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Monday, September 12, 2005

Bun Cha bandits

It's so sad when your stomach is full in Hanoi, because you always find other food that you want to try! For breakfast, I've typically been having French bread with fried egg and cucumbers. Yes, those French were good for at least a few things (including the coffee, to which I have now a serious addiction.) Anyway, we’ve also tried other things for breakfast, such as sticky rice and mung bean with fried garlic, served hot on a banana leaf ‘plate’ for 2000 dong (US$ .14) Other days, we’ve had a noodle 'pancake' with pork sausage and basil, dipped in fish sauce, for 4000 dong.

The best way to eat in Hanoi is at the street vendors who at different times of the day commandeer sections of the public sidewalk to set up shop. You sit on very low plastic chairs (about 5 inches off the ground, maximum) and scoot yourself close to the vendor lady who is also sitting on a low plastic chair preparing your food right out of her wide, flat wicker basket. You can use another low plastic chair as a table. Because the street vendors typically only sell one thing, you don’t even have to ‘order’ – you simply sit down and they’ll just fix up a bowl of whatever they’ve got. People pass by on the street and laugh at us (can’t yet figure out exactly why, but we must look really funny or something!) or they’ll say something to the vendor lady and she’ll just shrug.

For lunch, my co-workers most often take me and Pip to eat Bún Cha, which is fresh flame-grilled pork in a very delicious broth, to which you add basil, mint, watercress and other greens, as well as rice noodles. It is eaten with chopsticks and a spoon. The ladies at our favorite Bún Cha location also serve us a plate of fried egg rolls (Nem), which they nimbly cut into bite sizes for us with a pair of scissors.

The classic Vietnamese soup Pho originated here in northern Vietnam, however, it is the southern Vietnamese who have perfected the recipe. The southerners make a much more flavorful Pho and have more interesting things to add to it, like lime, basil, mint, bean sprouts, hot peppers, fish sauce and hoisin sauce. Northern Pho, while still good, is bland in comparison, and it is served with weirdly-shaped fried donut things, which you’re supposed to float in your soup and eat with the noodles. Carly says she won’t touch Pho if it’s made anywhere north of Hué.

To get to lunch, Pip and I will usually each ride on the back of a motorcycle with one of our co-workers. The past couple of days, however, only our friend Hanh, the office manager, has been available to take us to eat, so Pip and I have BOTH been riding on the back with her. I’m very afraid of burning my leg on the exhaust pipe, so I sit on the very back of the bike, with my right foot on the foot rest and my left foot sticking straight out, while Pip sits in the middle and does the opposite with her legs. All three of us wear those typical Vietnamese cotton fashion hats and face masks. We must be a sight as we’re zooming down the street toward the Bún Cha restaurant – three giggling, gangly masked bandits on a motorbike, with arms and legs akimbo!

I have a favorite xe om driver – I think his name is Sam? – who takes me to work each day, at least whenever I can find him. He’s a tall old man in his 60s with lots of missing teeth but a very nice smile, and he sits on his motorcycle near “Zip Café” at the corner of my street. I like his motorcycle, which is a dark green Honda, because it has very sturdy foot rests and a good rear seat handle to hang onto. The best part of all is that he’s not smarmy and gross like the pushy young, punk-type drivers who wait for their prey at the opposite corner, picking their teeth all day and insisting on overcharging you. I really try to avoid those guys when I can. The old man already knows exactly where I need to go and exactly how much I’ll pay – 6000 dong (US $.42) -- so I just hop on and away we go!

On Monday I will have my first formal Vietnamese lesson through a new business that was started by a couple of university students to teach Vietnamese to foreigners. Their original price was $15.00 for an hour and half, but I told them I wanted to pay $3.00/hour instead, so we said goodbye. The next day they called back to offer $4.00/hour, and I agreed. Hah! I’ll try to do two hours per week, if the first lesson works out well.

Last night Carly and I had an interesting experience at a Chinese ‘tea house’. We were out after dinner looking for a new coffee house to try, so we walked into this beautiful place that appeared to be a restaurant. It had Chinese lanterns and beautiful vines growing around the building. Once inside, we were asked to remove our shoes before being escorted to a dimly-lit back room with floor pillows, low tables and 80s Madonna songs played in musak style over the stereo. The only other customers were a young couple sitting in the rear of the room who appeared to be cuddling. Carly and I ordered hot chocolate and an avocado shake, respectively. We were also served complimentary hot tea. There was a single candle on the table, and the waitress told us to push a button on the wall if we needed anything. Otherwise, the staff left us alone. Hmm… I plan to ask Hanh about this place. The other day, she explained to me and Pip that, in order to be alone, young Vietnamese couples will either go to the lake or to cafés at night. This must be one of those kind of places.

Stay tuned for more adventures, coming soon...

posted by Crystal @ 10:09 AM 1 comments

At 5:56 PM, Anonymous said...

The people who laughed at you & Carly squatting & eating were probably trying to show their approval toward a couple of adventuresome tourists. VN love it when you can eat like one of them. Your xe om man's name is most likely Xuan, meaning Spring. We miss you, but glad to have this medium. Love, mom

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