Apparently it’s an American thing to consume beverages with ice. Or maybe its just the extent of our ice usage? I’m not sure. I wasn’t aware of this until Andrew – his years of living in Europe undoing some American habits – teased me for the seriousness of my addiction. My ability to stay properly hydrated really rests on whether or not ice is available for the water/seltzer that I’m supposed to be consuming. No I don’t care that the water is cold, I want it icy. When my fabulous landlord at #1217 (in Madison) told me that the kitchen needed an update and that I should pick out some appliance styles – the refrigerator with external water/ice dispenser was the item that really excited me. Sure, tile floors and gas range and new cabinets are all great…but the unlimited quantity of ice, readily available without so much as opening the door or filling those stupid little trays? That was living.
Hanoi is a bit different. The refrigerator at #5A is small, about 4.5 feet tall and 2 feet wide with a proportionally small freezer. This means no ice, no chilled water…nothing. Fine it came with two flimsy ice cube trays, but I can tell you with certainty that these wouldn’t suffice for a subtropical summer in the high 90s.
So we buy ice. In 5 kilogram bags, much like you get outside convenience stores in the states for parties and BBQs and tailgating. We buy it and rush home (ice melting at a steady rate), run up the two flights of stairs into the flat (water dripping in a steady stream) and throw it into the freezer.
All if this is still within the realm of normal, no? Not a particularly interesting tale, until I mention where we buy our ice…and then it becomes a bit more…odd anyway.
We buy it at the railroad tracks.
Not at a shop near the railroad tracks, but at the railroad tracks.
Let me step back a moment: In Hanoi there is an intricate maze of alleys and tiny roads, just big enough for two motorbikes to pass each other, alleys that divide up the city into much smaller pieces than the formal city blocks. The street we live on is Da Tuong, but really we’re in an alley that splits off of Da Tuong, an alley that cuts through the block, that has twists and turns and side-alleys off of it. This is how, even downtown, people live in houses 3-5 stories tall, houses with the footprint of a room or two. Each block is carved up into a mishmash of homes, each with a front door onto some tiny alley or cul-de-dac.
The railway through town, then, is just the same. A large property with a front door onto the alley and a back window onto the train track can cut the property in half, build the door facing the tracks, and voila! Two houses! With trains coming through a few times a day, houses facing the railroad tracks have a unique set of challenges. Like…say…being unable to enter/leave until the train track is clear and that area just to the side of the rails themselves is again a roadway.
Here’s a great short video demonstrating what I’m talking about:
Anyway, our ice vendor is here. Two massive metal bins sitting in the dirt next to the tracks are filled with 5kg bags of ice, and then PILED with more blankets (2-3 feet thick) serving to insulate the ice within. These bins sit along this track under beach umbrellas, and for 7,000 VND (about 30 cents) a teenager will push back the blanket layers and pull out a bag. The bag has an official looking company logo on it, so we’ve decided it’s legitimate and not someone collecting rainwater and funneling it into a machine. Maybe. We pull up, walk a few feet down the side of the train tracks, and grab a bag of ice to chill our seltzer and gin & tonic. With a train that comes through twice a day (late afternoon and early evening) the space along the track is a crowd of temporary stands that are pulled back a few minutes ahead of the scheduled time. Fruit, pho, bicycle repair, ice…whatever you need…it’s probably available down by the railroad tracks.
I’ve heard that in the foreigner heavy neighborhoods ice is available at a few select convenience stores (though I’ve never seen it), and a few restaurants will delivery a bag for about 5usd. I’m a pretty big fan, however, of our weekly trip to the train tracks.