Men and women who know themselves are no longer fools; they stand on the threshold of the door of wisdom.
~ Havelock Ellis
I’ve met people from many different countries, and it still surprises me every time I encounter an avid traveller who has been to everywhere BUT the places closest to where they are from. Kiwis who have been to the UK and back several times, but never visited Australia (or Invercargill, while I’m at it). Germans who have backpacked everywhere and never set foot in Berlin. French people who haven’t explored Spain or London (since, they declare, France already has the best of everything…).
I could go on… if not for the stark realisation that I too am quite unfamiliar with Southeast (and the rest of) Asia. I’d rather attempt to make linzertorte than shock anyone with my (“what is that?”) stir fry or noodle soup. Every time I go back to Singapore for a visit now, at least one person will ask me if I am a tourist (apparently I also have a “foreign face”, whatever that means, and a warped accent). If I try to speak Cantonese in Hong Kong, I already know that whoever I am speaking to will quickly reply “where are you from?” before quoting me tourist prices.
That said, I wouldn’t trade my heritage and upbringing for anything. Southeast Asia is pretty special.
A few years ago, my parents took me to Hanoi, Vietnam – a generous graduation gift. I still remember feeling more culture shock there than I have in places further afield from home.
For one, I experienced, for the first time in years, a strong desire to clutch my mother’s hand as we crossed the roads. Road-crossing there is for the sure-footed, bold people who better believe in life after death. You have to step out and keep walking, eyes shut or otherwise, while all the cars toot helpfully as they circle around you. You can’t stop, and you can’t run – you have to walk at a measured pace so the cars and motorbikes can work to it. I can’t even remember if there were working traffic lights there – it seemed that everything was communicated via tooting and body language and some other language of organised chaos I had not yet learned.
Hanoi was gorgeous, though. It’s one of the few places that, if you look carefully, will clearly show you how little you need in terms of material goods to be happy. Sure, money helps a lot – and I am not glossing over the fact that I did walk past overcrowded houses where my heart ached for the people who had to live in them. I did have moments where I hated poverty, hated the fact that even as I gave one child some money and a smile – that even if I spent a year doing that to every child I saw, there’d still be many others who were hungry and had to live in overcrowded houses.
But. I remember seeing a grandma, a kid and a dad perched on a motorbike, laughing into the wind. I remember a lady who served me a steaming bowl of pho grinning like it had been her lifelong dream to serve noodles. I remember how fantastically wealthy I felt as my eyes took in the untouched beauty of Ha Long Bay. I remember that earthy Vietnamese coffee, mellow and gently sweetened with condensed milk. I remember the creative talent that flowed in so many nooks and crannies everywhere we went – silk, shoes, tapestry. I remember tasting amazing fruit and having to lick my sticky juice-splashed fingers. I remember a lot of smiling faces. I remember wondering if I’d be smiling if I lived in some of those houses that we saw.
It was great to remember all of that as Tracey, J and I dined at Vietnam Gourmet Restaurant last night. The interior is simple rather than lavish, and most people appeared to be having steamboat (looked good). There were families and groups of friends… and when our food arrived, I understood why there were so many people there. Portions were so generous, and the food was fresh and beautifully prepared. The staff were friendly. I loved the Vietnamese mint and elements in my dish, and thought about all the things I love about good Vietnamese food as I ate: uncomplicated, fresh, lightly sweet and sour, and real.
Tracey and J also loved their food, and had enough leftovers to take home for lunch today too. We paid less than $60 altogether for: lemongrass chicken and rice; spring rolls; fried noodles with combination meat; a jackfruit shake (I was pretty excited to see this on the menu – I have not seen jackfruit in NZ and love it); a glass of coffee; and my chef’s vermicelli (which, as you can see in the picture below, packs a punch). Money gladly spent.
Pictures in this post (with the exception of the Chef’s Vermicelli above) are pictures I took on my trip to Hanoi a few years ago.
Vietnam Gourmet Restaurant – 38 East Tamaki Road, Papatoetoe, Auckland – Phone: 09 278 7286