San Francisco giants

So, we are tall people. And naturally we have felt extra-tall when traveling around southeast Asia. Sometimes it comes in handy, like when we need to locate one another in a crowded market or metro station. Sometimes it’s less convenient – Kevin has a collection of lumps on his head from banging it on things. But for the most part it hasn’t been a big deal, and our height has largely gone unremarked.

Until Hanoi, where we arrived to find ourselves CELEBRITIES OF TALLNESS. We’d be picking our way down the street — trying to avoid laying waste to the city’s zillion small sidewalk businesses or tripping over a broken walkway tile and pitching into the path of an oncoming motorbike — and find people poking their friends and pointing at us. Old ladies would make meaningful eye contact with me and point at Kevin, and then gesture way above their own heads. Yes, I would attempt to convey with my answering smile and nod. He is tall!

The best, though, was at the local sights and museums. In the Ho Chi Minh Museum – which is flabbergastingly bizarre, and you should go there – a young woman tailed us for a while, taking our picture when she thought we weren’t looking. One maybe 10-year-old girl came up and very politely asked if she could pose with us for a photo. And several different times we encountered big groups of elementary and middle-school kids on class trips — all in uniform, white shirts with red sailor ties — and they would goggle at us. Then — invariably! — some kid would shout out “Hello!” And we’d shout back “hello!” And then, every single kid would start yelling “hello, hello, hello!” And we would yell back “hello, hello!” And this feedback loop would continue for a bit, with us grinning foolishly at the kids, and the kids obviously getting a huge kick out of discovering and conversing with these huge zoo animals.

With one group we met – in which the kids were slightly older, maybe early high school – several members approached us, one at a time, to measure their height against ours and then say “wow.” One woman, who I think was a teacher or chaperone, squeezed my forearm, and then laughed as if to say “weird, it’s real!”

Strangely, being a traveling sideshow attraction was a really nice experience. I guess because people seemed so psyched, it made for a pleasantly reciprocal-feeling tourist experience. Here we are, checking out your cool city, and here you are, gawking at some of the more gargantuan foreigners you’ve seen lately. We go home and talk about how weird the Ho Chi Minh museum was; you go home and tell your family about how you saw this ENORMOUS dude. Everybody high-five!

It's all about the Ho Chi Mins

Hanoi. As our plane was landing, I’d really done no research, and I had no idea what to expect. A lot of things I’d read suggested that Saigon was really where it’s at, and that Hanoi was more drab, less cultural, less romantic. I wondered aloud to Page if perhaps we were making a mistake by going there, that perhaps I wouldn’t enjoy it at all.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I had the time of my life in Hanoi. Something about the city and I really clicked. Clearly, a lot of it was the food, which I’ll get to in a bit. But, it wasn’t just that. There’s something about the city. Nearly everyone who visits stays in the old town area, but it’s not a cordoned off Ghirardelli Square-like contraption, or some Colonial Williamsburg spin-off. It’s very much alive, and no matter how many white-dreadlocked hippy backpackers show up, there’s far more locals. It’s a hive of specialized shops, streets devoted to doorknobs or purses or dried fish, and all that life is spilling out onto the streets at every corner, with vendors, food stalls, and just people hanging out.

Beyond that, there’s a lot else going for it. The city is quite pretty. The lake of the old market area, Hoan Kiem, is beautiful, and there’s a lot of other lakes and parks across town. The city is surprisingly walkable, perhaps the most walkable we’ve been in Asia yet. Everyone we met was tremendously friendly and kind, and it often didn’t feel like like a weird service relationship (which is mostly what you encounter in Asia as a white ATM).

There’s a number of fun activities, too. The Ho Chi Minh Museum, with accompanying hoverport, definitely opened my eyes to the Power of Communism like no other. The Museum of Ethnology was perhaps the best done museum we’ve seen in Asia yet: well organized, informative, crazy awesome structures, and the first place that I felt like I was able to get a grip on what the quilt of cultural-ethnic groups of SE Asia are like. Plus, the 8,000 thirteen-year-old school children there really liked Page. I mean, really.

I’ll probably never forget that Hanoi was where I was introduced to:

  • Cha Ca: Cubes of fish, fried dangerously at your table with mega dill.
  • Banh Cuon: The slippery dumplings with soup and crunchy fried bits of your dreams.
  • Bun Bo Nam Bo: Beefy beefy mega-beef noodle comfort soup.
  • Banh My Doner: Contender for Page’s favorite food of the trip. Cinnamon melty fat mayo-spicy goodness.
  • Mien Xao Luon: You didn’t know cellophane noodles could be this hot goody dangerous crab yes.

As well as a ton of amazing renditions of dishes that I already knew.

More than anything, though, my favorite moment in Hanoi was having Bia Hoi Ha Noi on street corners. This is a essentially local, essentially Hanoi thing to do. Thanks to some beautiful happenstance (thanks, Sandals Guy), a Czech brewer introduced beer brewing in Hanoi in 1960 or so, and hit upon a great recipe for a pilsner-like brew that seems to cry, to weep, to be served out of a keg.

So the people obliged. And all over the city, there’s a culture, unlike anywhere else I’ve seen yet in Asia, of Bia Hoi vendors, which just set up shop on a busy street corner, with a stack of red plastic chairs, and serve the beer by the mug, out of the keg, made fresh from the brewery that day, for a quarter a glass.

Every corner is a Zeitgeist, and every corner is full of locals and meanderthals alike. And it’s beautiful. You can just sit on a maze-like street corner of the old town, enjoying some peanuts or sunflower seeds, with your cold mug of clear-yellow-almost-green Bia Hoi Ha Noi, watching the world go by, not a care in the world.

And when the lady asks if you’d like another mug, you’ll say yes.

(Credits: Thank you, Gastronomer.)

Things you cannot transport on a scooter

Not much, man. Vietnam seethes with scooters, and in Hanoi – which, as far as I can tell, is the traffic- and fire-unsafety capital of the world – the locals’ transportational ingenuity seems to know no bounds. Here is an incomplete list of somewhat surprising things we’ve seen go by on the back – or front, or side – of somebody’s motorbike:

  • Five cases of wine.
  • A keg of beer.
  • A ladder.
  • 20 big clear plastic bags, each containing water and two or three sizeable live goldfish.
  • An armoire.
  • A floral arrangement the size of the driver’s torso, plus a huge bunch of 75 or so balloons shaped like ships and cats and stuff.
  • A weed-whacker.
  • Assorted mannequin parts.
  • Several huge bags of concrete.
  • Two dogs. Each approximately 50 pounds, just riding on the seat, one in front of the driver and one behind.
  • Nine full water-cooler jugs of water.
  • Four children.
  • A bowl of soup. That the driver was eating.
  • A stove. Not a camping stove. A regular, full-size, Western-style range.

Things we are waiting to see transported on a scooter.

  • Another scooter.
  • A coffin.
  • Ho Chi Minh.
  • A pool table.
  • A palm tree.
  • Geena Davis.
  • A goat.

When it sinks in that you're living abroad

When you get your hair cut in a foreign country.

Pros: The $5 cut by a very professional stylist compares favorably to the $50 cut you usually get in San Francisco.
Cons: It also comes with an unexpected, semi-consensual 20-minute face massage, with lotion, in a darkened room. (15 minutes in, Page was fairly sure I was being held for ransom.)