Reflections and stories on six months of life, culture, food and friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Lenin Park

This past weekend was a big holiday weekend here. September 2nd is Independence Day and this was the 60th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence by Ho Chi Minh in Ba Dinh Square. This is an intensely patriotic country, and every house hangs a flag for the holiday. Nonetheless, anyone who can tries to get out of town for the holiday weekend, because the city becomes a bit of a zoo. Originally my plans were to go to Hai Phong with a friend (his hometown), but his studies got in the way and our plans were abandoned. Plan B was to witness the big military parade down at Ba Dinh Square - until I discovered it was called for 7am. A colleague at work recommended I make my way down there at 3am. If he was joking he has a very dry sense of humour. In any case, I was told that if I wanted to go I'd have to walk; the xe om drivers wouldn't even try to get close because of gridlocked traffic. Needless to say, I decided to sleep in and pass on the goosestepping orgy.

Later in the evening there were firecracker displays at 5 locations in Hanoi. Andrew and I were out and about and didn't really intend to wade out in the chaos but got swept up in it. Before heading to pick up a friend of his on his chopper we had to stop by a building where he works. It's a huge posh marble building with a mall full of high-end designer stores and grand fountains at the entrance. He had some business to do and when we stepped out onto the terrace to leave we were faced by a sea of gridlocked bikes. Gradually the crowd edged into the building grounds and began to discover the marble fountains. The security guards seemed powerless. Instead of retreating to the top of the building to watch the fireworks from the roof, we waded out into the crowd, somehow crossed the intersection and into Lenin Park to watch the spectacle. I don't care about fireworks so much but it was great people-watching. Hanoians seem to overcome their reserve in large crowds.

I have been to Lenin Park for a morning run twice now. Apparently the park used to be a huge swampy dump but it was transformed into a leafy park centred around a large lake with several islands. It's quite a sight really early in the morning. The Vietnamese are health conscious and the park is packed at 6am when it is still cool. It's a weird kaleidescope of activity. Many people just walk or run the circuit around the lake, but there are also spontaneous aerobics classes (women only), ball-room dancing, lots of badminton, volleyball and even fishing. But my favourite are the old men and women doing tai chi like moves. I say "tai chi like" moves because they are completely idiosyncratic and are, I'm sure just made up on the spot. The tai chi improv often looks bizarre and comical. Then there are the teens practicing their breakdance/hip hop moves. It's hard to believe that these gangsta types wake up at 5:30am to practice their grooves. Last week I was trailing another runner making a loop around the lake when suddenly he broke into some kind of airborne kung fu move. All this frenetic morning activity evaporates quickly though. By the time my bus passes by the park on the way to work, it has mostly emptied out.

Well, no posting of mine is complete without a food update. Every day is a culinary adventure, though some dishes have just become absorbed into my routines. For instance, breakfasts are either pho (beef or chicken) or my new obsession: banh my trung, which is just a simple baguette stuffed with an omelette, cucumber and chili sauce. Yumm! And I could have both if I so desired for under a dollar. But there are two meals that are particularly noteworthy. Of course they were both meals introduced to me by Viet. He's not a foodie at all, but just keeps taking me to one brilliant (and dirt cheap) place after another. Sunday night 5 of us went again for lau (hotpot) at another one of these sidewalk joints. Hanoians say that hotpot season has begun since it is now "cool". I would never call a humid 32C cool, but any old excuse is fine by me. My first lau was all beef; this time it was almost everything but beef, including: clams, live jumbo shrimp (the lid was covered so I didn't have to watch them squirm), various types of tofu and greens, mushrooms, chicken, frog legs and pig brains. Frog legs were not new for me, but the brain was - very soft, tastes like liver. The broth was incredibly rich by the end when we added the noodles.

The other discovery was tonight on the way to the linen store to buy sheets for my new house (more on that later), when we stopped by a hole-in-the-wall specializing in eel. The main speciality was mien luon, which is a glass noodle soup topped with deep fried eels strips (no bones thankfully) and garnished with bean sprouts, lime juice, and chili sauce. I was starving and so had to follow it up with a bowl of chao luon (eel congee). I think the time has come for a really good Hanoi themed restaurant in Toronto. Saigonese restaurants are a dime of dozen, back home, but what about the poor neglected art of eel soup, sour snail soup, cha ca and bun cha! All I need is a little old Vietnamese lady to take me in as a cooking apprentice, and maybe a few silent business partners.

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