9 April – 2 May, pt. 3: Thaison Palace Hotel, Old Quarter, Hanoi
Adrian Cronauer: Here’s a little advice: Never eat in a Vietnamese restaurant next to a pound.
Robin Williams, as Adrian Cronauer, Good Morning, Vietnam
I know you’ve been waiting to read more about everything that’s fucked up with this country and laugh at my snarky misery, so here we go!
OK, get ready to laugh. The currency in Vietnam is called the Dong. Go ahead, get it out, I’ll wait…………..OK, done? Moving on. One American dollar is worth about 21,000 dong. If you have about 50 dollars, that’s one million…that’s a lot of dong! It would probably go further, if you ate the local cuisine, especially the street food, but….
Nearly every food travel show touts Vietnamese food as some of the best, kind of second tier behind Thailand, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Spain, France, and Italy. From my experience, I say BULLSHIT! We tried, we REALLY tried at first! We had some street food just across the street from our hotel our first full day here that was pretty good. There was rice noodles, broth, a variety of greens, chicken, and tofu. I didn’t really like the tofu, but everything else was pretty good! And they kept feeding us until we stood up to pay, and it was only about $5 for the two of us. One thing to know about eating at these street food stalls. The chairs are plastic stools that are about the size of what you’d expect in a preschool. It doesn’t even make sense for Vietnamese to be sitting in these chairs even though they’re all smaller than us. But still the food was alright. On another night, we had fried rice and what I can only describe as smoked water buffalo jerky, that our waiter was certain I wouldn’t like…but I did! Sure shocked the hell out of him! And we both liked the national dish, Pho (pronounced like the 1st two letters in “fuck”). It’s basically rice noodles in a beef or chicken broth, topped with assorted greens like mint, lemon grass , and parsley. But other than that, it was a series of bad experiences, topped off with when we went to an indoor restaurant down the street. They had burgers on the menu! Beef or chicken. Unfortunately, they told us that they were out of beef and chicken (again, a common occurrence). So my wife ordered what was called Vietnamese Spring Rolls. When they showed up, they smelled funny…like swamp ass. My wife, who’s eaten with Filipinos in Hawaii, took a bite, already suspecting what that bite confirmed it to be: Dog. Fucking dog! After that, we only ate foods that we were previously familiar with.
We went to a KFC, but their version was comparatively bland, surprisingly. They had a fast food burger chain here called Lotteria; tasted like fast food, though my wife liked their Teriyaki burger. Otherwise, we stuck to crap we could get at the grocery store and 3 restaurants. At the grocery store, we mostly got chips (they have Pringle’s here), chocolate (Kit Kat, Snicker’s, M&Ms are about the only familiar versions), soft drinks (most of the Coke brands), and bottled water (you can shower and brush your teeth with the tap water, but nothing else, unless you want to be sick in bed for a week, or worse. Dysentery is not your friend!). As for the other three, I’ll take them one at a time, in the order in which we visited them during the day.
The AB Restaurant: They offered many different things, but the ones we regularly went for were an American steak for $9 (better than any steak I ever had in America), spaghetti for about $7 (again better than any pasta we had in America), a Caesar salad for $4 (big enough to be a meal by itself, and better than most salads you can find in America) and big plate of fries for about $2. For meals, this was about the only place we ate meals at, unless we ordered room service, which we did a lot of just to have SOME variety.
Kem Ti Amo: The name combines Italian (Ti Amo means I love you) and Vietnamese (Kem means Ice Cream). The place is owned by a couple of French guys, but staffed by numerous cute Vietnamese girls who were all very nice to us, probably because we came there so often during our stay. Best. Chocolate. Ice. Cream. Ever. It was dark and rich, like eating Denzel Washington! There were other good flavors there too, but I never strayed too far from the chocolate. It was like an old-fashioned ice cream shop, with a wide variety of flavors and ways to have them. Glass dish, waffle cone, sundaes, shakes – you name it, they had it. Wonderful!
Shi Sha Bar: Shi Sha refers to tobacco with flavoring that you can smoke out of a hookah, but we never tried that. We mostly went there to drink and smoke. I usually had a Tiger beer, probably the best Vietnamese beer out there, though probably not the cheapest. My wife found here perhaps the only place in the Old Quarter that could do a decent Long Island Ice Tea. After various traumatic tourism experiences in this town, we frequented this place probably more than we should’ve, but it worked wonders on our outlook on life!
So that’s it for food and money. Tomorrow, I’ll get into the sights, sounds, and smells of this city. It won’t be pleasant.
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston