“People who live on hills sleep so close to the stars they forget those of us who live too much on earth. They don’t look down at all except to be content to live on hills. They have nothing to do with last week’s garbage or fear of rats. Night comes. Nothing wakes them but the wind.”
~Sandra Cisneros from A House on Mango Street
Last night I was sitting outside enjoying a few beers with a man called John, a mid-60s ex-hippie from San Francisco. He was telling me about the time he met Bill Clinton here in Hanoi. “He came walking out of [place name] over on [street name] and I was right there. I yelled out, ‘Hey Bill! Looking good!’ And smiled and came over and shook my hand. My arm was all casted up at the time and the couple secret service guys didn’t know what to do.”
As he finished telling the story his laughter abruptly stopped and he said, “That’s so sad,” pointing down the street a little ways to where a woman and her young daughter of about three were scavenging Styrofoam and aluminum cans from the trash bags that were put out for collection. And as they moved down the street collecting what they could collect I became starkly aware of the dichotomy of rich and poor in Hanoi, especially as they rummaged through the rubbish outside a house that has been under renovation these past few months. It’s facade is marble, imported from Pakistan. The floors are cherry. The cars are Benz, Bentley, and Land Rover. The owner’s bicycle is the nicest I’ve ever seen.
I immediately thought of “Bums in the Attic” from The House on Mango Street and I wondered if perhaps I, too, have come to sleep too close to the stars, with my private elevator, lake view veranda, needlessly large king size bed, and shopping at gourmet, import-only markets. And I wondered, if I do sleep close to the stars now, how did I get there?
Over the past few years I have changed. I could blame Korea or the media or certain people for their influence on me and for pushing me toward money first foremost. But I think it was likely just my own natural progression. Once I had finally paid off my credit card debts my savings started to grow and I got a little bit addicted to watching the balance increase. And in so doing I have lost a bit of generosity. It was only a year ago I was helping run Hope For Korea, but if I’m honest, my heart wasn’t really all that much in it. I was happy to be doing something charitable, but my heart was with my money. And I fear now that it still is, but a break is occurring.
Here in Hanoi I am constantly confronted with economic inequality, but for the first time I am on the high side of that inequality. I’m not at the bottom and I’m not in the middle anymore, which means I have a responsibility to help. Money stretches far here. Time less. Caring more. I don’t want to be content to live on hills. I don’t want to boast about my nearness to the stars. I want to get back to my younger heart and have bums in the attic.
“Some days after dinner, guests and I will sit in front of a fire. Floorboards will squeak upstairs. The attic grumble.
Rats? they’ll ask.
Bums, I’ll say, and I’ll be happy.”
These are some shots from around Yen Phu Village and the Truc Bach area in Hanoi, the places I call home. Yen Phu is a quiet and charming place in Tay Ho (West Lake), full of little cafes, newly renovated homes, and dogs and chickens in the streets. It’s also home to a great bar called 21 North at 45 Yen Hoa, and Colonol Quys, which makes delicious breakfast foods, perfect for lazy mornings.
The Truc Bach area is awesome for food and coffee. Food Shop 45 makes excellent Indian food. Cong Caphe makes great coffee and smoothies. There are a hundred places for Lau. And there is everything else as well from Vietnamese, Japanese, and Korean restaurants to dessert and sandwich and juice shops.
This morning the Mrs. and I went out for an aimless walk to get out of the housekeeper’s way. We had no place to go and nothing in particular we wanted to see, so we stayed along the lake shore through Len Phu Village (home) and then up to Than Nien. Along the way we were needlessly honked at by cars and motorbikes like usual, saw a hawk of some kind chilling on a fence rail, and then came to Tran Quoc Pagoda outside of which we were pestered by peddlers of tacky souvenirs, boiled peanuts, and various other foods. We kept our eyes out for lady finger bananas but saw none. Sad.I pass by Tran Quoc Pagoda on a twice daily basis on my way to work and we can see it in the distance from our veranda, but we hadn’t stopped to visit before today. The Mrs. couldn’t care less about traditional Asian religious sites, since, as a Korean person, they seem entirely common to her, but I can’t get enough of them. For whatever reason (perhaps my own religious background and having studied philosophy?) I love religious buildings of all kinds and want to visit every single one that I see. And today I visited my first in Vietnam.Formerly located on the shores of the Red River, Tran Quoc Pagoda was relocated in 1615 to its current location on a small islet on West Lake (Tay Ho) just off Than Nien Street which runs between West Lake and Truc Bach Lake. Built in the 6th century, it is the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi and a peaceful little spot to stroll around when walking along the lake shores. Apparently it is also a renowned spot for its sunset views. If you find yourself around the Truc Bach or West Lake areas, definitely take a moment to visit Tran Quoc. It is immaculately upkept and quiet, and it is opulent without being garish. It seems important to mention that Tran Quoc is a functioning temple, not simply a tourist spot. People worship and perform various rites here, so don’t be like the one lady we saw today shouting across the courtyard for a friend to come take her picture. Discretion is key.
Last night the Mrs. and I headed toward the Opera House to see a volunteer production of “James and the Giant Peach” by the Hanoi International Theatre Society, the proceeds of which were donated entirely to charity. On the way there we stopped at a couple places for food, the first of which was Zon at 25 Lo Su street. There we ordered Bahn Xeo and a plate of fresh greens and rice paper wraps.
Zon is a nice little place, well lit, clean, and comfortable. After ordering we realized that Zon isn’t a restaurant exactly but more of a beer + beer food kind of place. Banh Xeo literally means “sizzling cake” and is made of a deep fried rice batter. It then comes topped with vegetables and meat. Ours had mostly bean sprouts with shrimp and beef. The pancake itself is light and fluffy, though a bit over greasy. The taste was good, but bland if not dipped in chili sauce.
In addition to the Banh Xeo we received a plate of fresh, crispy greens and carrots that we wrapped in rice paper and also dipped in chili sauce. The greens were fresh and delicious, though far from filling. It was the first time I have attempted to perform my own rice paper wrap and I must say that I need practice. I think there is an art form to it. Ours were loose and ugly and fell apart after each first bite.
Overall we liked Zon. The atmosphere isn’t overly Vietnamese, but it’s a nice spot if you’re looking to have a drink and eat some snacks along with it. It reminded us a lot of pajeon or bindaeddeok in that it was fried batter and not exactly something you’d eat as a stand-alone meal. But with a bottle of cheap beer Banh Xeo goes well. As for the play. . . well. . . let’s just say it was spirited and good for charity.
My Mrs. and I went to Dac Kim today for lunch in the Old Quarter since it is highly recommended by hotels, travel books, and tourism information booths. Apparently the place fills up in late afternoon and stays full until late night. We arrived just about noon and the first three floors were already full, but we had the fourth floor to ourselves for half the meal, which was a luxury in a place is so small and with tables that are shared by strangers.
Bun Cha is a food that originated in Hanoi and is quite famous. It’s a simple dish: grilled pork (cha) and thin rice noodles (bun), served with herbs and dipping sauce. The Mrs. thought it was delicious and immediately understood why her friend in Korea said she wishes she could import it. Personally, I thought the food was rather unimpressive. The pork wasn’t special. The dipping sauce was good, though a bit salty. The fried spring rolls weren’t delicious in the least. But hey, at least we only paid 3x more than locals typically pay! That’s right. Locals pay 20,000vnd each for the Bun Cha and 30,000vnd for the spring rolls. We paid 60,000vnd each for the Bun Cha and 80,000 for the spring rolls. But we didn’t figure that out until much later. Awesome. So, here is the verdict: The Mrs. very highly recommends the food, liked the relative cleanliness, but not the overcharge. I am indifferent to the food, liked the atmosphere, but am really annoyed by the overcharge. It’s doubtful we’ll go again.