Enough with the tourist photos, the food is going to be coming thick and fast in this final Vietnamese bookend. Today’s blog is bought to you by the letter “F” for Fried Foods. These are a collection of the fried delights I experienced in Hanoi but over the course of a number of days. It is not as if I seeked out every deep fried dish in Hanoi, they found me. Surprising that I never saw potatoes getting the hot oil treatment. Anything else was available except for the familiar chip/crisp/french fries.
In Australia we have the stageshow Puppetry Of The Penis, whilst Hanoi can lay claim to the internationally renowned Water Puppet Theatre. The water puppet history dates back many a year when Vietnamese farmers used to put on puppet shows in the water filled rice paddies to entertain each other. Unlike Australia’s puppetry this is higbrow entertainment, without a stretchy genital in sight. It takes place in a garden variety theatre, the only difference being this one has a big pool where the stage is and the puppeteers are behind a curtain. They wade in the water, operating the puppets via long rods (there’s a comparison joke in there somewhere?). Some of the more advanced puppets have fireworks somehow built into them which only add to the sense of occasion. Flanking each side of the stage is a band of singers and musicians each playing a traditional Vietnamese instrument and singing in the local language. Theatre goers can opt to get an audio translation but the plot of this isn’t like trying to follow a Tarantino film.
Most of the vignettes are something like:
- People in a rice field are working tirelessly
- A snake comes towards them
- Mayhem ensues
- The snake is killed
Some variations of this included underwater fireworks, the drowning of a cat and a lot of puppet swimming (textbook freestyle which would have made Forbes Carlie a proud man). You could say they catered for everybody, even those who have a fetish for dragon fornication. For the entire hour I was transfixed. Sure I laughed at the inappropriate time but if it’s funny there is no point trying to keep a laugh in, that leaves less room for food. There are bits of pieces of the performance scattered throughout YouTube if you want to check in out in greater detail.
Throughout the Hanoi food journey it wasn’t all soups. There were a lot of snacking. You may find there is a bit of a pattern amongst all these and that involves bubbling hot grease. Do not panic, these were not eaten in succession (but fairly close). The only thing more clogged that my arteries after this effort was the Hanoi streets with the constant traffic. There were corn fritters which you could get freshly made in front of you. Any possible traces of germs would have been eviscerated in that angry oil. I would have loved to eat another seven of these but it would not have been humanly possible. Of all the fried food was the banana fritter. An old lady let out her frustrations on small over ripe bananas that got belted with a piece of wood, wrapped in cling film. These were then passed onto her husband who dunked them into his batter and then the oil. After a couple of beers, three of these really hit the spot. At a tick over one Australian dollar they don’t break the bank, only your bathroom scales. No fad ingredients, these would have been made the same way for many a year and they wouldn’t disappoint. Why anybody wanted to take a picture of a banana fritter had them puzzled but after some repeat business they didn’t care.
There were visits to a shop that specialised in deep fried parcels known as Pillow Cakes. I don’t think they would provide the neck support of your regular Tontine, but then again you can’t eat your pillow at home. Similar to a pastie or an empanada, it just shows that many cultures have their own interpretation of meat and vegetables wrapped in a pastry parcel. With these I ordered a shrimp cake, a scallop with a whole prawn attached to it. So crispy you could eat the whole shell. Sure it was slightly disconcerting to see the prawns little eyes frozen in time, staring at you, but one bite and that is the least of your worries. And you need to try a sesame ball anytime they are available. If you don’t you have broken the first commandment of travel to Asia, Thought shall not pass on sesame ball. For the health conscious there were also vegetarian options and in the name of research I had to try those and the seafood rolls.
One stall was selling a fried rice cake. Basically compressed rice which has been shallow fried, cut up into squares with a pair of old scissors (the brown was just bits of the crunchy outside rather than superficial rust I hope?). Comfort food Vietnamese style, with a bit of sauce and my day wasn’t going to get better after this. It was about this time I decided that the fried intake should come to a halt – not because of the taste, purely for my longevity.
It wasn’t all laughter and chewing in Hanoi. I did take time out to go and visit Hoa Lo Prison. This was built by the French when they were flexing their muscles and then it was used by the North Vietnamese in the Vietnamese/American war to house POWs. The Americans dubbed it the “Hanoi Hilton”. The setup of this exhibit was world class with nothing being sugar coated. Here that crossed paths with the guillotine had their heads shown to the public in baskets like a grizzly loaf of bread. They had pictures of these as part of this display along with the said guillotine. Many of the cells were still there and they do not warn you, but they had these filled with the most lifelike mannequins I had ever seen. Even the second and third times I cam across them in the exhibit, my brain had trouble processing that these were plastic. Some were mid beating, some begging for a scrap of food. I knew that it wasn’t going to be all happiness and light going into the prison but I didn’t expect to see such ghostly realism.
Part of the exhibit goes through the various incarnations of the building and one particular part mentions that a handful of prisoners escaped Shawshank Redemption style through the sewerage pipes. I would have been lucky to get one leg into this pipe let alone my entire body to swim through a river of deathly stench. The video presentation ends with something along the lines of “and in the mid 1990s forty percent of the cells were knocked down to make way for the Trade Centre complex”. That made me as upset as anything in the building itself. The exhibit finishes in a courtyard with a presentation about peace with smiling faces, doves and handshakes between various suited men front and centre.
Wanting to get an early night for the flight the next day I went to bed early but couldn’t sleep. Flicked the television on for a distraction but what I saw was that weird that I would never be able to sleep again. Some male supermodel turned yoga guru goes around and allegedly fixes up peoples ailments with learnings he has picked up from ten years in India from some hairy guru. This involved some creepy yoga and then buying the patient the world’s smallest one person tent. Don’t blame Vietnamese television, blame the Americans – it’s one of their shows and in syndication. The whole channel (Dr Fit) was fitness but if it wasn’t this show it was an aerobics show which was uncannily similar to Aerobics Oz Style or a reality show about the “challenges” yoga teachers in Los Angeles face. That reminds me I need to get back into the exercise on my return.
I did manage to get to the airport on time thanks to my taxi driver who was trying to watch YouTube while driving to try not to fall asleep at the wheel. How he managed to take up two lanes of the three lane highway out to the airport is one of his special talents. Between the three flights and the airport stopovers, it was thirty-something hours to get home. By the time we touched down in Sydney I was spent. Even the Qantas lounge gave me little respite. There are only a couple of different variations you can make to ham, cheese tomato toasted sandwiches. Most of the time there was spent talking to police after some property incidents back at home in Toowoomba. By the end of the five hour stopover in Sydney the vodka, lime and sodas were keeping me awake.
Barring the marathon trip home, this whole experience has been greater than I could have ever imagined. Vietnam is a country of hardworking people who might not give you the shirt off their back but they are more than happy to shout you a cob of corn and offer a friendly smile. For those that are possibly thinking about holidaying in Vietnam in the future the whole thing cost less than $2,100 AUD. That includes the return flights and the three internal ones, the sixteen nights accommodation, the medical costs and renewal of vaccines before I left along with the duty free alcohol on the way home, and most importantly all the food and drink that passed through my system and the following few blog entries. The traffic is something that I will never forget, especially the first time I had to navigate crossing the street, needing to mix it up in the sea of scooters. If I waited for a break in the traffic I would still be there now, transfixed by the relentless tooting of horns.
So don’t sit on the fence and pay them a visit (as soon as the travel bans get lifted). Who knows you could renew your vows much like this couple were going to do on the morning that I left (seriously)? What is normally a streetfood stall has been taken over by the set designer from The Durian Grower Wants A Wife. May the relationship be as warm (and spicy) as a bowl of pho. Who knows what the future will hold in the short term, the unpredictable cloud of coronavirus shows no sign of letting up? Hopefully I can take advantage of some holiday specials when the riddle gets solved and set off for more fun and adventure? I was incredibly lucky that I came home when I did. Ket thuc.