I arrived back in Hà Nội from Sa Pa at 5:00 in the morning excited for an upgrade in sleeping arrangements – not from train to hostel, but from train to five-star hotel! I felt a little out of place as I sat in the hotel lobby with my giant backpack waiting for my Dad to arrive for his two-week visit. But, that went away once we got settled into our fancy-by-my-standards room and went up to the rooftop to survey the city.
Hà Nội is located in the heart of northern Việt Nam on the right bank of the Red River. As the capital of the former North Việt Nam, Hà Nội was bombed during the war, but it quickly recovered and is now the capital of the reunited country with over nine million people. As we looked out from the rooftop on the tenth floor of our hotel in the city center, it felt like we could see the entire city. All around us, narrow, densely-packed low-rise buildings made up the heart of the city. As we turned our attention to the horizon, the buildings got taller and more modern, so that a ring of skyscrapers formed a modern-day wall around the city.
To get a feel for the layout of Hà Nội, we met up with Thanh, a student who came to Hà Nội from a small village several hours away to attend university. Thanh spent the afternoon with us showing us around her adopted city. We started with a few practicalities; first, the Vietnamese language. Though Vietnamese uses the Latin alphabet, it also uses many accent and tone markers to differentiate between otherwise similar-looking words. For example, phở is a delicious soup, but phố just means “city”; ngọc means “jewel” and is often used as a woman’s name, whereas ngốc means idiot! An important phrase is cảm ơn, “thank you”; but, pronounce the ơ wrong and it might be misunderstood as câm mồm, “shut up”!
Another important skill to have in Việt Nam is the ability to defy the Grim Reaper by walking through oncoming traffic “Frogger-style”. Seriously – there is no other way to get to the other side. The light may be red, but there will be motorbikes speeding through; the crosswalk may be green, but there will be motorbikes speeding through; there may be motorbikes speeding through, but there will be a little old lady crossing the street, undeterred. It’s actually a pretty simple concept – walk slowly at a constant pace, and they will go around you. Thanh helped us get the hang of the traffic “rules”, and before long, we were crossing the street without having to shelter behind the little old lady!
Though I took the above video in Hồ Chí Minh City rather than Hà Nội, it is a good representation of how the traffic in Việt Nam just weaves through itself effortlessly. Don’t try this at home!
Armed with the most basic of Vietnamese words and the ability to cross the street, we explored the old quarter of Hà Nội with Thanh. The old quarter is a maze of narrow streets and alleyways teeming with activity. The sidewalks are overtaken by people selling everything from fruit to live fish, from baguettes to tombstones, and from beer to fake brand-name clothing. Up one alley, we came across a cluster of low plastic stools surrounding a table where a lady was mixing up some chè. On Thanh’s recommendation, we ordered a cup of this popular Vietnamese dessert consisting of a variety of creams, jellies, fruits, and beans. It was an interesting cocktail that I think surprised Dad more than it surprised me (well, I’d already tried it before he arrived)!
As we left the old quarter, the crooked streets widened into spacious boulevards. The rickety, narrow buildings gave way to elegant stone buildings with steeply-sloped roofs. We were now in the French quarter. To the south, the two identical towers of St. Joseph’s cathedral rise above the surrounding neighborhood. Closer to the river, the opera house forms the centerpiece of an intersection that looks like it was shipped straight from Paris. Indeed, when Việt Nam was part of the French colony of Indochina, Hà Nội was the capital. When the colonists weren’t cooling off in Sa Pa, they were busy trying to make Hà Nội feel as much like home as possible. Though this period in history is not remembered fondly by the Vietnamese, it is courtesy of the French that such things as cà phê (coffee) and bánh mỳ (baguettes) are such important parts of Vietnamese cuisine.
The two historic districts – the old quarter and the French quarter – are joined by Hoàn Kiếm lake. The lake contains two small islands, each with a monument. One island hosts the Temple of the Jade Mountain and is a place where students come to pray before their exams. The other island contains the “Turtle Tower”, in honor of the rare turtles that lived in the lake until very recently. A beautifully-landscaped pedestrian area surrounds the lake, and on the weekends, the surrounding streets themselves are blocked off to cars and motorbikes. The area is filled instead with go-carts, well-dressed students taking graduation photos, and more eclectic activities such as a game involving badminton shuttlecocks and golf clubs… At the end of the lake, we came across a stage where a musical TV show was being recorded on a stage surrounded by spectators.
With our tour of the city center complete, Thanh had one last thing to introduce us to – a local specialty. She led us through a narrow alley and up a cramped staircase to a small room filled with the tiniest of stools. This was the Café Giang, which is famous for being the café that first introduced Hà Nội to egg coffee. This seemingly bizarre combination is the result of a scarcity of milk during the 1950s. Someone had the idea that a whipped egg yolk would work just as well and voilà, a surprisingly delicious drink that actually does not taste like egg – I promise!
So far on this trip, I’ve been passing through cities one after the other, without returning to them. But with Hà Nội, I returned not once but twice, spending over five days in total there. When I first arrived, I was welcomed by a Hanoian I had met back in Malaysia, and she introduced me to some local food right from the start. The second time I arrived, I met up with my Dad and we were welcomed to the city by Thanh. When we returned again to the city a few days later after a trip to Hạ Long Bay, we came with some new friends. Being in Hà Nội, I felt the most “at home” that I have felt since leaving home in February, and I certainly left with a good impression of the city. Maybe I’ll be back again someday!
Side Note: Considering that Hà Nội is the capital of Việt Nam and also played a significant role in the Việt Nam war, there is a lot more that we saw here than is covered in this post. I’ll cover these more historical aspects in a later post!