Of Bánh Mì, Turtles and The Giant Lotus, Part I

By Namira Hossain

Traffic in Hanoi, Vietnam can only be described as ‘zen chaos’ if you can ever imagine such a thing. Everything moves along at its’ own pace, and crossing the street is like playing a game where one has to walk slowly and steadily to avoid the onslaught of motorcycles which even swerve onto the pavements from time to time! There are four million motorcycles on the road in Hanoi alone, because with the exception of the very elderly, almost every single Vietnamese owns a motorbike. In Vietnam, it is considered a rite of passage to attain your motorcycle driving license at the age of 18.

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That was the first thing I noticed, during my 30 km ride from NoiBai airport to the city centre – the sheer number of motorcycles on the road. The colourful buildings and architecture too, had a quaint feel to them but mostly, my travelling companions and I agreed that upon first impression, Vietnam seems highly developed, and not just for a country that was besieged by war about 40 years ago, much like our own. We reached our hotel, the Hilton Hanoi Opera at 10:00am in the morning, leaving us with the entire day to spend as we chose to. The hotel’s name is borrowed from the fact that it is a mere stone’s throw away from the Opera House in Hanoi’s famed Old Quarter.

The first mission of the day for us was to hunt down a bánhmì, a sandwich that essentially summarises Vietnam’s history inside a baguette. The bánhmì made its first appearance in the 1880’s, which was when the French started their expansion within Indochina. That is when the whole culinary scene began to change with foreign imports such as coffee, of which Vietnam grows some of the best in the world became introduced to the local scene.

Nowadays, variations of this sandwich can be found on every street corner. Under the French rule, which lasted till 1954, the bánhmì merely consisted of a loaf of bread, butter, ham and pâté. After the Vietnamese gained independence is really when the bánhmì took on a life of it’s own as the Vietnamese added their own flavours to it. Characterised by its’ crusty yet soft baguette, pickled carrots and cucumbers, fresh cilantro and pâté – this sandwich is unique in the sense that it is not its’ choice of meat that makes it special, rather its’ other components.

It is also a shining example of the resilience of the Vietnamese, who have shaken off their colonial shackles to create a sandwich that is revered the world over. It was, of course, with the objective of exploring the country’s history in mind that we trooped off to a location which was highly rated on Tripadvisor to have our first experience of the sandwich. During this 25 minutes walk, we learnt a few other things about the city.

One was that it seemed very posh, with a number of expensive boutique stores as well as known brands that dotted the streets. Another was that it had a large number of art galleries, which we sadly did not venture into but admired from outside. The other was that they have their own version of our rickshaw, named cyclos; another remnant of Vietnam’s colonial past.

The cyclo is similar to the rickshaw in that it is a three-wheeled bicycle, but the difference is that the driver is behind the passengers, not in the front. A few tried to hail us down, but we avoided the tourist trap and walked past the beautiful HoànKiếmlake, or the Lake of the Returned Sword, which is in the historical center of Vietnam’s capital city.

 

To be concluded in next issue