Posts Tagged ‘hanoi’
Warning: Some pictures in this text show severely injured people. Do not continue reading this post if you find such depictions upsetting or objectionable.
There are some things in Vietnam I just can’t understand or get used to. I’ve written about eating dogs before. That’s one example. Here’s another one.
There’s a hospital in downtown Hanoi that has a glass showcase on its outer wall. Displayed in it are very graphic pictures of injured people. I originally thought they showed victims of traffic accidents, because reckless driving is a big problem in Vietnam. But a friend told me that the photos depict work injuries and virus or bacterial infections treated at the hospital.
Are these people the hospital was able to save? Or are these the cases where the doctors couldn’t help?
Are these pictures meant to show what horrible injuries the hospital doctors have to deal with? Or should they serve as a warning to people to be careful and drive cautiously and avoid such injuries?
The pictures make me sick. I try not to look at them whenever I pass that street corner.
I disapprove of displaying these pictures on a public intersection in the heart of Hanoi. How do the people depicted here feel about being shown like this? What about the friends and relatives of the victims? These are things that passers-by – and especially children – shouldn’t have to see.
What strikes me, though, is that Vietnamese people don’t seem to be as squeamish as me or as sensitive to the ethical questions that displaying these photographs etail. They just don’t seem to mind these pictures. They’re able to ignore them.
These days, a street cafe has even put out its chairs right underneath this traumatizing display case. Cafe patrons sit just in front of these horrible pictures of severely injured people. They eat, drink and chat as if they were sitting on the banks of a balmy lake.
There are some things in Vietnam I just can’t understand.
For reasons beyond my control, I have to stay at a pretty cheap hotel in Hanoi on this trip to Vietnam.
My hotel room is big, but the furniture isn’t practical: there’s hardly any closet space and no chest of drawers either. So I’ve spread out most of my clean clothes on the spare bed in my room.
But what to do with the dirty laundry? There’s no place in my room where I can put it – except for a basket, which looks like a laundry bin or something along those lines.
Yesterday morning, I put my worn shirt, shorts and socks into the basket.
But to my surprise, I found the container empty when I returned to my hotel room last night.
Now I’m wondering: did room service take my clothes to have them cleaned? Or is the basket that I took for a laundry bin really a trash can?
I’m still hoping that I’ll get my shirt back washed, starched and ironed. That this is a case of permanent press, not permanent loss.
But – oh – the food! The food is absolutely scrumptious!
And the best thing is that they only serve one dish. So you won’t be spending hours studying the menu, trying to decide what to get.
At Cha Ca La Vong, there’s only “Cha Ca” – the signature fish dish. It’s so popular that it’s even lent its name to the street that the restaurant is on.
Know where to look, or you’ll walk right by it
Cha Ca La Vong has been run by the same family for generations. It’s located in a rickety old house in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. There’s no flashy sign, no line of people, no attractive exterior that’ll draw you to this traditional restaurant.
If you aren’t aware of what’s inside this shabby house, you’ll never notice it or think of going in.
Luckily, a friend had told me about it, so we stepped inside, climbed up the narrow wooden stairs to the left of the entrance, and made our way to the first floor.
Upstairs, one of the waiters showed us to our seats and placed a little laminated card in front of us. It told us that the only dish at this restaurant – Cha Ca – would cost us 90 000 Vietnamese Dong each – roughly € 3,50 or about $ 5,00.
After we’d managed to communicate that that price was just within our financial limits, we were on.
You’ve got to know how to Cha Ca
In addition, we got some cold rice noodles in a bowl, some peanuts, a small plate with dill and Vietnamese herbs and a bowl with spring onions.
Unfortunately, we were clueless as to what should happen next: Should we take the frying pan off the grill at some point? Or should we also put the noodles and peanuts into the pan?
No, no, our waiter signalled, and demonstrated how it’s done: you put some of the cold rice noodles in your bowl, add some pieces of fried fish from the pan, sprinkle with some peanuts and add the fresh herbs.
“This is the best dinner we’ve had in Vietnam”, my friend said.
I think it didn’t take us longer than fifteen minutes to clear that pan.
If you can’t stand the heat, don’t order the Cha Ca
But as soon we were no longer busy chowing down, we suddenly became aware of the fact that there was this extremely hot grill sitting right in front of us on our table. A grill with burning charcoal and a pan full of hot oil. A grill on a wooden table, in a wooden house, in the middle of the maze that is Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
We felt pretty relieved when the waiter finally took away that charcoal grill and just left us with our beers. And the bill…
A few days ago, I discussed with a German and an American friend what our preconceptions of Vietnam had been before we first came here. What did we expect to find here? What did we think the country would be like?
And, more important still, what was the biggest surprise for us when we arrived in Vietnam?
That’s obvious, one of us said, we’ll all be answering that question in the same way.
But as it turned out, the three of us were all surprised by different things in Vietnam.
Picture postcard views
One of us hadn’t anticipated the fact that people here were still wear conical hats. And that they still carry heavy loads in baskets balanced on a wooden board carried on one shoulder, which makes the whole contraption look like an old scale.
But even though the hats and the carrying devices look like they are straight out of a brochure published by the Vietnam tourism board, they’re not. They are still a very common sight all over the country.
Where to eat? The sidewalk!
My other friend hadn’t expected to find all the city sidewalks crowded with people eating. As a matter of fact, the sidewalk food vendors are where the Vietnamese have many of their meals. They sit on little plastic stools around makeshift tables and eat in the countless sidewalk restaurants. There’s one every few meters.
As a pedestrian who’s trying to make his way along the city sidewalks, you feel like the whole town is one big open-air restaurant. You constantly have to weasel your way around the tables and the eating people. And you’re constantly stepping on chicken bones, fish heads or other things the sidewalk eaters have discarded…
They call it “Creative Driving”
Asked about what surprised him most in Vietnam, my other friend immediately said: the traffic. Indeed, the way the Vietnamese drive is pretty unique.
No one who owns a set of wheels cares about red lights or traffic rules. And I’ve never seen this many motorbikes on the streets anywhere else in the world.
Bigger is better
The general traffic rule in Vietnam is: the bigger your vehicle, the more rights you have. Drivers of cars almost always feel like they have the right of way. They feel safe and secure in their vehicles – so if you’re a pedestrian trying to cross the street, you’d better get out of the way – even if your light is green and that for the cars is red.
Drivers of motorbikes, on the other hand, are even harder to predict in city traffic: they’re fast and can manoeuvre easily between the cars and bicycles. They’ll take any chance that presents itself to get a few inches ahead – in front of the other drivers. The result is chaos.
In the narrow city streets, the result is often a deadlock. Oncoming cars get squeezed in by motorbikes and blocked by other cars or scooters who want to go the other way. No one is able to move forward any more, but no one’s willing to back up a little to resolve the deadlock either.
Oh, and don’t expect the motorbike drivers to stop at red lights either. The only thing that will make them stop at a light is if there’s massive traffic crossing their path. But the most daring drivers will even risk their lives cutting through those.
If you’re a pedestrian trying to cross the street and you see a horde of motorbike drivers coming at you, the best thing to do is to pretend you didn’t notice them and keep walking at a steady pace. They’ll calculate how fast you’re walking and try to avoid hitting you. Usually they’re pretty good at just barely scraping by…
And finally, the most vulnerable
The third group on Vietnamese streets is the one that causes others the least problems: people riding their bicycles. Unfortunately, their numbers seem to be dwindling.
Whether that’s because more people are turning to motorised vehicles as the population gets richer, or because more bicyclists are getting run over and killed, I don’t know. But it’s sad.
But when I looked around an open-air market in Hanoi today, I did get slightly nauseous in one corner of the market. I came across something that I hadn’t anticipated: dog butchers.
Nothing for the faint-hearted
As I walked by, a Vietnamese woman was buying some dog meat. I guess she didn’t want the whole animal, because all of a sudden, the butcher swung her big knife and hacked the dog that lay in front of her in two. WHACK!
And CHOP, WHACK, CHOP, the butcher continued her mad frenzy. In the end, she had chopped the grilled animal to pieces the size of goulash.
The butcher put everything in a bag, the Vietnamese housewife took it and walked away happily.
Dining with the dogs
I knew that there are dog restaurants in a northern suburb of Hanoi. But I hadn’t expected to stumble upon grilled dogs at the market stalls just outside my hotel. After all, it’s an upmarket hotel in downtown Hanoi.
But I suppose not many of the hotel’s international guests venture into this Vietnamese market – even though it’s just a few steps from the hotel.
It must be an acquired taste
The smell at the dog meat market stalls was strange. Hard to describe. Was it the smell, the sight or the idea of the dead dogs that made me feel sick?
The Vietnamese clearly aren’t as sensitive. For them, dog is just as common a dish as pork, beef or chicken.
A tourist from New Zealand, whom I talked to a few days ago, said he had tried dog meat at one of the city’s dog meat restaurants. He said he liked the taste.
I don’t think I could have eaten dog meat. Even if I wasn’t a vegetarian, dog is where I’d draw the line. Seeing and smelling those grilled dogs at the market made that very clear to me.
In Vietnam, it’s mostly men who will eat dog. Women don’t seem to enjoy it as much. Eating dog is associated with aggressiveness.
But even the Vietnamese men will not eat dog meat at the beginning of the lunar month. That’s considered bad luck.
So At the beginning of every lunar month, Hanoi’s dog meat restaurants stay closed.
And the ladies selling grilled dog at the street market have a few days off. To walk the dog?
May and June are beautiful months in Hanoi. Because that’s the season the Flame trees are in full bloom.
You can find Flame trees throughout the city of Hanoi. Many streets of the Vietnamese capital are lined with them.
The Flame trees are most beautiful, however, around the city’s Hoan Kiem Lake. Here, their lower branches gracefully bow to the water, which reflects and doubles the bright reds and greens.
Fire and water by the lake
Hoan Kiem Lake lies at the south end of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. For many people, this lake is the heart of Hanoi.
On the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake, the Vietnamese meet for their morning Tai Chi exercise. During the day, tourists and locals alike stroll around the lake promenade. And when the sun’s going down and temperatures cool down, joggers begin to make their rounds.
At all times of the day, you’ll find young lovers, who have nowhere else to go, here. They sit together on the benches at the lakeside, holding hands, kissing, making plans.
And at this time of year, the bright red flowers of the Flame trees add an especially romantic touch to their dates.
The Indochine at 16 Nam Ngu Street in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem district is one of the favourites among expats and tourists.
It’s tucked away in a little alley and if you don’t know where to look, you’re likely to walk right by it.
The sign isn’t very big or flashy and the entrance is just an unobtrusive walkway into the nether regions of the building.
The dining areas still have their old tile floors and are furnished with tasteful antiques.
The service is friendly and the food tasty, though a bit pricey for Vietnamese standards.
And since the portions aren’t very big, you shouldn’t really go there with growing boys (unless you don’t mind ordering five or six dishes for them and leaving a whole big pile of Vietnamese Dong behind).
Last time we were there, we had veggie spring rolls and a hot and sour vegetable soup as appetizers.
Unfortunately, the soup wasn’t as spicy as expected, but I guess the place caters to what it thinks are the foreigners’ tastes. The soup tasted mostly of tomatoes and pineapple. Not bad, but not spicy enough for my taste.
One thing that was unusual for us in the shrimp dish is that the cooks hadn’t taken out some hard pieces of lemongrass. Every time you took a bite, you had to chew on some pieces of lemon grass that felt like wood or straw in your mouth.
When I use lemongrass in my kitchen, I either cut it up in very small pieces that will cook through so you won’t really notice them when you’re eating, or if I use larger pieces of lemongrass, I take them out of the dish before serving.
The fish was glazed before it went into the hot pot and that added a very slight sweet taste to it. Wonderful!
One thing that’s reassuring about the food quality and the cooking at the Indochine is that you can watch the cooks prepare the food.
When you cross one of the restaurant’s courtyards, you’ll automatically walk by the kitchen. There, you can see pots and pans, spices and herbs – and watch half a dozen cooks and helpers slaving away in the heat produced by the stoves and ovens.
But – oh oh! – what’s that microwave in the top right corner of the picture doing there? I guess that’s the curse of modern civilization…
In Hanoi, motorbikes are by far the most popular means of transportation. There are millions of them on the streets of the city. And with the number of motorbikes steadily increasing in recent years, the numbers of traffic accidents, injuries and deaths also rose dramatically.
That’s why the Vietnamese Government made wearing motorcycle helmets mandatory at the beginning of this year. Since then, anyone caught without a helmet will have to pay a hefty fine.
Vietnamese motorbike drivers weren’t too enthusiastic about the new law – to put it mildly. They loved the feel of the wind in their hair when they rode their bikes. Helmets would crush their hairstiles. And most of all: there weren’t that many helmets to be had in Vietnam! The ones that were sold here were mostly made in China, and many Vietnamese doubted, whether these Chinese helmets would really protect them in case of a crash.
Helmets that don’t make a difference
So what you see on the streets of Hanoi these days is that most people do wear helmets to avoid being stopped by the police. But the helmets they wear don’t offer much protection.
For one thing, 99 % of the Vietnamese motorcylce helmets don’t protect the chin or the face – they’re basically a plastic cap that people put on the tops of their heads.
And many drivers who wear these skimpy helmets don’t even close the chin strap that secures them to their heads. So in the event of an accident, the helmets would just go flying and leave their owners unprotected.
Turning the resented helmets into fashion statements
The ingenious Vietnamese have tried to make the best of the new rule: they’ve turned their motorcycle helmets into fashion accessories.
You can see guys wearing helmets that are made to look like baseball caps. And women wear helmets with plaid cloth on the outside or ones with flowers and ribbons.
And one thing that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world is how the Vietnamese are turning motorbike helmets into stylish hats by attaching a colorful textile brim to it.
Isn’t there something we forgot?
But there’s one very thing that’s unfortunately still missing on the Vietnamese market for motorcycle helmets: helmets for kids.
Children are regularly taken along on motorbike rides. Either they’re expected to hold on to mommy or daddy, or they’re squeezed between their parents.
Sometimes you’ll see whole families on motorbikes: mom, dad and up to three children.
And even though the grown-ups will now mostly wear protective helmets, almost all the kids are left unprotected in case of an accident.
Not a nice thing in a society that adores children as much as the Vietnamese do.