Living and working in the Arab Gulf has afforded my husband and me some remarkable travel opportunities, including a visit to the incredible Vietnam.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I responded, incredulously. “Why would you want to go to Vietnam for vacation?” My husband, Bishara, and I were having breakfast, a time often reserved for airing a variety of issues, planning for upcoming activities, and such. Not to say that the idea of vacationing in Vietnam had not been broached before by my husband. For the last several years, Bishara has, on occasion, garnered the courage to advance the notion, which I have always, not so indelicately, struck down. Living in the Arab Gulf, Saudi Arabia in the early 2000’s, and Qatar for the last nine and a half years, has afforded us some remarkable travel opportunities, which we have taken full advantage of. We have particularly appreciated the relative convenience of visiting Southeast Asia, and have had the good fortune of travelling to Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Our time in each of these countries has been nothing short of wondrous and life enriching.
Vietnam, in my mind, however, was a different story. America had fought a contentious war there, and had lost. Etched in memories of my 1960’s childhood were the nightly airings of the frontline battles on our family TV, against a backdrop of lush tropical settings, ubiquitous rice paddies, and the fallen being transported by comrades to waiting medical helicopters. This was definitely not a favored vacation destination. Bishara, who had been watching the same images on TV as a child halfway around the world in Jordan, had a more visceral reaction to the scenes. Having experienced warfare, first-hand, in Jordan and later in Lebanon’s civil war, Bishara felt more empathy for, and a personal connectedness to, the war weary on both sides of the conflict.
My resolve began to dissolve several months ago when I began hearing reports from expatriate friends who had visited Vietnam and revealed that this country on the Indochina Peninsula was a captivating place with magnificent scenery, a rich history, and sumptuous food. So maybe there was something to Bishara’s penchant for vacationing in Vietnam. I began doing the research and determined that while there were many travel plan options when in the country, the north had the mountains, diverse ethnic groups, and an intriguing history. A plan was developing, and we eventually settled on a 10-day trip in early April with Hanoi as home base, and side trips to include a cruise on Halong Bay (to the east of Hanoi) and Sapa, a picturesque mountain town in the northeast of the country.
Bishara divulged when we were back in Qatar about having prayed on the plane ride to Hanoi that expectations would be met on this trip, as he had not wanted to haul me to Vietnam under false pretenses. Although the tread on the luggage carousel broke, and we had to wait over an hour for our bags to arrive at the Hanoi Airport, our luck definitely improved after leaving baggage claim. The driver who would take us to the hotel was just outside, placard in hand with our names prominently displayed. The young man swiftly brought our luggage, which practically swallowed up his slight frame, to a waiting van, and though he spoke virtually no English, afforded us wonderful views of the bustling city of Hanoi and its outskirts as he drove us to our hotel in the heart of the “Old Quarter.”
Blurs of small trucks, scooters, and women wearing conical straw hats working the rice paddies off the highway began crystalizing into alluring tall, narrow buildings hinting of French colonialism with flowered balconies and wrought iron railings, more scooters, and quaint tree-lined streets, as we entered Hanoi’s Old Quarter. We were already enamored.
Within an hour we arrived at our accommodations, the Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel, located in a lovely and active alleyway in the middle of the Old Quarter. A porter and several representatives of the hotel came outside, warmly welcomed us, and all helped to expedite the movement of our luggage from the car into the boutique hotel. Once inside, we were offered wet cloth towels to freshen ourselves, fruit juice, and suggestions on sites of interest and dining options in Hanoi. Before we knew it, the porter nabbed our luggage and began running up five flights of stairs, while we rode the diminutive elevator with a hotel receptionist. When Bishara expressed concern over the porter carrying our unwieldy luggage up all those stairs, the receptionist casually predicted that the porter would beat us to the fifth floor; and he was right.
Our room was designated “VIP,” however, in style and design, only. Cost was merely average by American standards. Spacious, with hardwood floors, beautiful finishings and furnishings in the Vietnamese style, red flower petals scattered on the bed, a balcony, and complimentary bottle of wine, the room was exceedingly comfortable.
After settling in, Bishara and I headed downstairs, anxious to sample Vietnamese cuisine and Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The Old Quarter’s patchwork of roads and alleyways (originally 36 streets) are nearly 1,000 years old, and emerged from a series of working villages, each plying a specific trade. Some streets harbor the same trades as centuries ago, like sheet-metal and tin materials; others have changed to focus on items like bamboo or electrical merchandise; and still others are a hodgepodge of different offerings, from t-shirts and dessert sweets, to hair salons and spas. These days, motor scooters are everywhere, in the streets and rows upon rows parked on the sidewalks, oftentimes limiting the space for walking, but somehow lending to the chaotic charm of the place.
The reception desk had recommended Quan An Ngon restaurant for a traditional Vietnamese meal, and since it was not an easy walk, a taxi service was called. Two hotel business cards were handed to us with the receptionist stressing that the card would come in handy when returning to the hotel. Slipping into the waiting taxi, I told the driver we were going to the Quan An Ngon restaurant. Dead silence. Again, Bishara this time; “We are going to Quan An Ngon restaurant.” Not a sound. Fifteen minutes later, the driver stopped and pointed, unceremoniously, to the right. “Ah, this must be the restaurant,” I remarked. It would become apparent that Hanoi taxi drivers rarely spoke English; evidently, the hotel had spoken with the driver, or taxi service, about where we would be dining. Looking out for our welfare and that of other hotel guests was an enduring priority; always carried out, though, in a most understated and unpretentious manner.
Entering through the open wrought iron gates of Quan An Ngon restaurant was like being transported to a festive fusion of one part open air garden, one part bustling marketplace. I hesitated over sitting at a communal table preferring, instead, a private table, however, there were no private tables available, so we sat alongside Europeans at a long public table. In time, a single lady from the Netherlands joined us, and the camaraderie that ensued certainly enhanced our evening.
A happy spirit and wonderful ambience permeated Quan An Ngon. Several smiling and amiable servers approached our table and patiently deciphered meal items from the menu. The suggested choices included Vietnamese fried pancakes (bánh xèo), pork soup with noodles (Bánh canh Trảng Bàng), and barbecue pork (thịt nướng). We must have looked a bit hapless, since a couple of servers, pulling plastic gloves over their hands, came bounding over when we received our food, and proceeded to show us how those “in the know” eat traditional Vietnamese meals. And there is definitely an apropos technique for most entrees, which involves combining repast elements using chopsticks, of course. The bánh xèo was the most complicated to assemble; the process beginning with the server placing mixed greens (fresh mint, parsley, spinach, lettuce, and cilantro) on a thin rice patty. Next, a crispy rice patty is folded up and positioned over the greens, and bits of pork and shrimp are arranged on top. The server then showed us how to roll up the original rice patty with the mixings and dip it into special Vietnamese fish sauce.
Bishara and I practiced several times, and eventually became semi-proficient at assembling the various elements of bánh xèo, however, we were much more accomplished at consuming the final product, a flavorful and crunchy mix that was absolutely delectable. The Bánh canh Trảng Bàng (pork noodle soup) was equally as savory, although the necessary prerequisites for “chowing down” were much simpler; a side bowl of mixed greens are occasionally pilfered and nudged into the soup for a refreshing and tangy taste. We also enjoyed an order of fresh spring rolls wrapped in lettuce leaves and thịt nướng (grilled barbecue pork), however, the latter was a bit too spicy for me. We topped our meal off with a highly palatable plate of fried bananas in coconut milk. We had been told by Canadian expatriate friends who had visited the country the previous year that the American dollar ruled in Vietnam, however, we were still taken aback when our bill was 190,000 Vietnamese dong, or just under 9 U.S. dollars. Our meals in Vietnam rarely exceeded five U.S. dollars.
The hotel business card did, indeed, come in handy on our ride home. Once again, the taxi driver spoke not a word of English, but nodded enthusiastically when he read the name of our hotel on the card. We weaved through streets filled with scooters, cyclos, pedestrians, and Hundai cars all miraculously avoiding collisions, a low din of honking filling the air. As soon as he spotted us, the hotel porter rushed out to open our car door, and graciously walked with us to a nearby market stall when he heard we needed to purchase bottles of water; we are water fiends, especially when on vacation.
On the way back to the hotel, a woman with a shoulder pole selling a variety of household wares and trinkets, motioned to me and inquired with hand signals if I was interested in a hair clip. I, naively, sampled a sparkly hair clip, and the lady immediately said “one million dong.” My jaw dropped. I couldn’t quite get used to carrying millions in our pockets and we had not paid nearly so much for anything, so far. Although one million dong equates to a mere $ 49, this was only a plastic hair clip. Sensing my hesitation, the lady retorted, “five-hundred thousand.” In normal circumstances, a 50 percent drop in price would seem reasonable, however, even the porter was perturbed by the vendor’s nerve. Some clipped words were exchanged between porter and vendor, and the porter motioned for us to follow him to the hotel.
Hanoi, dripping with buoyant rhythm and a joyful soul, easily exceeded expectations. We looked forward to boarding the Paradise cruise ship for a three day/two night journey on Halong Bay the next day, and returning to Hanoi in the next few days.