Who doesn’t love a good dose of stereotyping? A bit of profiling? Doesn’t it make life easier if you judge a book by its cover?
To live within the mental short cuts developed to navigate daily interactions. To reside comfortably within precisely what you expect to happen. To roll around in a bubble of affirmed beliefs. It’s safe. It’s easy. It’s convenient. But it’s also very, very dangerous.
Think of all you miss. Think of all the experiences you don’t have, the people you never meet, the books you skip devouring if you judge by the cover.
Traveling is full of lessons, we know that. You learn to try everything, talk to everyone, see everything. You learn openness, patience, the ability to accept, and the ability to recognize when to move on.
It’s a good thing I learned these valuable lessons over years of traveling, otherwise I never would have found you. I would have passed you by. You love of my life. You with your broth so beefy, your meat so raw, your onions so green, and your anise so starry.
The first time we met was a low point in my life. I was unemployed. A cold rain was sucking every ounce of warmth from my bones like only a DC winter can do. I was injured and my marathon training was all for naught. Lets just say, I have been better. Then my new roommate suggested we head up the road for Pho.
Pho you say?
I figured I could break my routine of microwaved weenie mac for lunch and splurge a bit. Waiting in line for 20 minutes in sheets of soaking rain, she explained how to order (pick a number) and recommended I try the Vietnamese coffee (the only redeeming part of the meal). The scowling staff returned quickly, balancing 2 large bowls, steaming with the most enticing aroma. And covered in cilantro. My spirits fell and continued to plummet as I painstakingly picked out hundreds of cilantro mines. Eventually I gave up and a surly man carried off my sadly picked over bowl, with it went all of my hopes and dreams.
So, it is safe to say you had a lot going against you if you wanted to come back from that first impression. But you’re a fighter. Slowly we moved on from the disastrous first day. Slowly we mended. Slowly we developed a loving, caring relationship.
You became my training partner, hangover remedy, and ultimate comfort food. I visited you several times a week. Filling you with Sriracha and shoveling you up in unhealthy quantities. My sodium levels climbed as our relationship blossomed.
In the summer, you made my nose run and my forehead sweat. In the winter, you made my nose run and my forehead sweat. You were my rock. Always there, always delicious, always spicy. Never faltering.
You were my celebratory post marathon lunch. You soothed my headache after a bad work meeting and 2 hours of gridlock. My salty tears mixed with your saltier broth as I mourned a loss. We laughed. We cried. We became the best of friends. It eventually became clear that I had to try you in your homeland. Yes, Vietnam was a must. Naturally I would visit an entirely new continent for a bowl of soup.
Not just any bowl of soup.
My first impression of you in Vietnam was like a coming of age. A moment of truth. What all of life before this had been building towards. Veritas. So very far from that dreary first lunch in DC. I was older, more mature. This time happily unemployed. This time the falling rain was that warm blessed rain that is welcomed with open arms to cool the heat and break the humidity.
The moment I landed in Vietnam, my senses were infiltrated. You were everywhere. You were in the green fields stretching 40 kilometers from the airport to Hanoi city limits. You were in the fat raindrops that fell and nourished the earth. You were in the lined faces of the old men taking shelter under shop awnings. And soon enough, I knew you would be in my belly.
I was dropped by the local bus about 5 blocks from my hostel around 10 pm and schlepped my bags another 15 blocks trying to find my way in the pouring rain. It took all restraint to not drop everything at the first sight of you. I finally made it to the hostel, wet and tired and hungry from a long day of travel. Perfect time for some comfort food.
Bleary eyed, I wandered blindly through the streets, passed closed shop fronts at every corner. Anxiety started to creep up. Pho is a breakfast food. What if there was nowhere open that would feed me? What if I had to wait a whole 12 hours in Vietnam before my first bites?
I began to lose hope. My spirits fell. My feet were dragging. I am not proud, but tears were near. And then she appeared, like a street food goddess. Soft and round and plump and scowling. Perched on the side of the street, she held court on a little plastic stool surrounded by a vat of boiling broth, a platter of raw beef, a bowl of floppy rice noodles and a smattering of green toppings.
My travel doctor would have told me to run.
But my stomach kept my two feet firmly planted. My mouth and eyes watered in joy as I held my fingers, indicating the number of bowls. She grumpily loaded all of the goods into a pile of joy and handed over my reason for traveling over 8,000 miles.
Like I said, not just any bowl of soup.
I nudged into a Playskool style table and chairs set up on the sidewalk, smiling. With my knees tucked up around my chin, I dumped in the homemade Sriracha and inhaled deeply. The old locals at the table next to me watched as I deftly readied my utensils. Chopsticks in the right hand, spoon in the left. This moment was several years and many many bowls in the making, so I was going to do this right.
Noodles and beef with the chopsticks. Broth with the spoon. Slap the noodles and beef in the spoon and slurp the tasty package all together.
Spear, slap, slurp. Spear, slap, slurp.
Hands and chopsticks and spoon working in a beautiful symphony of taste explosions. Perfect harmony. True art. Every bite was better than the last and in it you could taste the city streets, the tradition, the heart and soul this woman poured into each bowl she conjured up.
And suddenly, my bowl was empty. I stared in wonder. Mouth agape. Horror struck. Where did it all go? I was in such a trance I hardly noticed the food disappearing. Still dazed, I stumbled back to the hostel in a heavy fog and immediately fell asleep, images of beef and noodles dancing through my head.
I awoke the next morning, giddy like Christmas morning, and realized my food stall goddess was just the warm up. This, my friends, was the main event.
Men in business suits jockeying for a spot, crouched at Playskool tables on the side walk, cramped elbows bumping as the chopstick, spoon, and slurp dance continued—old as time. I waited in line with the rest of the 7 am rush hour crowd and watched life go by.
Hustling, bustling Hanoi.
My turn eventually came around. After several minutes of curious stares from the regular customers, I eagerly held up my finger and was rewarded with a piping hot bowl assembled under my eager gaze. I nestled into one of the cozy plastic stools and tucked in to pure bliss.
There was no talking.
At one point a woman, pinpointing me as a tourist, tried to sell me something from her street cart. If my mouth was not so full and I was not in the midst of such a glorious rhythm of chopsticks and spoons, I may have scolded her for interrupting what was clearly a religious moment. An out of body experience. Transcendental some might say.
Instead, I think I looked blankly at her, not quite comprehending a world that existed outside my bowl of pho. And then I continued slurping.
This bowl, like every other that trip, ended too quickly and I was left full, happy and always wanting more.
Vietnam was full of foods and adventures and misadventures and changed plans and dreams unrealized. I will be going back there, sooner than some of these other places, to finish off what I started. But, in addition to the good eating, I also managed to do some good exploring with the several weeks I was there.
Hanoi was warm, welcoming, easy to maneuver, and full of more friendly faces than I expected as an American. I spent hours and hours wandering around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, conversing with local students who hoped to practice their English, spectating local drum clubs and singing groups rehearsing, feeling the beat of the city as it pulsed along the shores of this central city lake. There is a temple accessible by bridge but I recommend wandering about to take in more life beyond the tourist beat.
From Hanoi you can reach nearly up to China on an overnight train. Whisking you through landscape of astounding beauty, you sleep and awake in the much photographed, much stereotyped rice paddies of Vietnam. Sa Pa, capital of Sa Pa District in Lào Cai Province in north-west Vietnam borders China and is dominated by the Hoàng Liên Son mountain range at the eastern reaches of the Himalayas. Hiking by day and homestays by night with a local guide is a common trip, for good reason.
And then there is Hạ Long Bay, another UNESCO world heritage site and home to nearly 2,000 islets within at 1,553 square kilometer region. This magnificant site, along with Sa Pa, deserves more than this post can do justice so you will just have to check back.
More to come on the truths discovered in Vietnam, I promise. For now, come hear about a life long road trip dream realized in Bali, same time next week…