When I look back, the days in Hanoi look like a dream. When I think about the streets with the bubbling pots and the colorful lights it seems close, as if you can just hop on a bus and be there, without all the flights, connections and visas.
It took me a while to get used to the fact the some of the restaurants and cafes were actually inside the family’s homes. Sometimes it all looked normal but there was a grandma sitting on the side, or toothbrushes and bathrobes in the bathroom. We had our first meal in a balding man’s living room while we are the only costumers. We had a hot bowl of Phở – some broth with white pho noodles and lots of spices and meat, served with fresh leaves, sprouts, lemon and chilly. Our favorite cafe was a tiny place with a few chairs outside and many barrels and boxes with different kinds of coffee, and dozens of cages with small colorful birds hanging from above. In Vietnam you drink the coffee cold, unless mentioned otherwise. First they fill the glass with ice and some condensed milk, and then they put on it some metallic instrument with ground beans. They pour hot water that go through the powder and drip slowly into the ice and milk. The coffee itself tastes completely different from anything else, almost like chocolate. We still keep at home an empty bag of coffee beans which we bought there, just to sniff whenever I’m feeling nostalgic.
Our favorite dish in Hanoi was Bún chả – you get a bowl with thick broth and bun noodles on the side, served with fresh leaves, lemon, chilly, and pork wrapped in leaves. We used to eat that at a fat and loud woman who stood behind the pots with a simple wooden bench in front of her, and an old lady with a shawl is crouching nearby and cooking the meat on a small bonfire at the street.
Our favorite thing was to get lost. I think I came to this world to get lost in foreign cities. Our hotel was in the old quarter, a maze of crowded alleys which ended with a big square with a lake in the center, which in order to get to you had to cross a main road with hundreds of motorcycles. The lake was surrounded by grass plot where people sold different thing or exercised in groups, and there was a small island on the water with a wooden bridge that led to a red pagoda in its center. North to the old quarter were a few main streets with bigger shops and restaurants, and a covered market in which we bought one day fish-shaped pencil cases from a nice amputee man. If you go Norther with the main street and then turn left you get to a park with monstrous statues of past leaders, and if you go even farther you get to a big lake with a path around with small resturants here and there. One morning we split and traveled alone for a few hours and I went there, crossed a bridge and got to an island with a dozy neighborhood. The only thing that broke the silence was two girls on a bike with a small mewing kitten in a basket. There was some grass by the lake with different animals, mostly wield poultry but also small limping dogs and a big dog that looked like a bear. I went through a park where some children played around a big flower-like statue, which was actually a fountain that suddenly began to spray water and surprised the children. Some of them wanted to take a picture with me because they were not used to western people and they found it very funny, and when they were done one of the girls gave me an orange flower.
By chance, we got to be there at Vietnam’s 70th independence day, at September 2nd. The streets were busy and filled with people and many men proudly wore their old military uniform. We’ve been told that there will be firework by the Hoan Kiem lake at nine PM so we began walking towards that direction, and stopped to have some beef soup and meat dumplings. We were tipped not to sit right in front of elderly ex-officers, since it was impolite. It was very hot and raining heavily, so we put on our raincoats and floated with the crowd towards the square. There were maybe hundreds of thousands people in there, standing in the rain together and waiting for the firework to start. A young woman with blue clothes and lots of makeup invited me to share an umbrella with her. You could not avoid the wetness – either rain above the coat, or sweat underneath. When the firework began it was hidden behind a tall building, and the huge crowd began streaming historically to the right so they could see. The woman with the blue clothes held my hand and pulled me with her under the umbrella as she is rolling with laughter, and eventually we could see a spark or two. After it was all over we came back to the hotel for another shower, and when the rain stopped we went outside again to have a drink somewhere and try the fish ice-cream – an ice cream scoop with chocolate, candies and some strange stuff stuck in it on skewers, inside a fish-shaped cone. We were already drunk and it was mostly funny and silly.
We talked a lot with Belle, who greeted us at the hotel when we just arrived. We mostly wanted to know where she likes to eat. She told us about strange foods such as ants-soup, and explained where the dog-eating costume comes from – many villagers who raise animals for meat are very poor and prefer to sell the good meat, which is mostly beef or pork, and eat different animals that they find.
Belle also used to arrange trips for us, and this is how we got to the Perfume Pagoda. A van came to pick us up in the early morning with a few more Asian tourists, a woman from Poland, an Italian family and a bunch of fat Australians who joked about the small seats – “I love my wife, but not that much!” one of them said as he went to the more roomy seats in the back. After about an hour we stopped for a break at a gas station with a strange duck and two sad-looking dogs in a cage, and continued for another hour and a half of ride through rice fields, farmers, waterfowl and cows who dabbled in puddles. Eventually we arrived at a river with a few small boats with lean women, and we went on one of them together with Paulina the Polish and an Australian couple. This way, with the skinny woman rowing behind us and a big man with a floral shirt sitting in front of us, we sailed along the river surrounded by mountains and vegetation. Roni and I felt a bit awkward to sit like two white westerns and take photos while the woman behind us is working so hard, and I had a bitter feeling of exploitation. Later that evening we talked about it with Belle, who said that this job is easier than others, such as agriculture or construction.
Here and there, scattered on the river bank, were graves with red or black gravestones, and long-legged water insects cruised near us. After an hour we got off the boat and went through a steep hill toward a small pagoda, while blue and black butterflies were flying around us. It was all very quiet, with thick greens, tiny water ponds with golden fish, paths paved with stones slippery from rain and humidity. Inside the pagoda itself there were black and golden statues, and two angry Budhas sat at the entrance. Afterwards we went to a restaurant that was nearby where we had mediocre food, and talked with Paulina. She’s been traveling by herself for a few months and coming back home soon. I’ve had the same feelings as when we talked with Tom on the way to Ko-Chang from Bangkok, of homesickness mixed with a desire for it to last forever.
After lunch we went to the Perfume Pagoda. You could choose whether to go up by cable railway or by foot, so we said goodbye to the guide who went by the cable railway and began going up the endless steps all the way to the top of the mountain. There were probably hundreds or thousands of stairs; sweat was trickling down my back and dripping on the ground. Once in a while we ran into people who stood on the side and waited for travelers to sell them water or cola. We thought we arrived as we went through another staircase that led to a red gate, where there was a glorious tree with some kind of a shrine, but we only got lost and we were still halfway there. We stopped to breathe for a few moments as some of the Australians arrived with their hats and water flasks, and said that it looks like the beginning of a horror film. We continued, passing by stray dogs with their cubs and two young girls with a monkey on a leash who drew out liches from their body hair.
We arrived eventually. On the mountain’s peak there were trees with huge roots, rising above the ground and tangling among themselves, with a few tiny Buddhas interwoven inside them. The guide stood there and smiled to our sweaty faces, and said that now we need to go down 120 steps to the pagoda. The steps were black with green moss, wrapped in a cloud of humidity and a strong smell of incense, and they led into a black cave with an entrance that looked like a dragon mouth, lighten by an orange candles light.
We got inside the cable railway booth just as pouring rain began to fall and we saw from above the whole long path we took, partly covered by improvised sunshades. It was crazy to think we walked through all that. We had beer downstairs and waited for the rest, and then went again through the slippery way towards the river. The women stood on the bow of the boats with big buckets and emptied the water before we set sail, and while we cruised the rain stopped. We came back to the van and after two hours of sweaty ride we arrived at Hanoi again, the city that felt like home.