These are a few of my favorite things: 10 things I love most about Hanoi
I miss Hanoi. The way life is lived in the streets, the way calling everyone Anh (Older Brother), Chi (Older Sister) and Em (Younger Sister/Brother) makes you actually think of them as family, the freedom of driving a motorbike, my students and their nickname (Lady Undertaker) for me. Originally, I began writing this post because I was dealing with a tough time this winter. Having a broken foot and scabies simultaneously makes living in a chaotic, developing country a hassle, not an adventure. In an attempt to cheer myself up, I made a list of some of my favorite things. Now, this list serves as a way of remembering some of the places I love about Hanoi.
1. Cafe Pharma
Called Cafe Pharma because the owner’s son is a pharmacist at the Bach Mai Hospital, this cafe was down the street from my old house on Phuong Mai (Alley [Ngo] 4). It is owned by a man in his late fifties or early sixties who sings along to classical Vietnamese music and plays guitar every evening. My housemates, Heloise, Terena, Fiona, and I went there so often that he would greet us with a delighted, “Xin chao, Han-nah.” If he had other customers, he would often explain who we were to them, that we lived nearby, that I’m American, Terena and Fiona are Australian, and Heloise is French. Having a regular cafe is important; the owner will know your drink order and won’t treat you like a tourist.
I’ve done multiple posts on Hanoi’s birdcages but just to reiterate: I adore the birdcages hanging above doorways to cafes and shops. A Vietnamese friend told me that their purpose is to make customers happy and I am always cheered by the sight of them.
3. Ca phe trung
Ca phe trung means egg coffee. I’ve had it only at the Hanoi Social Club, a trendy cafe in the old quarter that also makes a mean Italian cocoa. There is a cafe that specializes in it but I have never found it, despite looking hard. It’s a delicious treat of dark Vietnamese coffee, sweet condensed milk and egg whipped into a concoction that tastes like a marshmallow burned to the perfect shade of gold.
4. Street Food
Americans have their fast food, the French have their long, multi-course meals. The Vietnamese have street food. Bún chả (below), Bún Bò Nam Bộ, phở, nem (spring rolls), chè, sữa chua nếp cẩm (black rice with yogurt). Deliciousness on a chopstick.
5. West Lake (Ho Tay)
Hanoi’s biggest lake is West Lake. Joggers, fishermen, young couples canoodling on motorbikes, children swimming, teens in swan boats, a lotus pond and several pagodas make it an oasis away from the city’s chaos. It’s winding road makes it a nice, scenic route home from work in the evenings.
6. Long Bien Bridge
Supposedly designed by Gustav Eiffel, Long Bien Bridge connects Hanoi to the far bank of the Red River. It also crosses the Middle Warp, an island in the middle of the river on which there are rice paddies, nude beaches, banana plantations and riverside graves.
I see something new every time I go to a market. They are a feast as visual as they are edible. The commotion, the hustling, the bargaining make them feel alive in a way that an American supermarket can never achieve and for which the farmers’ markets are still too reserved.
8. Bia Hoi
Translating to ‘beer with gas,’ bia hoi is freshly-brewed, light beer served at outdoor pubs. You can find a bia hoi on any street in Hanoi but some of the best are Pacific (281 Doi Can Street), the one at the intersection of Dao Tan and Linh Lang Streets, the To Ngoc Van Bia Hoi and 63 Xa Dan. It’s cheap (5,000 VND per glass) and doesn’t contain that much alcohol so you can drink a lot. Unfortunately, you can also forget that a single serving doesn’t contain that much alcohol…
One of my co-workers loves Chicken Street so much she has considered just adopting the ‘Chicken Street Boy,’ a teenage kid with a trendy haircut who cooks the chicken. I went nearly once a week with my friend Brenna for beer and BBQ chicken, sweet potatoes and grilled honey baguette. The combination of chicken, beer and super optimistic Californian Brenna’s sense of humour combined to keep me positive.
Tip: If you go to Chicken Street, eat at the first restaurant on the right. It has the best food.
On my way to take Yellow Fever, my trusty Honda Wave, back to the rental lady on Ta Hien, I nearly got into an accident. Of course. Traffic was insane every morning and afternoon on the way to and from work. Driving helped me learn the city so that the streets of Hanoi–Phuong Mai, Xuan Dieu, Tran Thai Tong, Au Co, Dang Thai Mai, Chau Long, Hang Bong, Hang Gai, Hang Ma, Ba Trieu, Hai Ba Trung, should I keep going?–are etched in the map of my heart alongside Rue de la Plance, Boulevard Raspail and Rue de Touraine in Paris which share space with Lake Street, Lagoon Avenue, Washington Avenue, 26th Street and all of Minneapolis. My greatest wish whenever I move is to learn the streets of my new city as intimately as I learn a lover’s body. This wish is especially dear as I sit in my parents’ Columbus, Indiana, kitchen stranded by the fact that I cannot drive, have no bicycle and know no one in this town. To everyone who said I would miss the motorbike most, you were right.
PS: For the time being, I will keep up the blog. I still have photos to post and I need some sort of creative outlet as I face six long months in the American midwest.