Happy Lunar New Year!
This marks Richard’s and my fourth week of traveling through SE Asia and every 12 hours of experience is the equivalent of 12 months of my North American day-to day. Which works up quite an appetite. Motto for this adventure: “One should go into the unknown on an empty stomach.” (Abraham Garcia)
After eating our way through Bangkok, we had a brief jaunt through Cambodia and then wormed our way up through Vietnam. Now we’re at the finish where I’m currently holed up in a hotel room in Hanoi trying to unravel thoughts about this trip. It’s tough–esp. without my kitchen, my haven where I unwind and reflect. All I’ve got is a tea kettle to smoke out the muse, who insists it’s best to begin where we’re ending.
Equating the mindset of the Vietnamese to that of Northern Americans is tricky business.
One analogy could be in comparing traffic patterns. In the United States vehicles flow in tidy linear patterns. In Vietnam—at least to this Western mind—it’s quotidian madness. The streets are thick with every imaginable vehicle, with every imaginable object (inc. infant and fowl) strapped onto said vehicle, going in every imaginable direction possible––including the sidewalks.
If ever a trip had an understatement this would be it: Navigating Vietnam is a dodgy business.
To survive, one must develop a third eye, which comes by walking head-on into the traffic; by noting you’d just paid three times as much for a fried duck then the woman at your side who haggled the vendor down for a bird twice the size; by understanding that the word no is simply an invitation for negotiations. In Vietnam there’s always an in, a way to wiggle through the cracks.
Upon arriving in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, we entered a riotous asylum of screeching scooters and bicyclists hawking their wares from perilously balanced stands on their seats.
Crumbling sidewalks are packed elbow to elbow with vendors selling produce, butchered meats, fish and folks slurping soups—savory Phos—recently ladled from bubbling cauldrons. Merely crossing the street was akin to my panic prior to bungee jumping off a cliff in New Zealand.
Two options: Either plant my flag in a mound of sticky rice, curl up into a fetal position and die, or cowgirl up, grab my camera and plunge into the madness.
Choosing the later, I began deciphering the order in the chaos and discovered the first secret is to walk very slowly, continuously glancing from right to left. They’ll stop—or just bump you a bit. The streets are so jammed that it’s impossible to pick up much speed to do much damage.
Next goal, begin sampling the street foods. And the street food. Oh, the street food. One evening we took a Seafood Street Food Tour (see above photo; more to follow on that adventure,) and that’s when I fell madly in love with Hanoi, her people and her food. Since we’re entering their Lunar New Year this week, the foods are at their most spectacular and savory right now.
Imagine the traditional foods of Thanksgiving, the spirituality of Chanukah and Christmas and the partying of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day rolled into one big box and you have Tet—the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
￼Before the fifteenth of December in the Lunar Calendar, Vietnamese spruce up worship areas in their homes to prepare for the procession of the Kitchen God’s return to heaven by biding farewell to the old year to greet the new.
The Kitchen God, as in neighboring China, is the most important of the domestic gods protecting the hearth and family.
Peach, apricot blossom and kumquat trees are strapped onto scooters and zipped off to decorate homes and alters, paying homage to ancestral Gods. And everyone’s gussied up for the occasion.
Buddhism plays a major role to the Vietnamese so temples and pagodas are more crowded than ever. This week has been a great time for cultural immersion, even though I stand out like a lumbering white beast!
And this lumbering beast is travel weary, looking forward to recreating some of these marvelous foods at home.And when I cook, forever planted in my mind will be the faces of the beautiful people we’ve met and the lessons I’ve learned from this fascinating place, a culture that has much to teach.