Through 4 days in Paris, 8 days in Tokyo, 16 days in Bali I have fought humidity - but this place, the capital of Vietnam, has taken the crown of the most uncomfortably thick atomosphere that I have experienced. It doesn't help that we got a massive squall on the Day 1, plus we've been riding bicycles once the sky cleared, and the shoes are still wet.
Yes we've been riding bicycles, and I do agree with Applesauce; it's rather nice to catch finer details of this millennial city at a leisurely pace. However, it's still the second populous city of the country and the traffic is just as intense as Sai Gon, so yes - you'd be pedaling alongside with hundreds of motorized vehicles very closely, which is definitely my first. Luckily this is Day 28 of my Southeast Asia, and I've been training on this. If you dare, and I mean upon making an informed decision to do this yourself, it'll be the closest thing to feel like a superhero standing on your two feel right in the middle of a massive intersection.
Be kind/rewind; within a few hours of checking into a gorgeous old-style house, the heavy rain came and said SUP. Upon acquiring raincoats which is nothing but a human-sized plastic bag with some holes, we walked to the infamous Old Quarter. Right away I get a bad feeling about the English signs for drinks and "backpackers." Hello whiteness, my old friend. So us Three Tomodachi find a place to eat that has plastic stools as tables, and only one dish; Nem Cua Be (crab spring roll) which is served with rice noodle, various greens incl. basils, chives, rau ma etc and a dipping sauce.
While I scuff down this gem, Applesauce notices a sign for "mask maker" across the street, right above some hippie bar. Within minutes, some random local stops by to pick up her spring roll, overhears our convo and proceeds to tell us that she once asked this guy to do some custom-made masks for the bar she used to own. Intrigued, Kem the go-getter walks up to Mr. Hipstache and asks about his neighbor upstairs, but he tells her he knows nothing about no mask - just that the old man upstairs is his landlord. After some confusion and figuring shit out, we are invited upstairs by the Mrs Mask Maker. The tiny apartment has one wall occupied by about a dozen masks, in front of which sits the Mask Maker in his 70s who turns out to be also a retired Hat tuong (Vietnamese version of Xiqu, Chinese dance-drama) performer. With a radiant smile he reveals that his father was also a premiere tuong leading man, then pulls out a DVD-R copy of an early 90s TV program which features his performance and his father as the host. I'd assume that they both were fairly well-known then, but he says that it is a dying art form which even his children wouldn't dare try - and I think I saw him wipe his eyes.
Sllightly heartbroken, I show him the footage of the dance drama I saw at a Banjar in Bali, then he demonstrates the stylistic differences between Vietnamese (solidly grounded stance) and Balinese (more fluid often with one foot off the ground) dances - you could tell his passion has not withered at all. I couldn't help but think about the coincidence of meeting the two last guardians of old art forms; him and Sarga who still remains active and visible partly thanks to the existence of a community that appreciate his craft, whereas this Vietnamese master, outside of a few foreigners and the students at a nearby college he has taught, doesn't seem to receive the love for his. Although he might not be the self-promoting type, how does the white tenant not know that his landlord is a legend? Is the Old Quarter just the name and does not care about its thousand-year-old history?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the douchey EDM blasting from Beer 17 or 19 or whatever their numbers may be. They dont even bother to be creative with the naming - just slap street address after the universal magic word, put out plastic stools and "tables" facing the street, and throw on Tiger-brand tight dress on some skinny girls to hand you the menu then start yelling which beer you should order without missing a beat. We almost sat down at one of these joints, then a middle-aged lady (from the next door?) started screaming blue murder at the front row plastic seats and rearranging them fanatically, so we left fearing for our sanity. A few hours later, I'd come back to this very establishment with Don from my high school whom I failed to reunite with in Tokyo but managed to here while on his business trip. We drank 2+2+2 of 333 each with another around of Tiger and Tuborg, and ordered some fried stuff incl. frog legs which did "taste like chicken." Night market is fun but food stands are outnumbered by cheap souvenirs and brand knock-offs. The lake in the center hosting the old temple is quite beautiful and full of family-friendly action such as kids on motorized toy cars, a tug of war (have you done this since adulthood? It FUCKS you up) and a magnificent sunset. But overall, this whole Quarter feels like just another tourist trap with money exchange, motorbike tours/rentals and never-ending supply of booze, coffee, fruit smoothies, SIM cards, free wifi and misspelled ads.
The food game, on the other hand, has been nothing short of spectacular; the aforementioned Nem Cua Be meal was complimented with an amazing black rice pudding, dinner at New Day restaurant on Ma May street which we struggled to find earlier due to Applesauces hazy memory, weird but addictive egg coffee (caphe trung) and even weirder but invigorating egg beer at Giang Cafe, grilled assortment skewers at Night Market, Pho Bo breakfast at Quan Pho Thin, a stellar ice cream and the cone at Quan Kem Ho Tay (by Applesauces old stoping ground), a fancy dinner of stir fry beef, fish soup and grilled duck at Home restaurant (what an original naming) AND the last lunch at a filthy street stand tucked in the corner of a massive inyersection; the mad-spicy egg noodle dish which I could not get enough of. I admit that the names of dishes have been the toughest to remember when I'm being blown away by the flavor, the heat of food and the environment, PLUS I'm still struggling to get the very-tonal sounds of Vietnamese language right. The mighty Google has been epicfailing on this department ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ but I hope I'm compensating with the pictures and if any of the dear readers are familiar with the subject, I'd appreciate any correction.
The contrast between North and South has been intriguing me the whole time I have been here as well, such as its more Chinese-influenced food, more images of Uncle Ho and the underlying communist vibe, MORE HUMIDITY, more stern and possibly less friendly nature of its people (due to their dislike of Southerners according to some) etc. But I, mistakingly, had expected to be surrounded by the remnants of its rich history full turmoils. Fine Arts Museum offered a colorful peak at the timeline from pre-historic era of quirky designs on fisherman boats, Buddhas and Bodhisattva, impressionism to modern abstract and propaganda arts. At a small park by Ba Dinh Square and Ho Tay lake, I caught a short performance by a stunning beauty in a white dress waving her left hand in a Clara Rockmore manner, its sound gliding up and down fluidly with very slow attacks, and being too far away to see a string running across the wooden body I freaked out and thought she was paying a theremin (unfortunate that the piece was a Twelve-Girl-Band-style overdramatic worldbeat atrocity). Good times for sure, but the more I read up on Northern Vietnam and its natural beauty (Don has arrived in Sapa after a 6hr bus trip by now) the desire to extend my stay and stretch out of the city and into other parts begins to emerge. Changing my flight, booking another Airbnb, renting a beat-up Honda 125cc all have been a piece of cake (even though this tiny and fierce lady at a rental joint took hostage of my passport...What do I do when I get pulled over by one of those corrupt cops?) and I say bye to my friends for a few days - then I slap on a helmet, pack my plastic bag raincoat and ride solo down south for 2.5hrs on QL1A. Off to Ninh Binh where, I heard, they eat goat.
Soundchaser/two-time Independent Music Awards finalist. New EP "Six Songs from Insomnia" is out on all major streaming platforms.