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On the buses

Hanoi bus

Hanoi’s public bus network is easy to use, if jam-packed at rush hour. It’s a reasonably convenient way to get around town, so long as you have some time up your sleeve.

And taking a bus ride sends you on a Hanoi journey not often taken by foreigners.

You are likely to find that you are the only westerner on the bus. Depending on your age you may well also be the only passenger between the ages of 20 and 60, as most of the other passengers are students or the elderly. In the same way that people in western countries prefer their cars, Hanoians like their motorbikes.

The ride is certainly cheap, at 3,000 dong – about 15 cents – for most rides and 7,000 for a few longer routes, such as the number 7 out to the airport.

I am often the oldest person on the bus and the conductor will sometimes defer to my age by pointing out a seat to me, or even telling a student to move so that I can sit down.

Of course as a large Tay (westerner) I stand out like a sore thumb, but it’s possible to kid myself when I use public transport that I am a real Hanoian, not merely an affluent visitor passing through.

People sometimes squeeze up so that a third person can fit on a two-person seat. Once an old lady moved along so that I could perch on the end of the seat – on that occasion I did feel almost like a local.

It’s essential to take precautions against pickpockets . One foreigner I know answered her mobile phone on a crowded bus one morning, put it back in her bag but forgot to zip up the bag. After she got off the bus she found that the phone was gone. I always get my 3000 dong for the ticket out before I board the bus, so that no-one aboard can see where I keep my purse.

The other main risk is getting off. Usually the bus slows down rather than stopping, then quickly gathers speeds. You have to choose your moment to leap from the bus in the short window of opportunity before it speeds up again.

The automatic closing doors are also pretty abrupt in this nation where safety precautions are rarely considered for any activity. I know one foreigner who suffered an injury as the door slammed into his side. He had to go to a hospital in Bangkok for treatment.

The website for the Hanoi Urban Transport Management and Operation Centre (TRAMOC) IS at http://www.tramoc.com.vn/. It has a useful map of the bus routes which you can download and also a list of the services with their main stops and the frequency of services.

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Good night Vietnam

Street hammock.

I once took an early xe om (motorbike taxi) ride at about at 4.15 in the morning to catch a 5.15am bus out of Hanoi, and was surprised at how many people were up and about at that hour. By the time the bus was travelling out of the city the roads were already crowded with motorbikes and cars.

People in Hanoi go to sleep early, and wake up early. Despite the size of this city of 6.5 million people, many still live much closer to the traditional early to rise, early to bed pattern of the countryside. A lot of people are in bed by 9pm. By 11pm most streets are quiet.

And become noisy early. Even if you do not live on a street that’s crowded with tooting motorbikes by 6am, there are also the chickens to contend with. In my first home in Hanoi I lived in a street well away from through traffic. However crowing roosters woke me up at dawn, all of a couple of kilometres from the centre of town.

Then there is construction work. According to official statistics Vietnam’s GDP is growing at the second fastest rate in the world. after China, and in Hanoi buildings are springing up everywhere. Some foreigners complain about how their sleep is disrupted by construction work that starts at 6 in the morning and finishes at 10 or later at night, but stops in the middle of the day, when the relative peace and quiet is of no use to anyone.

Personally I thank my lucky stars that at 6 in the morning I am tucked up in bed in a clean, quiet dark room. It’s a much better deal than the construction workers get. They are already working at 6am, rest during the hottest part of the day, then go back to work, sometimes well into the evening: some construction sites are still hives of activity at 10pm. The workers eat their evening meal and sleep on the building site itself, in the temporary lean-tos that are their homes during that job, their laundry hanging up nearby.

Indeed, it’s not only construction workers who sleep in very different surrounds from what westerners expect at night, and have trouble sleeping without: a quiet, dark purpose-built room, warm in winter and cool in summer, curtains drawn, a comfy bed.

Glimpses into homes in Hanoi through open doorways often reveal wooden beds in the living room, covered by nothing more than a mat. People live and sleep in the same space.

Some of the flats I looked at when searching for a place to live had room configurations reflecting this pattern of living and sleeping. They had a larger combined living room and bedroom and a separate small kitchen, rather than the western combination of a kitchen-living room with a separate bedroom.

People also sleep where they work.

Lunchtime cat naps are standard. In most offices, including mine, workers eat their lunch and then retire to a quiet room or back to their desks to sleep for an hour or so. Many offices close between 11.30 am and 1.30pm. Lunch restaurants do a roaring trade between 11.30am and 12.30pm, but staff are packing up by 12.30pm or 1pm, before, I presume, their own naps.

People in other occupations snatch sleep where they can. At night I have seen people stretched out on the pavement, using their thin rubber sandals to cushion their heads. My guess is that they are night workers rather than homeless, as they don’t have any belongings with them. During the day market stallholders sleep in hammocks above their wares. Xe om drivers doze precariously on their motorbikes – usually head on the pillion and feet on the handlebars. Taxi drivers snooze in the driver’s seat of their cabs, ready for the next fare.

I often book taxi rides with an English-speaking cabbie named Quan. He starts his shift at 10 in the morning and finishes at 2 the next morning, six days a week – a 96-hour week (for which he makes 5,000,000 dong a month – about A$250). So it’s not surprising that when I go to meet him near my home at a pre-arranged time I often find him napping. I have also woken up other taxi drivers on occasion. I feel mean, figure they would rather have the fare than the shut-eye.

 

 

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Hold the greens

Frozen yoghurt on bia hoi corner, Hanoi Old Quarter

This post is about the food I have eaten in Vietnam rather than about Vietnamese food in general. My food range is far more limited than the dishes Vietnam offers as I am a fairly squeamish eater in a country where just about every part of just about every animal is consumed. So I haven’t tried duck broth with congealed blood, for example, or snake, or dog, or those breakfast boiled eggs with the chick  cooked inside.

For a takeaway breakfast I prefer banh mi trung (literally bread egg). It’s a crusty bread roll filled with an omelette cooked while you wait, plus a smattering of picked vegetables, what appears to shredded dried fish, and chilli sauce. Not bad at all.

Bun cha is a common lunch dish. The main ingredients are barbecued pork and pork patties in a broth that’s sometimes served hot and sometimes cold, also often accompanied by fried spring rolls (nem). There’s usually a side-bowl heaped with lettuce and herbs. They add some green stuff to a dish that is otherwise meat and rice, but there’s a widespread view among foreigners that they make you sick. I have also been told that many locals have the same view, and certainly at the place I frequent many leave the greens bowls untouched. I regretfully decided to follow their lead since seeing bowls of the leftovers, potentially picked over by various sets of chopsticks, tipped into a big plastic bag for re-serving to other diners.

Pho bo (beef noodle soup) is a Hanoi specialty. There are supposed to be 24 ingredients in classic pho, including spices, although I would have trouble identifying that number in my pho haunt near work, where a bowl costs 17,000 dong (A$1). A restaurant chain here is called Pho 24, after the number of ingredients. It’s a much more upmarket venue for sampling pho -no squatting on small plastic stools at small plastic tables – and is also two or three times the price – all of 42,000 dong (A$2.50).

Its website  gives a rundown on pho and its ingredients. Did you know, for example, that one of those ingredients, star anise, contains shikimic acid, which is used in the production of  Tamiflu? Now you do.

Pho ga is the chicken version, which I sometimes have for lunch in the tiny restaurant across the road from my home. It’s like many such places in Hanoi: one dish is served, in a “restaurant” that’s actually a family’s front room and adjoining pavement. After lunch everything is packed away until the next day. This family’s pho ga always comes with tender chicken breast – no gristle, bone or fat. It’s a pick-me-up in a bowl, all for 15,000 dong (A85c), followed by iced tea for 1000 dong (A6c).

However, pho is a little on the bland side, like a lot of the food I have tried in Hanoi. The cuisine is “subtle”, say the guidebooks. Fortunately there are jars or bottles of chilli sauce on the tables in many places so some zing can be added that way.

Bun rieu dau phu is spicier. Bun rieu is a soup with rice noodles, crab meat, tomatoes and, in this version, fried tofu (dau phu). It’s reasonably hot already without the addition of extra chilli sauce – although I usually do add some. The place I go to serves shredded lettuce in a side dish, for the strong of stomach. I ate litres of the stuff in Hanoi’s short but chilly winter.

Dessert? Frozen yoghurt cafes are popping up all over the place. My favourite one, Yokool, is situated on one corner of a busy crossroads in the Old Quarter that’s known as bia hoi corner by foreigners. It’s named after the outdoor bars on the other three corners, which sell bia hoi (draught beer) and are very popular with backpackers. At Yokool you choose the frozen yoghurt (such as blackberry, blueberry or strawberry), which is piped into a tub, and then the toppings – nuts, sweets, chocolates and chopped fruit. Then sit in the window and watch all Hanoi go by.

To find out about the Hanoi dishes consumed by a far more adventurous eater check out the popular Sticky Rice food blog.

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Bargaining

A real estate agent recently asked me how I found living in Hanoi. I told him it was certainly an interesting place, but I found bargaining difficult: I was just not used to doing it. I was all at sea in the land of no fixed prices.

He smiled. In Vietnam when you buy something, he told me, you get the highest starting price if you show up in a four-wheel-driver, less if you arrive on a motorbike, less if it’s a bicycle and less again if you walk to the business.

It’s so different from what I am used to in Australia, where just about everything has a set price. You know what things cost because the price is attached to the product on a sticker or a tag. You shop around if you want to by comparing those prices, not by bidding down the price in each transaction. The fact that prices are attached to most products also mean they don‘t vary too much between businesses. So easy.

Not in Vietnam. For example, the price I have been charged for paracetamol has ranged from 6000 to 20,000 dong – in pharmacies, by pharmacists or their assistants wearing their white-coat trappings of respectability.

Apart from the few supermarkets, most businesses don’t have even nominal price tags on their wares.

The real-estate agent’s rule of thumb probably does not apply to westerners either, who are all assumed to be rich. We are likely to be given the “four-wheel-drive” price even if we show up on foot. Indeed westerners are pretty well all rich in a country where US$200 a month is a good wage, and many earn US$100 or less. And the westerners living here on western wages are fantastically wealthy by local standards.

Not only does the asking price vary, and is often higher for westerners, but also, because price tags are so few and far between, it’s hard to gain an idea of the price for which a vendor is prepared to sell his or her goods or services.

Some vendors, particularly of fruit or vegetables, can be quite aggressive too, in an effort to sell more of the product to me, which adds another wrinkle to a process that is so seamless at home. Not only do you negotiate over price but also amount.

From my point of view this is tiresome, but I can also see the point of view of the vendors, particularly the ones who work on the streets. Each works in all weather, plying her wares from the two heavy baskets suspended from a bamboo pole slung over her shoulder, and would make very little money each day. According to an online exhibition at the Women’s Museum in Hanoi these women are working on the street because they can’t get jobs in their village or because earnings there are so low.

If I agree to buy a kilo of oranges for more than the price a street vendor needs to make a profit, she tries very hard to sell me two kilos. This may mean, I think, that she can afford some meat for dinner, for example.

I also think sometimes, when buying from a tenacious trader, that it’s no surprise that this country has seen off so many foreign armed forces. There’s a steely persistence here in many daily pursuits!

Not all drive such a hard bargain though. I once even had a shopkeeper knock down the price for me. I had agreed to pay the 180,000 dong she asked for a bag – that’s about $10.50, and the bag would have cost me $40 or more in Australia. I didn’t bargain, and after the deal was closed the shopkeeper reduced the price herself by 10,000 dong. She must have taken pity on me.

Although I am still a hopeless bargainer I have developed a few shopping strategies.

My approach where the price varies so much for a standard product, such as the paracetamol in those pharmacies, is simply not to return to the places that charge more.

I do bargain sometimes, and think of it as practice for times when there’s more of an imperative to haggle over the price, such as if I need to buy a big ticket item, and for the weekly shop for fruit and vegetables when I don’t want to regularly pay too much over the odds. The other day, for example, I bought a length of 150-centimetre wide silk with a beautiful 1950s-retro pattern for 80,000 dong a metre rather than the 90,000 asked for. Not much of a reduction but I got in some practice – and even at the higher price it’s all of $A5.50 metre.

I have also taken enough motorbike taxis to have an idea of prices and bargain if I know the price is way too high. I still pay more than a local person, but by only a dollar or so. I don’t want to spend the time getting the price down further – and that dollar means a lot more to the driver than it does to me.

Even if I was a better bargainer, that awareness of the value of a dollar to the vendor would make me reluctant to get too serious about regular bargaining. The cobbler who works near my office, on a stretch of roadside pavement under an offcut of tarpaulin amid heat, dust and petrol fumes, charges me 50,000 dong to re-heel a pair of shoes. I suspect that this is double what he charges other customers – I have seen 25,000 dong change hands. However, it would be a hard life working on a city pavement so I don’t mind throwing some extra money his way – and after all, for expert repairs I am paying all of $3 rather than $1.50.

I also take note of a very good piece of advice I heard recently: “If the price seems reasonable to you, forget what others are paying.”

However bargaining is a story that’s different for everyone, and it doesn’t have any particular conclusion. There are more views in these two discussions on the New Hanoian website:

http://newhanoian.xemzi.com/en/aska/answers/qid/2451

http://newhanoian.xemzi.com/en/aska/answers/qid/1333

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Step by step

Hanoi footpath

Walking in Hanoi is rarely a stroll in the park. Footpaths are uneven and crowded with shops’ wares, food stalls surrounded by patrons sitting on small plastic stools, residents who treat the pavement as an extension of their cramped homes, tradesmen who treat it as extensions of their workshops, and of course rows of parked bikes. Pedestrians alternate between patches of clear footpath and the road, where they stick as close to the kerb as possible in order to avoid the traffic.

I have found one spot in Hanoi where the footpaths are clear. It’s on the perimeter of the Citadel, the military area north east of the city centre. The streets of the Citadel itself are closed to the public and the streets along its borders are open, but clear of parked bikes and street stalls. Around here I can manage a 15 or 20 minute walk without once needing to look down at my feet to check for obstacles. Bliss.

Most other walkers I see in Hanoi are foreigners like me trying to cling to their western habit of a daily constitutional, come what may. Either that or they are local people who must walk in order to make a living, such as fruit sellers and the women who go door to door buying household rubbish to resell to recycling businesses. It seems that most Vietnamese people who have a choice stick to motorbikes for even short trips.
 
 However some Vietnamese people do walk for exercise, even though the locations where they can do so easily are relatively few. Walkers step out in the early morning around the city’s many lakes, or stop on the lake shore for stationary exercises. There are also the parks, although these seem to be more popular with badminton players, who set up nets all over the place in the hour or so after the working day has ended. 
 
 I also saw, early one evening, people using the lawn in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum for exercise. This area is called Ba Dinh Square, and it’s where, in 1945, Ho Chi Minh delivered the speech in which he declared the independence of Vietnam. 

The lawn is beautifully maintained by a team of gardeners in conical straw hats and signs in English and Vietnamese warn passers-by not to walk on it. However it is criss-crossed by a grid of footpaths, along which strode dozens of serious walkers charging up and down, like swimmers doing laps.

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Coffee culture

Sua chua ca phe - yoghurt coffee

Cafes are everywhere in Hanoi. Some are western-style cafes and cafe chains serving espressos, lattes, macchiatos, mocha coffees and so on for 30,000 to 45,000 Vietnamese dong. That’s a pricey $2 or $3, in a country where a bowl of noodle soup costs a dollar.

For anyone visiting Hanoi some of the chains are Highlands Coffee,  Papa Joe’s and Joma.

Then there are the traditional Vietnamese cafes that are dotted all over Hanoi, and where a coffee costs 12,000 dong or thereabouts (about 75 cents).

These little cafes, usually limited to a handful of tables and chairs, are everywhere. I suspect that one reason there are so many of them is not only the clear popularity of coffee breaks among Hanoians, but also that they would not cost much to set up. Hanoi is a city bursting at the seams with small businesses, and a small cafe serving only drinks would not require too much start-up capital for one of the legion of eager micro-entrepreneurs in this town.

As in the westernised cafes, the coffee in these places also come in a variety of styles. all using industrial-strength filtered coffee. You can practically stick your teaspoon up in it.

The most common are ca phe den nong (hot black coffee), ca phe den da (iced black coffee), ca phe nau nong (hot coffee with sweet condensed milk) and ca phe nau da (iced coffee with condensed milk). A variety of teas, hot and iced, are generally also on the menu, and freshly squeezed fruit juices as well.

When drunk black the coffee tastes comes somewhere between an espresso and a Turkish coffee in flavour – and closer to the Turkish coffee in the caffeine jolt it gives to your body. It is served with the sugar already added, although this is usually at the bottom of the cup so if you don’t stir it’s not too sweet. Sweetened or unsweetened, it’s not for the fainthearted.

My favourite local coffee is called sua chua ca phe, which is a mixture of iced black coffee and yoghurt. It’s not a combination I had encountered before, but it’s delicious.

One coffee I won’t be trying is “weasel” coffee. It’s made from beans that have passed through the digestive system of an animal called the civet. The process is said to improve the flavour but I won’t be testing that theory myself.

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The Old Quarter

 
Old Quarter street scene
Street market in Hanoi’s Old Quarter

The first impression of the Old Quarter in Hanoi is chaos.

The streets are crowded with traffic – mostly motorbikes, but also cars, often ridiculously large for the narrow streets,and the odd bicycle, usually ridden by an elderly person, a person who’s clearly very poor, or a youngster.There are few traffic lights and apparently even fewer road rules.

The footpaths are not for walking on. They are crowded with parked motorbikes and with people using them as an extension of their living room, workshop or shopfront. They are also occupied by street restaurant selling drinks and food cooked over coal-fired braziers, surrounded by diners hunched over small plastic tables on even smaller plastic stools for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Walking’s hard work, even if it’s a time of year when it’s not too hot. For a westerner used to sauntering down the street an empty stretch of pavement is a (rare) sight for sore eyes.

After a while it becomes apparent that, more than many cities, Hanoi is a collection of villages, and the chaos starts to make sense.

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