the best way to enrich your travel experience
We've had great days here in Hanoi, but the most precious of those involve reconnecting with local friends. What a treat it's been to visit with Gerry (go to the Cine Cafe and the Hanoi Cinematheque- a true oasis in the city!), and to spend time with Hung and to meet his wife and baby for the first time. I can't believe I've known Gerry and Hung for nine years! They look the same to me. Hung and his wife, Phuong, took us to a nearby bun cha place. L got her first taste of the bacony-noodley concoction and loved it. Afterwards we got a cheap sim card for the cell phone we'd brought from the States. The next night, Hung, L and I went in search of my favorite- Cha Ca La Vong. There's a newer, larger location (the original is still there). After much driving around (me on the back of a xe om -the back of a driver's motorbike for hire; L on the back of Hung's motorbike), we found a cha ca restaurant. When Hung went in, he learned it was a different place than the La Vong business. We thought that might be acceptable, since we'd just spent fifteen minutes weaving in and out of Old Quarter traffic while the night market was being set up.
My xe om driver asked another driver where La Vong was, and it turned out to be just down the block. Back on the bikes for a quick ride, then into the restaurant. Just as we were sitting down at our table, Hung said "it's Mr. Chau!" And to my amazement, my old friend (and gifted painter and scenic designer) was seated at the table next to ours! His eyes about popped out his head to see me, too- I had sent emails announcing my pending arrival, but the tides of communication flow strangely in Vietnam, and he hadn't gotten word. He was seated with a few people from the BBC, and we had a great time catching up, eating the best cha ca in Vietnam!
We made plans to visit upon our return from Ha Long Bay. In the meantime, Hung was helping us connect with my friends in the Tuong Theatre, Vietnam's formal traditional theatrical form. I'd successfully reached one of the musicians, and his grown son sent me a text message- we would be guests at his father's house and then would attend a Tuong performance at a venue I know very well- we rehearsed at the Hong Ha for about a week prior to our Midsummer Night's Dream opening night back in 2000. Here's where the enriching experience comes in: there's nothing that shows the distinction between being a tourist and a traveler than being welcomed into someone's home. There, you the traveler can get a true sense of the country, the town, the village you're visiting. The silly difficulty of trying to hold a conversation when you don't speak the other's language can be handled with more grace and humor than when you're out and about trying to negotiate a tour package or simply buy a nail clipper. We were greeted at Mr. But's home with warmth, joy and an amazing spread that his wife and daughter had prepared for us. The family lives in the performers' compound for the National Tuong Theatre. The taxi driver had a hell of a time finding the right entrance- I kept passing my cell phone to him so he could be talked in by a family friend. When we reached the gates, I saw familiar faces right away: the actress Minh Gai, actor Quang Cuong and musician Van But. We went down an exterior corridor, into a stairwell where we removed our shoes, and climbed two flights of steep spiral stairs to the family living room. Nine of us sat at the table- some with a little English, me with a little Vietnamese language, all of us with a sense of adventure. After a kingly amount of food (every time L or I would turn around, someone was placing another morsel in our bowls!), Mr. But broke out the local booze- some light colored concoction that had been poured into an old Hennessy bottle. Rice wine, I think he said, more like whiskey! It is rude to not toast and drink when someone offers a toast, and there were many toasts! There was great joy around the table with the excitement of our arrival and the introduction of new friends and family. When we couldn't possibly eat another bite we all retired to the sitting area and they fed us tea and mung bean cakes then plied us with gifts of food, tea, coffee and fruit. We left with the promise to see a performance at the Tuong Theatre that same night.
Afterwards, Ms. Gai (one of the leading actresses of Tuong), But and Cuong (who played the drunk prince) took us to a little pho place just down the street. This was a typical Hanoi street stall, with tiny plastic stools, funky little folding tables and extraordinarily fresh food- suffice it to say there were chickens wandering around right where we were seated.
With a student actor as translator, we had a lot of laughs, shared a couple of cold beers with our late night noodle soup into which we dunked something like a frybread made of rice flour. Another stop at Cafe 53 for a smooth, strong cup of coffee, and L & I said our goodbyes and headed over to the Cinematheque. You really can't do better than to hang out with the locals, have them share their family time with you- this gets you closer to an authentic experience of the place to which you have travelled. We felt fortunate to have enjoyed the company of our our hosts.