My rickshaw driver keeps pace with taxis as he peddles me through Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The cool wind against my face brings relief from Vietnam’s stifling summer heat. Just as I’m about to relax, I smell smoke. It’s not the ubiquitous smog of unregulated motorbike exhausts. I immediately recognize this aroma as barbecue, like pork fat dripping onto hot charcoal. A burst of energy rushes through my veins.
“Slow down,” I say. “Where’s that coming from?”
My driver sniffs the air and points forward, to the opposite side of the street. He honks a small horn that reminds me of circus clowns, and we swerve through oncoming traffic toward the smoke, parting a tide of motorbikes whose much-louder horns are now frantically beeping as they swirl around us.
We glide to the curb, stopping next to an old woman hunched over a makeshift grill on the sidewalk. She fans the coals with a pink flip-flop. A small crowd is gathered around her, squatting on small plastic stools. The old woman looks up at me. She sees a hunger in my eyes.
“Come, sit!” she demands. “Almost ready!”
I climb out of my cart and settle onto a stool, my knees level with my chest. She pushes a plastic plate into my hands. It’s covered with a piece of banana leaf and loaded with fresh mint and cold noodles. She thrusts her fingers into the fire and plucks a couple of pork patties from the grill, quickly plopping them into a small bowl of broth, piling it onto my plate. She reaches behind her and grabs a beer from a bucket of melted ice. She pops the top and hands it to me. I smile. She smiles. My driver smiles.
This is why I travel: for food, but also for the unexpected. I travel to eat, but also to learn about other cultures through food and new experiences. I travel not just to relax but to get outside of my comfort zone, to meet people like these total strangers, squatting on plastic stools, to remind myself the world we share is much, much larger than the one in which I live.