Friday, February 17, 2012

Relaxing in Hanoi

HANOI, Vietnam — I spent yesterday adjusting to the pace of life in Vietnam's capital city.

My friend Dinh Ngoc Truc came by the hotel at 7 a.m. and took me on a morning walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, the lake in Hanoi's city center. We had a lot of company during our exercise walk, joining a throng of morning walkers. But that's not all.

One group on a set of steps leading to the water's edge was practicing Tai Chi, the graceful, slow-motion exercise. In another area on the edge of the lake couples were dancing under a canopy of trees. Across from the park, nets had been set up and people were playing badminton on a wedge of land between two streets.

Couples dance at Hoan Kiem Lake.
Truc said the exercisers would finish at 8 a.m. and the park would revert to its normal routine: Tourists and locals meandering along the banks, some stopping at a coffee and pastry kiosk that has been lakeside since French colonial days.

Hoan Kiem Lake and the adjacent Old Quarter are popular sites for tourists to visit in Hanoi. The Old Quarter is made up of narrow streets crammed with people. At mealtimes, small, plastic chairs and tables fill the sidewalks between motorcycle parking spaces and storefronts. If you're walking by, plan to walk into the street.

Streets in the Old Quarter begin with "Hang," Vietnamese for "commodity," Truc explained. And commodities are plentiful. One street specializes in eyeglasses and sunglasses. Another has block after block of silk stores. Boutique hotels, coffee shops, and restaurants are interspersed.

Everywhere are street merchants: Teen-age boys watch your shoes, looking for scuffed leather that makes you a mark for their shoeshine pitch. Young women from the country carry baskets of fresh fruit on wooden sticks balanced on their shoulders. Old women with plastic bags full of embroidered T-shirts and military green baseball caps sporting a red star.

After our walk, Truc ands I slipped down a side street and entered a pho restaurant filled with people who had stopped on their way to work. Truc told me most people in Hanoi will go to a restaurant and buy a bowl of pho, the traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, rather than eat breakfast at home. We sat at a table with three other people. It was near the screened-in kitchen, so Truc could place our orders directly with the cooks. A short time later a waitress delivered large bowls of beef pho. Following Truc's lead, I added cilantro and sliced chiles to the pho. Truc tossed a deep-fried pastry into each bowl.

Truc and the other diners deftly ate the rice noodle with chopsticks and a spoon. It was clear I needed more practice with my chopsticks, so I relied heavily on the spoon. Unfortunately, this sets up a noodle-slurping scenario that leaves pho residue on the front of your shirt. I didn't want to change shirts this early in the day, so I twisted some noodle around my chopsticks and grabbed them with my mouth before they untangled from the sticks. I decided to concentrate on the broth and strips of beef, leaving the remaining noodles in the bowl.

Truc and I then walked to a coffee shop near the Water Puppet Theater. I drank hot "milk coffee;" Truc had his on ice. Vietnamese coffee is brewed strong. It has a chocolatey flavor. Condensed milk is added for milk coffee. There is no need to add sugar to sweeten the brew.

We returned to the hotel, made arrangements for our upcoming trip south to Dong Hoi Quang Tri, Hue, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and then climbed aboard Truc's motorcycle. Our friend, Police Col. Hung, was expecting us for lunch at a restaurant near the Opera House.

Hung is a man of excellent taste and lunch or dinner with him is always a treat. A meal can last hours, and usually includes something I have never before eaten. It's always tasty. It was Hung who introduced me to spring rolls made from pig ears and small salt crabs you pop whole into your mouth.

After lunch, Truc and I rode to the Air Force Museum. Unfortunately, it was closed on Friday.

Next, we headed to a massage parlor. There two extremely strong, young women began popping fingers, twisting arms and legs, forcing joints and limbs to bend farther than I thought possible, pushing their thumbs deep into muscles, tying hot rocks to the bottom of my feet, then arranging others on my spine. And these were just the preliminaries to a walk up and down my legs and back. It was a pretty painful couple of hours, but I'd have it done again in a flash.

After a large lunch, we rode to Indira Gandhi Lake, named after the late prime minister of India, where Truc normally walks for exercise. There we were joined by one of his friends and neighbors, walking around the lake three times in 36 minutes.

The three of us went to an outdoor cafe and had tea before Truc and I headed to another restaurant for dinner with other friends in the National Police. When we arrived, the tables were laden with fresh vegetables, lamb, various sauces, chicken, and a green, sticky rice cake filled with cooked pork. We drank multiple toasts of U.S. whisky. Then we ate more. Just when I thought the meal was coming to an end, the waiters brought out a table cooker and a large pan with a fish in it.

The meal continued. The fish and the broth were delicious and light, so I did not have the sensation of being stuffed.

After we said our goodbyes, I hopped on the back of Truc's motorcycle and rode back to the hotel. The temperature in Hanoi was in the low 50s, so I could appreciate the light jacket I brought with me.

Later today, Truc and I will visit the Air Force Museum, then go to his home where he and his wife are hosting me for dinner.

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