Jude and Mickey Mouse at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

One of the many pleasures of Hanoi is waking up at 5 a.m., walking (or running) to Hoan Kiem Lake, and seeing the city come alive—with hundreds of people of all ages, but more in the 60-80 year-old range, exercising together.  (The average age seems to drop later in the morning, with more people in their 20s and 30s exercising by 6:30 or so.)  Seeing so many people come together before dawn to move around and stay healthy and limber is an incredible and inspiring sight.

Patrick and I each picked a morning to get up early (way before Jude gets up) and witness firsthand—what must be— the world’s largest collective lakeside workout session.  On my morning, I jumped out of bed at 5 a.m., threw on workout clothes, and walked past the hotel employees sleeping in the lobby and into the still-dark Hanoi street.

Our hotel was a couple of blocks from the lake, and other exercisers were also making their way over to the lake in the near pitch black.  (Best part of walking around at that hour?  The traffic hasn’t yet become too insane and it’s possible to cross the street without feeling as if you are putting your life on the line.  More on the traffic below.)

Arriving at the lake, it was startling to see so many people up and active at that hour.  I walked around the lake twice, the first time in the dark with only the light of colorful lanterns reflecting on the water and a few lit buildings in the distance.

Toward the end of the morning workout at Hoan Kiem Lake (Temple of the Jade Mountain in background)

Hundreds of people of all ages were performing calisthenics, aerobics, running, and simple stretching.  Barbells and free weights appeared out of seemingly nowhere (and later disappeared just as fast after sunrise), and people used them, sitting on park benches, in groups and alone.

I heard the first large-scale aerobics class before I saw it.  Loud upbeat techno blared as a workout instructor barked instructions through a megaphone.  Getting closer I saw that the class (of mostly women) took up a park square across the street from the lake, and even more people who could not fit in the square were participating across the street, next to the lake.

I was also struck by the lack of self-consciousness of all of the exercisers that I saw.  In the aerobics classes, elderly woman thrust their hips rhythmically to the techno, seemingly not caring who saw and what they thought.  More than that, people with all different levels of fitness were out exercising, from the very buff to the chubby, and they were doing it in whatever clothes they felt like (or maybe had access to), Western-style gym outfits in some cases, but more often loose-fitting casual pants and button-up shirts.

Mopeds in Hanoi

It turns out, though, that walking for exercise in Hanoi is a lot more fun that walking for transportation.  Hanoi is a city of mopeds, and the traffic comes fast and furious.  There are traffic lights, but they generally do not slow traffic enough that you can get across without dodging mopeds.  As a friend described, it’s a “big free for all.”  There must be a body of literature about crossing the street in Hanoi—it is a known danger.  The consensus strategy is to walk slowly with no sudden movements; give moped drivers time to see and go around you; once you commit and are in the middle of the road, do not turn back; the moped traffic will never let up so do not bother waiting for a break—you’ll be waiting all day; and never walk in front of a bus or car.

My strategy for extra-crowded streets was to wait for a Vietnamese person to show up, and walk across the street next to them.  (When I saw a woman carrying a massive amount of tall plywood trying to cross the street, I jumped at the opportunity to walk next to her—That’s my woman!  No one will want to hit her!)  A tip for parents—no strollers—a backpack is an absolute must if you plan to leave your hotel room.

On a sad note, en route to Halong Bay, we drove by a young woman dead on the side of the highway, who had been riding her moped in fast traffic.  She had just been hit and had not yet been cleared off the road.  The haunting image stuck with us, and has colored the way we view the risky driving we see so often in the developing world.  It is hard not to wince when you see a toddler, Jude’s age, standing up unprotected on a moped between two parents, while speedy drivers whiz around him talking on cellphones.  Several people have also told us that drunk driving is a problem in Vietnam.   Large red banners adorn roadsides, admonishing drivers to drink juice, not alcohol.  (Interesting aside, other tourists we met in Halong Bay also saw the dead moped rider, slightly after we had; their tour guide threw several bills out of the car window, and the tourists saw a pile of cash by the side of the road.  This mirrors the Lao funeral we saw in Ban Xang Hai.  Men and women played cards for money at different tables.  The winners of both sexes’ games split their takes with the family of the deceased.)

Our guide in Hue and Hoi An told us that, on average, over 30 people a day die in motorbike/moped accidents in Vietnam.  Helmets are required, but often look more like plastic baseball hats than the sturdy type required at home.  Patrick checked some helmets out for sale in Hue, and the average price was just $1.70.

On our first morning in Hanoi, we headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum—the leader’s final resting place.  We learned in Moscow while visiting Lenin’s Mausoleum that two-year-olds and communist icons’ mausoleums do not mix.  Since the Vietnamese military guards looking over Ho Chi Minh’s body carry guns, and silence is absolutely mandatory, we took no chances.  Patrick went in to see Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body, and Jude and I played in the square outside.  Patrick reports that the experience was almost identical in layout and feel to that of visiting Lenin.  (According to our guide, Ho Chi Minh is shipped to Russia every year for two months for preservation maintenance.)

Together we visited the place where Ho Chi Minh lived for many years, a basic house on stilts.  (He did not have ostentatious taste and lived simply.)  Here our guide pointed out to us a group of North Vietnamese Army veterans from the countryside, who, according to our guide, are provided a government-paid trip to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, available to veterans a few times a year.

The veterans took a special interest in Jude.  When several of them got their hands on him and Jude appeared terrified, our guide joked that Jude had been captured by the enemy.  Patrick had just said this to me moments before.  What a difference 35 years can make, on both sides, in the healing process.

Although the Vietnam War weighs heavy on the American psyche, Vietnamese appear to consider America just another in a long line of intruders.  Of course there were the French, who were here for nearly 100 years, and many others before them including the Chinese.  People we met in Hanoi referred to the Vietnam War as the “American War.”  (Now we are in Central Vietnam, scene of heavy fighting during the War, and our guide refers to the Vietnam War as the “Civil War.”)

The War Museum in Hanoi was of special interest, and contained a lot of American military vehicles.  Most were captured during or at the end of the Vietnam War, and appear to look exactly as they did when they were last used.  Jude enjoyed playing in an American CH-47 Chinook Helicopter which had been deployed to South Vietnam in 1965, and pretended to take it out for a spin.  When I entered the cockpit I noticed a bullet hole in the cracked windshield—a frightening reminder of the horrors of war.

American CH-47 Chinook Helicopter

Other vehicles such as American tanks were on display on the museum’s ground, and open for anyone to climb on or inspect in detail without supervision.  In addition there were American bombs, including those designed to kill Vietcong on the Ho Chi Minh Trail; a Vietnamese torpedo launcher used in the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964; a Soviet-built missile launcher which shot down a US B-52 bomber over Hanoi in 1972; and many other relics.  There was also an interpretive sculpture of sorts on display: an amalgamation of several French and US aircrafts shot down by Vietnamese anti-aircraft gunmen.  Exploring these pieces (the intact and destroyed) behind the museum, primarily by ourselves, in what felt like someone’s back garden, was a bit surreal—but very interesting.

Later in the day we visited the “Hanoi Hilton” (real name: Hỏa Lò Prison) where John McCain was a POW, and saw the flight-suit, shoes, and other items, including parachute, he had on him when he was captured in October 1967.

Thanksgiving dinner in Hanoi

We happened to be in Hanoi for Thanksgiving, and wondered what we would do to celebrate.  With a little research, we ended up at Don’s—a great restaurant overlooking West Lake.  Don had turkeys sent to Vietnam from his native Canada, and prepared a full, traditional American Thanksgiving meal for all ex-pats and visitors who joined him.  When we arrived, there was a room full of American children playing with toys and eating pizza.  Jude jumped into the fun, and Patrick and I headed upstairs to the roof for turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and other familiar dishes.  It was a delicious meal.  I will never forget eating a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in a t-shirt on a roof deck in Hanoi.

If you come to Hanoi with a child, or even without a child, the “Water Puppets” are a must.  This tradition dates back to the 11th century, when villagers would use this form of puppetry to entertain themselves when the rice fields were flooded.  The Water Puppets were beautiful and made of lacquered wood.  They rose out of the watery stage, or came in from the side, then danced, played, worked, and performed feats such a jumping through a ring of (real) fire, all above the water (which was at the level of the stage).  The puppets were manipulated by bamboo poles and performed to the backdrop of live Vietnamese music called chèo, which sounds like a hybrid of folk music and opera.  We thought the 45-minute show was great—but Jude was an even bigger fan, carrying around the Water Puppets brochure like a toy for days afterwards.

Jude at Halong Bay

After Hanoi, we headed to Halong Bay City to take an overnight boat tour around the famous karsts.  Halong Bay is in the Northeast part of Vietnam, in the Gulf of Tonkin and South China Sea.  Several thousand large limestone karsts stick out of the beautiful blue-green waters.  It is a special place, and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We hiked to and through a cave on an island, and Patrick jumped in a kayak and paddled around karsts at sunset while Jude and I played in the sand.  The next morning, we were rowed in a small boat through a “floating village” by a very strong local with a winning grin who appeared to be in his 70s.

Banh cuon

After Halong Bay, we returned to Hanoi, and had another great meal at a place recommended by our Brooklyn foodie good friend, Audrey.  It was a small hole-in-the-wall-type place, with wooden stools and the kitchen outside, just off the sidewalk.  There is no menu—you just sit, and point to the drink you want from the refrigerator (if you don’t speak Vietnamese).  They make only one item, which gets plopped down in front of you on arrival: a thin pancake/crepe/dumpling, made with rice flour and a little bit of edible alabaster, and is called banh cuon.  Inside is typically minced pork, fried onion, and mushrooms.  On top is more fried onion, shredded shrimp, and fragrant cilantro.  You dip it in a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce which has a bit of kick.

The kitchen - the sidewalk is just to the right of the metal pots

The other diners (except friends from our Halong Bay boat tour) were all Vietnamese, always a good sign, and the banh cuon was fantastic.  While in Vietnam we learned that this particular place was visited by Anthony Bourdain on one of his visits to Hanoi for his show No Reservations, yet there was no mention of it anywhere in the restaurant.  Banh cuon is a specialty of Hanoi, and for $2.50, you can’t go wrong—yummy!!

A few notes:

If you visit Halong Bay: We took the largest boat from a well-respected company (good safety record, environmental footprint, etc.), thinking it would be best for Jude to have more room to move around.  I recommend taking the largest boat possible for anyone else making this trip with a child.  (There were 19 people and 11 cabins on our boat.)  We also loved the opportunity to meet a lot of people.  Others may prefer a smaller boat for a more intimate experience.

A note on spelling: I have used the most common Western spelling of Vietnamese place names.  In Vietnamese, which uses the Roman alphabet (with accents), Hanoi is actually, “Hà Nội,” Halong Bay is actually “Ha Long (Bay),” and Vietnam is actually “Việt Nam.”


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  3 Responses to “American Thanksgiving in Vietnam and Sweating it off with the Locals”

  1. As usual, WONDERFUL post! I admire your bravery (traffic bravery)! From your description, the traffic in Viet Nam, Hanoi anyway, seems worse than in India? I have loved any Vietnamese food that I have had the fortune to taste here in Albany – we do have one quite good Vietnamese restaurant and I enjoy their banh cuon very much!

  2. Drooling over the banh cuon right now as I’m in St. Lucia (btw, I don’t know how you can travel with J as we are barely surviving 1 week here with C). Anyhoo, maybe I’ll have to have you guys ship me the crepe pan/basket to me bc I crave it and haven’t been able to find anything half as decent as the one there- it just melts in your mouth! AND how could I forget about the puppet show- it reminded me of the early 80’s show, Boomerang! Stay safe and happy eating!!

  3. Skeleton Coast – Lonely Planet

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