Hanoi: a thriving cultural hub.

My parents and I took off on a vacation to Vietnam in March this year, at the end of the high season. Our penchant for a somewhat backpacking trip, coupled with a little more than basic luxuries, led us to this heavenly land in the easternmost corner of mainland Asia. The route we chartered for ourselves took us from the chaotic Hanoi city to the spectacular Ha Long Bay, charming Sa Pa mountains, peaceful Ninh Binh, and finally to the cultural haven that is Hoi An.

One of the many streets in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

 

An incredible culinary start to our trip…

Our 20-day excursion in Vietnam began in Hanoi, a city teeming with life. Hanoi was all about discovering tranquility in the midst of the chaos that brimmed in almost every nook and cranny of this vibrant city. Our hotel was conveniently located in the heart of the Old Quarter. The narrow alley in which our hotel was situated housed three extremely popular eateries that cooked up gastronomical delights. On arrival, we paid heed to the hotel manager’s advice and headed out to taste fish noodles.  At the noodle stall, we pulled some low stools to park ourselves (stools that barely came up to our knees).  Ladies running the stall set bowls of piping hot, and mouth-watering fish noodles on the table. It was barely an hour that we were in Hanoi, but our culinary adventure was off to an amazing start. We dribbled down the delectable soup as motorcycles whizzed past our ears.

Fish noodles!

A few blocks from our hotel was a shop that sold, what the locals described as the best Pho (noodles with meat in bone broth) in town. One can easily find the place on the Trung Yên street. That Pho soon ruled over my mother’s and my hearts. It wasn’t long before we made it our favorite breakfast item while in Hanoi, especially at 6 am after exhausting train journeys. Sprinkle some hot chili and garlic sauce and it leaves you wanting for more.

Recommended pastime for the evening- head to the lake.

The Hoan Kiem Lake was a walking distance from our hotel. We made our way to the lake whenever we had a moment to spare. The promenade along the lake had benches which offered rest to our tired legs, which was a respite from Hanoi’s perennial chaos. The lake changed for the better at night, with Hanoi’s glistening skyline making a colorful backdrop against the temple in the center of the lake. Talented musicians perched themselves precariously on small stools, as night fell, and strummed their string instruments to soulful melodies. The Hoan Kiem area is even more fun during weekends when the road encircling the lake is closed to traffic. The people flock to the streets and a lively aura engulfs the mood. Luckily we were able to witness the spectacle as we arrived in Hanoi on a Sunday. The area around the lake offers a plethora of entertainment options. Two water puppet theatres and night markets around the lake are immensely popular.

Hoan Kiem Lake at night.

 

Hanoi’s skyline in the backdrop of the lake at night.

After every meal, we made our way to a tiny hole in the wall to enjoy Hanoi’s concept of dessert- a variety of fruit on ice covered with yogurt and sour cream. The man running the show could not speak English, so a young woman was kind enough to help me place my order. Gathering our bowls, we sat on tiny stools, amidst a bunch of Vietnamese youngsters gorging on fruits. Vital information: low lying plastic stools and insanely sweet pineapples are highlights of the place.

Nighttime recreations at Hanoi's very own Pub Street- The Beer Corner.

As night fell we made our way to the bustling Bia Hoi junction (beer corner) on Ta Hien and Ma May streets in the Old Quarter. The entire place swarmed with exuberant people. The street emanated a zappy aura which can attract anyone looking for a good time. The truth was that we’d accidentally stumbled upon this place. On our first post-dinner walk, in what was then an unknown city, we decided to venture a little further as curiosity prevailed. Taking a first glance at this beer corner, our hearts began pulsating with exhilaration and we stepped forwards into the warmth of Vietnamese hospitality. In the beer corner, attentive waiters fed us well, and wouldn’t shy away from giving out the occasional hug accompanied with cries of pleading to invite us to their eateries. The seafood barbeque is highly recommended here.

Beer corner.

Hanoi's savory coffee, and budding cafe culture.

During the course of our stay, we enjoyed sipping coffee in wonderful cafes and watching the world (millions of motorbikes) pass by. The coffee in Vietnam is incomparable, and special delicacies like the ‘egg coffee’ and ‘coconut coffee’ give out a scintillating aroma and produce a burst of flavor in the mouth. Myriad cafes near the Hoan Kiem lake and the West lake serve lip-smacking coffee. A particular coffee that is prepared using a filter is extremely luscious, although a bit strong. Conifer Coffee, a cafe near Hoan Kiem lake is highly recommended. Cafes along the lake, like ‘Luc Thuy’ for instance, served wholesome food that delicately tickled our senses.  A traditional lemon beverage, served in corner stalls on many streets, may be tried as well. Moreover, Hanoi's coffees taste even better when accompanied by the Banh Mi sandwich.  

View from our favorite coffee shop in Hanoi.

People and climate.

Our stay was further enhanced by Hanoi's affable citizens; the locals would not show any indication of reluctance before lending a helping hand. Young school going girls and boys would approach us during the daytime, giggling their hearts out, to test their mastery over the English language. We were pleasantly surprised by Hanoi's crisp climate when we arrived. It was sixteen degrees outside on our first day, a much-needed respite from the oppressive heat back at home. Occasional drizzles and cleansed the skies and kept temperatures low. However, temperatures rose gradually over time.

My affection for Hanoi knows no limits.

I personally loved Hanoi. I enjoyed every moment spent there walking through narrow lanes, with facades of French colonial architecture dotting the streets and bundles of entangled wires suspended from poles over cobblestone footpaths. The best way to discover Hanoi is on foot. Weaving through hordes of traffic was fun and did not deter me, as I made my way to the old women who would sell lemon tea and a traditional lemon drink after every meal. We enjoyed immensely and without inhibition because we felt completely safe in Vietnam. We would roam mindlessly till a little after midnight and not encounter any unpleasant incidents.  All footpaths would be strewn with numerous stools and tables once dusk came around. Communal eating is a popular tradition in Vietnam, and immersing ourselves in Vietnamese culture made our stay highly enthralling. The constant haggling from street vendors and the mindless traffic didn’t bother us too much as we have already seen the worst of it. Throughout our five day stay, this charming city cast a spell of love on us. Hanoi started feeling like home as our stay drew to an end. I now yearn for an opportunity to return to this delightful and mesmerizing city.

AMIT WAGH

16. Penning my thoughts down invigorates my mind, and sharing them is what I find alluring. I dream of travelling extensively across the globe, and gain reverence as a writer while I do so.

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