I am not going to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, I think to myself. I don’t feel like going to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. But, I have to go to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.
Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum is something I always suggest to my tour groups when visiting Hanoi. It’s what you do in Hanoi. Along with unintentionally getting lost.
I’m drinking hotel breakfast coffee, which is not really coffee but a grittier substance, maybe charcoal water with chocolate undertones. I’m on my fifth cup and watching powerful raindrops hit the motorbike greased sidewalk in the Old Quarter. After careful analysis, I’ve decided there is no caffeine is this charcoal water and more importantly, I will not go to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.
Instead, I will get intentionally get lost.
I find myself first behind a Chinese temple overlooking Hanoi’s West Lake. Making spontaneous lefts and rights, I pass sleeping workers and a guy shooting up, locals drinking coffee with a side of Red Bull on tiny plastic stools, and beautiful French-influenced shophouses draped in plants and vegetation.
I circle the lake, then completely backtrack, and circle the neighboring lake. When it comes to lakes, one cannot just stroll past a lake – you must take the perimeter. (I have a thing for doing perimeters).
While I’m trying to walk the perimeter of the second lake, I get distracted by a dilapidating building facade on an alleyway.
I follow that alleyway, allowing myself to get distracted by many things.
I discover a second-hand, English-language bookshop. When you discover second-hand, English-language bookshops, man, that is the jackpot. Call it a day. Have a beer. Work here is done.
The Bookworm, “The Most Little Bookshop in Southeast Asia,” is Hanoi’s charmingest, most little bookshop. Three floors of incredibly reasonably priced books! Murals on the wall! Obscure titles! A clean bathroom! Free copies of WordVietnam!
Alas, I buy no books. I’m already carrying around five books, two of which are hardcovers (idiot), which is far too many when you’re trying to keep the total weight in your 1.5 backpacks under 20 kilos. But I note the bookshop on my map, and decide that I’m dehydrated and it’s time to drink something.
I get a coffee, a real good, strong, dehydrating Vietnamese black coffee, which means the coffee is never really black. It means your coffee has a thick layer of condensed sweetened milk, a syrupy concoction you find in every meal here in Southeast, but something westerners reserve only for desserts.
It’s strong. I taste liquor. I don’t question it.
I drink my liquor coffee and practice my Vietnamese. It’s critical I learn several key phrases in the countries I pass through.
“No thank you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I like dangerous adventures.”
“No plastic bags, please.”
Once I feel I’ve mastered this, I finish my liquor coffee, and set off with the intent to walk past the Presidential Palace and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Like I said, I am just not going in there today, but maybe I can walk past it. And then it starts to rain.
After an hour of wandering around the area and having an intense, like really, the most intense, circling, internal dialogue I’ve ever had about whether or not I should go into HCMC’s mausoleum – I mean. I’m here. It’s free. Why not? – I decide against it, as I had already concluded this morning that I would not, and decide I am nowhere near hungry, but it’s time to eat something to spice the afternoon up a bit.
I go to a corner shop that specializes in “che.”
I know I’m destined to try the che here because this lady’s che stand has at least 20 bowls of che “additives.”
Let me tell you about che. Che is a Vietnamese dessert, with variations all across Southeast Asia. It’s a medley of sugar, protein, fiber, fun. They put kidney beans, barley, mung beans, grass jelly, random stuff covered in tapioca flour, coconut jelly, corn, taro root, coconut milk, more random stuff, molasses or brown sugar syrup, and ice, all into one cup, and you just eat it. It’s the greatest diversity of textures and flavors in one dessert experience, and I rave about it, and then I tell my tour groups to try it, and while they just look at me with blank expressions and chew, I absolutely know, they must be enjoying it.
I always enjoy che. This place in Bangkok, Thailand, does it real good, at Chatuchak. It’s where I first tried che; first fell in love. And the desire for it has been with me ever since. I use the word “desire” here to convey the fact that when I order one cup of this goodness, I find two more stalls and order two more variations of it.
Because no one che is ever the same. That’s the best part. Every vendor offers different additives, different proportions. Every che lady watches me eat the dessert with a mixed look of contentment and surprise on their face. They motion for me to “stir it up,” but I’m no Bob Marley. I like to taste each individual component of my che, you know? It’s how I approach my Chipotle burritos. Gotta know what the parts taste like before you taste the sum.
So after the best che I’ve had to date, I move on. I’ve already decided I’m not going to HCMC’s Mausoleum, nor any other museum or mausoleum or -eum at this point, because it’s already after five. Instead, I decide the che has only made me hungrier, and I must eat, again.
I find Pho 24. It’s a chain restaurant that serves pretty good, standardized pho around Vietnam. They serve it with a help-yourself quantity of bean sprouts, chili peppers, holy basil, and lime, along with chili sauce and hoisin sauce. This I like, because I think condiments are more than half the fun when it comes to eating. And it’s pretty good pho.
The manager, Son, comes by and peers into my soup, where I have the remains of squeezed lime floating about. He tells me I’m not supposed to eat the lime, but rather just squeeze its juice in my pho. I think I must have looked like I was going to eat the lime.
Anyways, I get to talking to Son, and Ton, the waiter. Son talks with a smile, stares with a smile. Basically, I do not know this man without a smile. It appears as if his lips just stay curled up. The man is friendly, and if you can believe his curled, smiling lips, he even looks friendly.
Son is from Danang, a central beach city in Vietnam. He likes Hanoi for the women.
“Ahh, I understand,” I say knowingly. “They wear very short skirts here.”
“Oh no!” Son laughs. “They wear ao dai.” Ao dai is traditional Vietnamese dress, a long, silk tunic over wide-pleated pants.
Whatever you say, Son. I continue to eat my pho in ways that take local Vietnamese aback, drinking the broth first, searching for its subtle spice. Slowly chewing through the fillets of beef, applying different ratios of hoisin to chilli to soy sauce to the meat. Eating bean sprouts and herb mixtures by the mouthful. And then experimenting with the noodles. Son and I chat about our jobs, why I don’t have a boyfriend (I’m not Asian — read: exotic), why I don’t have a Vietnamese boyfriend (I’m twice their size), and when I’ll get a boyfriend (Son, you tell me). After I finish, we become Facebook friends, say our goodbyes, and I’m off exploring again.
The rest of the day is slightly less interesting. I wander into art galleries, down alleys, get lost, drink more coffee, buy weird tropical fruit, switch to beer because I need to replace the four pounds of water weight I’ve sweated off in the past five hours with something hydrating, get lost, and eat a kebab.
Then, I hop on an overnight train to central Vietnam. I spend the evening thinking about what I’ll get into the next time I’m in Hanoi and successful at talking myself out of visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.