Lesson #15: When in Vietnam, eat.
A blog post written on the road.
Traveling is hard, in fact at the moment I am a bit cynical of the entire idea. Pass through a city, “see” as much as you can, exchange travel itineraries with countless other travelers for the sake of conversation. It is an overplayed routine. In order to maintain purpose I find myself striving for authentic connection. Unsure what I mean? Me too. Is it the brief and often choppy conversations with locals? The philosophical travel chat passed back and forth in hostel lobbies over cups of beer? The historical insights that you gain on a walking tour of the city?
I am in Hanoi, one of the most beautifully congested cities I have ever experienced. The chaos is palpable but also inexplicably soothing. Currently I sit in a café/travel agency, an understandably confused victim of Hanoi’s growing popularity among backpackers, like myself. I feel my heart begin to race as I sip on my third cup of Vietnamese coffee sweetened not by sugar but by syrupy condensed milk, munching on a perfectly chilled chocolate donut. Outside the world is a chaotic blur of motorbikes, the air is cluttered with the sound of horns, looking up provides solstice. Tiny balconies adorn the skinny decrepit buildings that shoot upward into the sky. Barley wide enough to hold one person they are deliciously littered with greenery. Look down, way down, and you have found the heart of Hanoi. Low to the ground synthetic waves of red plastic tables and stools spill out onto the streets. Perch on a stool, engage in a balancing act fit for a circus performer, and prepare to fall in love with a city that at first glance seems like it would only give you so much as an awkward stiff hug. An innocent looking bowl of white rice noodles erupts with flavor- sweet and spicy- buried in mounds of crunchy peanuts, enhanced by entire sprigs of mint. Clear broth soup is generously stocked with bbq beef, a sweet explosion of addictive flavor. Crispy fried spring rolls cost a mere fifty cents. Gooey coconut donuts dipped in hardened sugar are even less, fifteen cents a pop. Steaming hot pho is impossible to miss, a bowl of broth, noodles, and enough leafy extras to turn one serving into three. Chances are wherever you have ended up only churns out one expertly mastered dish. Meaning that for a brief, but much needed, moment Hanoi has kept things simple, let you inhale and exhale fully.
So back to my question, how do you find a sense of authenticity among the sea of Loney Planets and Northface rucksack? Still no universal solution, but I can help you out when it comes to Hanoi. Here you have to eat, because It is the food that for a quick moment makes Hanoi ever so slightly transparent, a tad more vulnerable, and leaves you feeling at least momentarily connected to this intangible city.