Like a cake covered with layers of sugary-coated tastiness, Hanoi’s cultural charms and character are enriched with a diverse set of colonial influences, mainly from the French, which brought a certain European flavor to the city’s architecture, food, and culture. Before the turmoil of a violent war would besiege the whole of Vietnam in the middle of the 20th century, Hanoi represented the “grand statement of French urbanity and civilization in the tropics of Asia.” The vibe of the streets, dotted with charming French-inspired cafes serving freshly brewed Vietnamese coffee, pho soup, and baguette breads, mirrored the Parisian city.
A 20-year Vietnam War and some 40 years later, with all the carpet bombing missions that flew all over the country, one could imagine a country still reeling from the aftermath of those dark days. In total contrast, however, travelers of today are greeted with almost the same charms that existed in Hanoi before the war. Still present are the wonderful French-inspired architecture and the narrow apartments fronting stores that sell almost every imaginable type of merchandise. I guess it is no coincidence why each street in Hanoi’s Old Quarters all starts with the word Hang, which means ‘merchandise’ in English. Along with the diverse and richness of Vietnam’s culture, the city of Hanoi presents a broad perspective and offers opulent experiences for any traveler.
The CYCLO OF LIFE IN HANOI
Riding one of the iconic rickshaws, the cyclo, along the streets of Hanoi gave me a moving front row seat to witness the unique hurried activities in the city. From the countless motorcycles coming from all direction, to side-street eateries where people sit on short chairs enjoying a hot cup of pho and engaging each other in animated discussions, a traveler will never run out of subjects.
COFFEE EVERYWHERE AT THE OLD FRENCH QUARTERS
As the cyclo driver pedaled into Hang Hanh (Coffee Street) he motioned for me “to smell the air.” It was then that I instantly sensed the aroma of fresh coffee liberating the inside of my nose, instantly waking every fiber in my body. After sampling a few, I concluded that my favorite is a place called Café Pho Co, which serves egg coffee. There are hundreds of interesting hole-in-the-walls in which to sample local cuisine and drink coffee. Art galleries, shirt and silk stores, and other fascinating boutiques are scattered all over the Old Quarters.
A Vietnamese girl I befriended named Hoang took me on a motorcycle tour a couple of hours outside Hanoi. As she weaved effortlessly on the road, darting in and out like a needle through the thick Hanoi traffic consisting of a thousand motorcycles, I clung to dear life, my face frozen in the winter wind. She invited me to have dinner with her and her friends. Over a plateful of spring rolls and fresh vegetable salad, Hoang’s friends, who were not proficient in English, interviewed me via Google translate. It was an awkward but hilarious exchange.
PAYING HOMAGE TO HO CHI MINH
I’ve been to Hanoi twice and both were in the winter months of November and December. So I associate the city with my endless hours of walking in icy breeze. I recall walking to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum one morning and lining up to catch a glimpse of the embalmed body of Vietnam’s revered leader (Ho Chi Minh) preserved inside a glass case in the heavily guarded cooled mausoleum hall. It was surreal seeing the body of a man who successfully led his country to victory during the war against the French and the United States. Since I grew up watching Hollywood-made Vietnam War movies that depicted the North Vietnamese army as the enemy, it is refreshing to learn more about that part of history from the other side’s perspective.
A WALK IN THE COLD AROUND HOAN KIEM LAKE
The ebb and flow of the city’s motorbikes and pedestrians led me to Hoan Kiem Lake, a scenic part of the city preferred by many photographers shooting couples for prenuptial pictorials. This became my favorite part during the five mornings of my first trip to Hanoi. Under sunny skies and in the 12 degree-Celsius winter embrace, covered in two layers of jackets, I found the perfect condition to discover every nook and cranny of the city. The occasional downpour that came at an interlude of a couple of hours had me sheltering under the tall trees that surround the lake. Otherwise, I would have gone round and round and round the lake. Sometimes I would walk toward a random street ending up another side of the Old French Quarters, but each time I would always follow a path back to Hoan Kiem Lake.
TEMPLE OF LITERATURE
A temple of Confucius and the site of Vietnam’s first national university (Imperial Academy) that used to educate members of Vietnam’s elite society is now a place where locals celebrate educational achievement. The day I went here, the place was swarming with young graduates posing for photographs at the Temple’s five courtyards. Also found are 82 gravestones and statues that honor more than 1,300 doctors who passed the rigid exams held here during the ÐaiViêt period (1054-1400).
WATER PUPPET THEATER, AND WELL, MORE FOOD
Since Hanoi is a city that still retains its old traditions like the “water puppetry,” practice that goes back as far as the 11th century, dropping by the historic Thang Long Water Puppet Theater is another must-do. Accompanied by live singing and traditional musical instruments, the graceful movements of the water puppets bring an interesting portrayal of various Vietnamese folklore and rural skits highlighting farm activities during harvest season. As good as the water puppet show is, the highlight for me was when the puppeteers emerged from the back of the stage and met the applause of the crowd with a proud smile.
I walk past the many stalls selling Nike shoes, North Face jackets and bags, T-shirts with cool prints such as “Pho Metal Jacket,” and art galleries and novelty stores. Each of the food stall I passed was more inviting than the next, so I would eat a new place every kilometer I walk, My favorite other than Pho Ga was the Bun Cha, a local dish served with grilled fatty pork and white rice noodle and eaten along with other vegetables, herbs, and a tasteful dipping sauce.
Other than the coffee, the energy of Hanoi and its spirited citizens will force you to be on the go all the time. There is just too much to see, eat, and do in this city featuring century-old trees, scenic lakes, and ancient temples and pagodas. At first glance you will think Hanoi only has one or two defining characteristics, but as you go along, a smorgasbord of fascinating discoveries await you. Even with an achy foot and a tired body, the enthusiasm to scratch as many layers will prevail upon you, nourishing your wanderlust.
(this article appeared on August 9, 2015 issue of Manila Bulletin 2015)