Sunday, April 08, 2007


We arrived at the airport in Hanoi and were met by Huyen's sister, Mai, and her father, Khang holding a sign with our names on it. Her parents barely speak any English at all, so Mai was to be our translator for our stay there. We hopped in her father's van (we later learned that he drives a van for a living) and he drove us through the busy Hanoi streets back to his home. It sure was busy. We asked if it was normally this busy, and Mai told us it was just like this because it was New Year's Eve. Really? It was? We had thought we were coming on the day before Tet, but because of a one day discrepancy between the Chinese and Vietnamese lunar calendars, we miscalculated and arrived right in the middle of the festivities. They sure were nice for picking us up in the middle of all that traffic, and they must have thought we were crazy.

Hanoi streets were really different to us because they were filled with motorbikes. Huyen's father had to honk his horn a lot to maneuver through the crowd.

Huyen's mother met us out by a main street and led us on foot through the convoluted alleys to get to her house. The house was really wonderful.

All the houses in Hanoi are really skinny and tall because at one time there was a tax on the width of your house. Her house was 4 stories tall. The first floor had a living room that didn't really have a door, so much as a gate that opened up into a little courtyard/entryway. Towards the back of the first floor was a kitchen. Upstairs were two bedrooms and a bathroom. The third floor contained what we would call the master bedroom. Then from there the stairs led up to a laundry room, which was basically just a space for a clothes line with a roof over it, and to the roof.

When we got there we moved into our room and Thanh (Huyen's mother) made us chicken Pho and after dinner we moved to the living room for tea and snacks and television. This was pretty much the routine after every meal that we ate in Hanoi. We got to see the Tet festivities all over the country on TV, just like New Year's in the US. Then at midnight, we went up to the roof where Thanh had created an altar with the 5 fruits of Tet (sapodilla, pomello, banana, oranges, and mango in this case) plus a whole cooked chicken. Mai explained to us that the time between midnight and 12:01 was a sacred time because it was a moment between the two years. For that one minute, she lit incense and prayed to her ancestors (its a matrilineal system so the women of the household are responsible for most spiritual stuff). From the roof we could see a similar scene happening on just about every rooftop in sight. We could also see fireworks being set off on all sides of us.

They told us that the next day we would just stay at home and rest and we soon found out why. Tet is a very family oriented holiday and we spent the day being visited by 5 or 6 different waves of relatives. Each time someone came, they seemed to just be dropping by. Everyone had tea, pumpkin seeds, other Tet snacks, and the men all had cigarettes even though Thanh seemed to frown upon the habit. Then they would leave just as abruptly as they came. Our part in all this consisted of smiling, repeating our names, and shaking hands. We also got the opportunity to practice our Vietnamese by saying "chuc mung nam moi" a billion times, which means "happy new year". We could tell that Thanh told everyone excitedly that we were Huyen's friends, that we were from America, and that we ate Pho the previous night.

So sometime in the afternoon we had a special Tet meal.

This was the first official meal of the new year. It's good luck if you can eat the whole thing! In that picture you can see red sweet rice, boiled chicken with salt pepper and lime juice dipping sauce, a type of pork sausage, a type of beef sausage, pickled shallots, and in the lower right corner you can see Nem. Nem are fried spring rolls (called cha gio in the south) and they were amazing. Huyen's mom makes the best spring rolls either Lyndsay or I have ever had ever ever ever. MMMMM. The Vietnamese word for sauce is "cham" which we learned very quickly as it was difficult to keep track of which sauce was for which food. We also had a special Tet food that's not in the picture called banh chung. Banh chung is a square "cake" of sticky rice about five inches across filled with mung beans and pork. It's extremely filling, but delicious. We were excited about this because it's one of Huyen's favorite foods.

The next day we went out with Mai and her father to see the city. We took the bus which only costs 2,000 dong (16,000 dong = $1). First we went to Hoan Kiem Lake, which means restored sword lake. It is called this because one day the Emperor was walking past the lake with the magical sword given to him by the gods to defeat the French when along came a gigantic turtle who snatched the sword and sunk back into the lake, thus restoring the sword to the gods. We walked over the famous Huc bridge and got to see a temple and a taxidermied giant turtle.

These guys apparently really exist in the lake.

After that we told our guides we wanted to go see the big market in Hanoi, Cho Dong Xuan. We got there by bus and walking just to see that it was closed.

In fact, everything was closed.

Throughout Vietnam, most businesses close for at least 5 days after Tet. All the temples and other lucky places were open and very busy though. Next we went to what our guide book called the Temple of Literature and what Mai called the first university of Hanoi. Everyone there was rubbing the heads of these turtles.

These turtles supported stelae, which from what I gathered are stone tablets that describe the academic accomplishments of Mandarins. I think it is something given at a graduation of sorts. By rubbing the heads of the turtles, you can get some of the intelligence from the Mandarin whose stela is on the turtle's back. Bill Clinton did just this!

Next they took us to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum complex, which turned out to be closed.

We thought it was maybe because his embalmed body was off in Russia to be repaired, but later we learned that it's just not open in the afternoons. It's okay though, we weren't dressed properly anyway.

We decided to go home for lunch and on the way back Mai insisted that we stop for ice cream. We said no thanks, so they just bought it for us. The cone was like a wafer cookie and the ice cream was really light, more like ice milk. We were glad they bought it for us. After lunch we decided to call it a day, since everything was closed.