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The Thy Tracker (continued)


May 15–23  Peranakan  24–25  27–29  Sireh  30a  30b  30c–31
Malaysia: Melaka June 1–2, Kuala Lumpur 3–4, Penang 6
Vietnam: Saigon 13–16  19-20  22  26  27 30
Nha Trang July 7a 7b, Hue 14a 14b, Hanoi 19–20
India: Pondicherry 31, Bangalore August 2–4, Kerala


July 19, Thursday

Lighting, thunder, and torrential rain have swept through Hanoi these past two days. The storms do little to ease the heat and humidity, which return as soon as the sky clears, but the downpours add a nice jolt of energy to otherwise quiet streets.

Hanoi is definitely the sleepy sister to Saigon. And for this avid eater, traveling north means accepting that there is such a thing as bad Vietnamese food. There are certainly excellent dishes to seek out, but unlike Saigon or Singapore or San Francisco, people in Hanoi are not obsessed with eating. While I never ate a bad meal in the south, I’ve faced unfinishable dishes in both Hue and Hanoi. Some combinations just didn’t work; other dishes were flawed in their execution. I’ve been warned about food in Hanoi. Mrs. Thu in Nha Trang even shared some hilarious stories about the disinterested service in northern restaurants. But I didn’t understand how sharp the difference would really be.

Fortunately, Hanoi does have some good restaurants. If you know where and how to look, you can eat well anywhere.

General Rule Number 1: Do not eat at an empty restaurant. The more people eating, the better the food. Here in Vietnam, I look for a long line of scooters parked around a restaurant or beside a sidewalk vendor.

General Rule Number 2: Restaurants that promise “Authentic Local Food” do not serve it. They may offer watered down versions that are perfectly passable, but the food will have little spirit.

General Rule number 3: Restaurants with four languages on the menu do not serve good food. Whether you're in Europe or Asia, the wider the net is cast for tourists, the worst your meal will be.

While traveling, do ask everyone, from your hotel receptionist to your taxi driver to the airline staff, for recommendations. (You can even ask them to write the names of dishes or “vegetarian” on little cards so that you can flash the words later.) Do take a little time to research before you arrive, even if it means skimming the food section of your guide book before napping on the plane. Push your boundaries. Try eating at even one local restaurant. And do not worry about seeming silly when you point at another table or draw pictures or gesture to communicate. It’s better than missing a wonderful meal for the comfort of the familiar. Why would you be traveling otherwise?


July 20, Friday

My back still ached after yesterday's overnight trip from Hue. It's now official: I'm too old to try sleeping in the last row of a rickety bus while traveling over unpaved roads. An hour of yoga in my hotel room and a couple of Advil tablets helped dull the pain. Still, I decided to forget the must-see sights for a day and to stroll instead around Lake Hoan Kiem, an oasis at the center of Hanoi. 

Of course, I had to stop every few blocks to eat or drink. I started at a sidewalk stall on the west side near my hotel, where an older couple worked silently to ladle and serve soup during the morning rush: fresh rice noodles, thin slices of turmeric-rubbed pork, a pile of crunchy taro stem, some clear broth, a sprinkle of chives, and, to my dismay, a heaping spoonful of bot ngoc aka "sweet powder" aka MSG. (In a restaurant in Hue, one of my friends was asked if we were from the north or south. If we were northerners, the server explained, the cook would add MSG to our dishes.) No herbs or greens to accompany the soup--a reminder that I'm far from Saigon.

Rounding the southern tip of the lake, I found a café that served Earl Grey tea and toast with marmalade, a favorite that I couldn't resist. After just writing an email to a friend about silly tourists eating french fries with chopsticks, there I was luxuriously sipping a hot cup of English tea. My little cup of Earl Grey cost four times as much as my bowl of soup earlier. US$2 for the tea, 50 cents for the soup. Lipton Tea, or "The Yellow Label Tea," is terribly trendy right now in Vietnam. Although priced beyond your average tea-drinker, cafés will post billboards advertising Lipton to hint at the upscale offerings of their establishment. My mom, who lives not far from the Lipton plant in Missouri, found this amusing.

But green tea is still what nearly everyone wants and gets when they order tra. Green tea, strong and hot or diluted and iced, will arrive at your table for free in any local restaurant. You can specify jasmine in some places; others just offer you their house tea in a chipped teapot. Often, after you've finished your iced coffee, you'll be offered a glass of tea to chase it. But black tea is beginning to appear on more and more high-end menus. Although I drank my Earl Grey hot, Lipton Tea usually arrives with an extra glass of ice, a few slices of lime, and a little bowl of sugar. Preparing one's own drink at the table, whether it's soda lemonade or iced coffee, is an important element of table culture here.

The clinking of ice is one of those sounds I'll always associate with Vietnam, where the ritual of iced coffee means leisurely mornings and escapist afternoons. It can take fifteen minutes for the last drop of coffee to fall from filter to milk. Then, everyone deliberately stirs. The noise comes from the fact that one should stir not in a circular motion but rather in a dipping one, pushing the ice cubes down and knocking them against each other loudly. Then, the strong, sweet coffee is ready. I usually order café sua da, or "coffee with milk and ice." Be sure there's only the thinnest layer of creamy white condensed milk at the bottom of the glass, or you'll find yourself sipping liquid candy. Some take their coffee black, café den, or black with ice, café da. No matter where you are in the world, a truly Vietnamese restaurant will offer their coffee this way, dripped at the table in one of these painfully slow metal filters. Do not accept anything else.

Perked up by my cup of Earl Grey, I continued around Lake Hoan Kiem, stopping on the east side for a glass of mia da, freshly pressed and iced sugar cane juice, and then again for tra sen, tea with lotus seeds. Near the northern end, just past the red bridge to Ngoc Son Temple built in the middle of the lake, I bought a bundle of rambutans from a woman balancing baskets on her shoulders. She wanted me to buy a big bundle of longans, too, for only 18,000 dong more (about US$1.20), but even my stomach has limits. I found a bench in the shade at the lake's edge, where I could eat my fruit and watch Vietnamese tourists strike poses on the lake's bridge.

Next: Pondicherry, India >

July 2001