Quick recap for those that haven't been following my life story in detail. Ten years ago this month, I got married. To celebrate that fact, my wife and I booked the often-spoken-of overseas anniversary trip. We chose Vietnam because of its food culture, a little bit about the proximity to our children who we managed to leave behind at home (not in the Caulkinesque sense) and also because there was a sense of regret around the destination. This wasn't the same sense of regret shared by the American national ego, but more so to do with a trip that was planned just before the surprise pregnancy that delivered us our firstborn.
So over we went to Vietnam. The word Vietnam translated in the mother tongue means 'Land of Scooters'. The Scooters were the first inhabitants of Vietnam until French explorers landed here sometime well before 1950 when they were looking for a spot to enjoy their bread roll. This delicacy would later become know as Bahn Mi. Hanoi is the major city of the North and more socialist in their tradition. Today it feels quite consumerist with only small acknowledgments to its communist past, such as a love of concrete, the colour red and the use of images of old guys heads who look like Colonel Sanders from KFC.
We spent our days walking around the streets with the locals. It was a weekend and the lake is the place Hanoians like to gather and undertake such weekend activities as climbing statues to read a book. We also enjoyed watching local kids take over the closed off streets in hired motorised toy cars and race in an impromptu Grand Prix. We managed to catch the London Symphony Orchestra warming up at sound check for a gig they were holding in the park. It was pretty special to come across something like that, but we didn't stay long enough to hear if my shouted request for a rendition of 'Anarchy in the UK' wasn't met.
It seems the Vietnamese spend much of their day thinking about or eating food. It is on the street everywhere, in the literal sense. Where back home we concern ourselves with colour coded chopping boards to separate the meat, from the fish, from the vegetables, the Vietnamese don't care for such devices. Instead, they see the streets as their kitchen and the footpaths their preparation areas. A Health Department Officer would suffer an aneurysm trying to keep track of how many food safety standards get breached in the average lane.
We detoured from our base in Hanoi to head out to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ha Long Bay. I had been eating at a restaurant by the same name for the past 12 years, so was very excited at the prospect of seeing spring rolls caught in the wild. The bay itself is unlike anything I have ever seen before, outside of pirate movies. It is a series of stunning cliffs and coves entwined within the calmest bay I have ever seen - it is like the water takes Xanax. We spent a night onboard one of the 34,986 boats that were cruising around with their cargos of tourists. A far from ideal way to see such a sight, but at the same time, the only way. Sleeping on a boat was a bit of fun. It allowed me to indulge the fantasy of being a rich white dude who dresses in only navy and tan and gets people to call him 'The Admiral'. By the end of the 24-hour trip, Wifey was getting sick of The Admiral and was keen to get me back on land. Despite throwing off my alter-ego, I know the spirit of The Admiral lives on, waiting for my return the bay.
After another day in Hanoi, we jumped on a plane down to the central coast of Vietnam and the historical city of Hoi An. Hoi An is a beautiful old town full of historical buildings, great food and tourists. Even though we fitted within this category, there was something simultaneously annoying and surprising about this state, like a pimple in your ear canal.
Hoi An is known for its tailors, so we wasted little time in heading into a store to get fitted for some pieces. I wanted a few replicas of my favourite blazer and wifey went with some Japanese inspired wide leg pants, the sort you could smuggle a newborn in. The tailoring process is a constant battle against the tiny Vietnamese saleswomen dynamos who ABC (always be closing) better than Michael Jackson busking for opioids. We still aren't sure who won that engagement, but we are happy with the products produced.
Two real highlights of Hoi An were the lights at night and the work of Ms Vy. Each night the streets are illuminated by the lanterns that linger in lieu of streetlights. Combined with the historical architecture, they elevate the town above daytime perceptions of being just a giant souvenir shop.
Ms Vy has three separate restaurant ventures in the town plus one transplant in Melbourne and cookbooks selling like crab cakes, she is the Jamie Oliver of Vietnam. We took one of her cooking classes to celebrate our actual wedding anniversary day. At the end of the class we were gifted a double-knife. We had seen them earlier in the day and fell in love with their slicing and dicing capacity. In a market of fish heads, exotic fruit, livestock carcasses and noodle making octogenarians, they glimmered like crystals of innovation.
An honourable highlight mention must also go the quirky farmer and his water buffalo who we met riding through the rice fields on the way to the beach. I know we didn't take you up on your offer for a photo with us atop of your beast, but something tells me that on my deathbed, I will regret that decision. From this day forward, I shall ride the buffalo.
What I don't regret is the cash we dropped on cancelling our plans to go back to Hanoi and instead fly straight over to Hong Kong for an extra day or so. More on that next time in Part 2.