint, charming and fascinating too. We stayed in the Old Quarter which is a hotch-potch of narrow lanes and side streets, thin shops and alleys and curiosities galore. Some streets are purely dedicated to trades and every store sells the same products such as lantern street, Chinese herbal medicine street and, er, grave headstone street.

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We did a street food tour which was fantastic. Spent an afternoon eating fantastic stuff that we wouldn’t have dared to try purely because we wouldn’t have known to walk through an alley, up 2 flights of stairs and then ask for the secret dish. Vietnamese food blew me away – the flavours were fantastic. For you foodies out there – rice in many forms (steamed, sticky, noodles, pancakes, porridge), fish sauce (lots of it) with ginger, garlic and chilli, herbs (mint, coriander, lemongrass), seafood, beef, chicken, and fresh, sweet fruits (pineapple, banana, papaya, mango, etc.) meant that each day of our 3 weeks there was pretty much food heaven. That said, we also ate pizza, pasta and ice cream as when you travel with a 2.5 year old it isn’t a romantic exploration of food each mealtime – it’s a quick 15 second scan of the menu and assessment of your child’s mood/mental state/blood sugar levels VS the food on offer, the restaurant setting, restaurant clientele, your strength and desire to have a peaceful meal and then a decision to go native or go for “western” menu.

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Hanoi also sported Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, together with an embalmed Uncle Ho. The guide books said get there early, and they weren’t kidding. By 9.30am a queue of a good few thousand people snaked it’s way out of the huge compound and down the street. We lined up just to see what the fuss was about, and then once we’d been in the line for 30 mins, instead of just leaving, we were all British about it and said “well we’re here now all and have waited this long….” 1 hour and 15 mins later we neared the front. I have summarised our experience in 3 points below.

Tips for queuing to see embalmed body of former supreme leader and most revered person of a Communist state:

– There’s no fun allowed in the line, so if you have a kid – take snacks and entertainment that are small and subtle. Popping your child on your shoulders pisses the guards off. In hindsight, if you have a kid it’s probably not worth visiting. You’re asking them to be sombre for over and hour…. Zaki was luckily most cooperative that morning but I wouldn’t do it again.

– There is nothing to do but watch and wait in line, so turn into a cultural observation on state politics and try to get a good insight into how Communism works in 21st century. You’ll see different categories of guards, and levels of reverence, you’ll see school children being marched into the mausoleum and also many Vietnemese just paying a visit to this incredibly important (deceased) dude. When HCM died, he asked that on his death, he be cremated and his ashes scattered in the North, Central and Southern Vietnam. Poppycock thought the (lead Communist) Party – we won’t be having any of that. Let’s make a monumental marble mausoleum, let’s build on the cult of personality that Uncle Ho received and let’s keep this country and people united. Hmm.

– There are a lot of rules and regulations, in terms of behaviour, attire, and bizarrely, state of health when visiting. Take it all seriously as the guards definitely do and there are stories of Westerners being removed for failure to maintain decorum. This is the real deal and even now, with heavy Soviet emphasis, and nowadays a team from Russia regularly visit the tomb to ensure that Uncle Ho looks as well as he did, and is chilled and as comfortable as he was back then.

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One final take away from Hanoi was the coffee. For those with a sweet tooth and who like their beans strong (who me???), Vietnamese coffee will knock your socks off. Vietnam is one of the world’s largest exporters of robusta coffee beans, (ha, my 5 years as a lawyer for a coffee and cocoa trading company finally useful!) and serves up great hot and iced rocket fuel coffee (Cap-he) with a glug of condensed milk which is sweet and creamy and delicious all in one. We also loved an unique Hanoi drink – egg coffee. Egg yolks plus sugar whisked for 15 mins are added to the top of an espresso and resemble super whipped cream. Tastes fantastic, with slight whiff of egg.

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Part 2 to follow – scaling the peak of Indochina and experiencing a Vietnam Railways sleeper journey.

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*An aside – still lovingly called Saigon by most, the name Ho Chi Minh city is the name that was imposed by the Communist party on the death of the Great Leader Ho Chi Minh himself, a.k.a “Uncle Ho”. It has not completely stuck – most Southern Vietnamese resent having had to adopt a political rename of their beloved city.

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