Hanoi looked like I thought China would look but didn't: choked with motorbikes, shabbily clean, and tightly packed. There isn't as much street food as in China, and there aren't as many restaurants. The old people exercising around the lake were doing aerobics, not tai chi. Nobody cared that there were white people walking around with rolling suitcases at 6AM, whereas in most places we went in China, that alone would have guaranteed onslaughts of hellos.
I hit Hanoi running with the intention of eating everything in sight, but at first, and I can't believe these words are about to fall from my fingertips, the food didn't turn out to be that earth-shattering. (I'm writing this from Hue, where the food actually IS wonderful, but that's a story for another entry.) We had bun cha Ha Noi for our first lunch, and it was blandly pleasant. Bun rieu cua for breakfast the second day and while the broth was complex and delicious, the rest was just filler. Banh cuon for dinner the second night, and it was mostly rice noodle. There was one dish that just killed us with flavor and crunch and that was a dish of deep-fried eel vermicelli. The eel was like bacon, and coupled with eel porridge and grilled eel salad, it made my average-food-dampened spirits lift. We promptly put in another order, and almost (but didn't, but should have) got a bag of the deep fried eel to go.
The one touristy thing we said we'd do, we did: go see Halong Bay. Time constraints left us with no choice but to do a day trip. The interminable bus ride and obligatory 'bathroom' stops at tourist-geared souvenir shops didn't do a thing to make the boat trip not worth it. The day was hazy and it was even threatening us with typhoons, but they missed us and we got to cruise around the mountains in ships and kayaks. My dad's kayak had a leak and he had to book it back to the dock, and then Julian and I got stuck behind a houseboat, which was guarded by an angry dog, but these things, similarly, did nothing to make the kayak trip not worth it. The water was tropically warm and smooth as glass, and the cove we entered was blocked on all sides by massive island-mountains so that we couldn't hear any ship noise.
Ladies selling delicious rambutan and mangosteen on the side of the road have brightened each and every day, especially at the (probably technically rip-off) price of 75 cents a pound for rambutan and a dollar a pound for mangosteen. How many rambutan shells and mangosteen rinds have Vietnamese gutters gained because of me? Probably somewhere in the thousands. I can't even wait to get home and wash my hands before I start shoving it in. Incidentally, there is absolutely no reason I have not yet contracted typhoid. I've eaten fruit out of the dirty-nailed hands of vendors, drank nuoc mia and passion fruit juice out of pitchers with visible dirt streaks and the buildup of years of mold, retrieved durian I dropped on the ground, failed to wash any thin-skinned fruit I've bought, and then of course there are the meals upon meals of street food cooked in pots on the curb that I've had. My travel clinic nurses would be very angry.