The streets are the essence of Hanoi, its core character. People serve hot soup or Pho from large kitchen pots to customers squatting on small plastic chairs, converting the sidewalks into makeshift feeding stalls. I try everything from Bun cha- Cold noodles with sliced pork patties to Bun Bo Nam Bo- rice noodles with sauteed beef, salad and peanuts. Everything was delicious, tasty and questionable- just as it should be. Next to the food stalls are an assortment of other businesses. A man propped a mirror on a ledge, brought out a chair and scissors and began charging for haircuts (and for snapping photos). Further down a woman had a basket of polish and was clipping someone's toe nails for a small fee. Cafes on the corners that served only coffee had groups of business men squatting around on their small plastic chairs. Weaving in and out of all this action were the woman wearing rice paddy hats and carrying bamboo sticks weighed down on either end with bundles of food they were selling. In the 13th century, merchants from the Silk road settled in Hanoi and the streets were named after the products they sold. 36 streets in Hanoi start with Hang (products) and end with the name of the item traditionally sold there. Even today, each street has a theme of products- one block is filled entirely of children's toys, another with large bags of seeds and grains.
I went to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, one of the more bizarre things I've witnessed. After waiting in a long security line, I put my bags through a scanner and am told to separate my electronics. They take away my phone, camera and ipad. The Mausoleum looks like a giant tomb, and the large stone building is completely dedicated to the preserved, embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh. The line is ushered by national guards who remind the crowd to remain silent. The temperature falls 10 degrees as I enter the building. I follow the procession upstairs into a dimly lit room. At the center, roped off and flanked by four guardsmen, lies Ho Chi Minh, the man himself, in a glass lit case. I have to remind myself that its not a wax figure, that this is a real person, preserved for millions of people to come and visit. His legacy lives on, as a father and daughter approach the front of the case and he reminds her to put her hands together and bow her head in respect. Its incredible that a national figure can be revered and praised for decades, and maybe centuries, after his death. LP says "as interesting as the man himself are the crowds coming to pay their deep respects", someone who is seen as a liberator of Vietnam from colonialism.
My last night here I went to a restaurant inspired by street food of Hanoi with two other people. We had eight courses, including sweet porn buns, rice paper wraps, chicken porridge, noodle soup and sauteed beef with two beers. It cost us each $6. After, walking through the Old Quarter, we came upon a large crowd of people squatting on plastic chairs on the corner. A local had a keg and was serving beer into large plastic mugs. We pulled up a stool, paid $0.25 for the beer, and joined the crowd. At the end of the night, we hopped in a taxi home. As I got in the driver looks at me and says "Opium?" I look at him confused, and reply, "uh, no I need to go back to my hostel". He says "cocaine?" "no,no my hostel is right near St. Josephs and..." he cuts me off, "horse tranquilizer?" I start to question if I'm in a cab or a drug cartel. Finally we get him to take us home but the entire way hes listing a plethora of drugs I've never even heard of, what a salesman.
I thoroughly enjoyed the hectic mess of Hanoi, but I definitely felt my stress increase while I was here, and a few days were enough. Tonight I'm taking a night train to Sapa!