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.
Some restaurants and cafes were actually inside people’s homes, which took me a while to get used to. Sometimes everything looked normal but suddenly a grandma is sitting at a corner, a child doing homework, bathrobes and toothbrushes in the bathroom.
Our first meal in Vietnam was in one of those, in a balding man’s living room, and we were the only costumers. We had a hot bowl of Phở – broth with pho noodles and lots of spices and meat, with a side of fresh greens, lime and chilly.
This was a big deal. Back home, Roni was a cook in a Vietnamese restaurant, so actually being there for real and having the local food was like seeing a movie star in real life.
And of course, the coffee. A tiny cafe with a few chairs outside, loaded with barrels and boxes, and dozens of bird cages hanging from above with colorful birds – that’s where we’ve had our first Vietnamese coffee.
It is usually served cold, unless you ask for hot.
In cities in the mountains, where it’s colder, they serve it hot.
First, they fill the cup with ice and condensed milk. Over it, they put a metallic instrument with the ground beans. Then, they pour hot water that goes through the beans and slowly drips into the ice and milk.
The coffee tastes like nothing else. The beans have a chocolate aroma, it’s sweet and bitter and amazing.
My favorite Hanoi dish was Bún chả. A bowl with thick broth and noodles served with greens, lime, chilly and pork wrapped in leaves.
A big loud woman was standing in the street with huge steaming pots, a simple wooden bar with a bench in front of her, her mamma behind crouching over an open bonfire cooking the meat.
Our favorite thing was to get lost.
I came to this world to lose myself in foreign cities.
The hotel was in the Old District, a maze of crowded alleys which ended with a big square with a lake at its center. To get there, you had to cross a broad road with hundreds fo motorcycles. The lake was surrounded by a grass plot where people sold various things or exercised. A red bridge led into an island with a pagoda, in the center of the lake.
North to the Old District were a few main streets with bigger shops, chains, and restaurants, and a covered market.
If you go Norther with the main street and turn West, you find yourself in a park with monstrous statues of past leaders, and if you go even farther there’s a big lake with a path around it with restaurants here and there.
One morning, I traveled by myself for a while before meeting Roni back at the Old District. I went to the lake and crossed a bridge that led 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.
Then I went back and walked 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 since they were not used to western people, and probably thought I looked funny.
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, on September 2nd.
The streets were busy and filled with people, and veterans proudly wore their old military uniforms.
We’ve been told that there will be firework by the Hoàn Kiếm lake at nine PM. 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.
The night was hot and rainy, so we put on our raincoats and walked with the current of people towards the square. Thousands of people stood there under the rain, waiting for the firework to begin. A young woman invited me to share an umbrella with her.
You couldn’t avoid being wet, either being exposed to the rain or sweating under the raincoat.
The firework began but it was hidden behind a tall building. The huge crowd began moving hysterically toward the center so they could see. The woman with the umbrella took my hand and took me with her, rolling with laughter, and eventually, we could see some sparks.
After it was all over we came back to the hotel for a quick shower.
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 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 arranged trips for us, and this is how we got to the Perfume Pagoda.
A van came to pick us up in the early morning. They picked up guests from other nearby hotels – some Asian tourists, a woman from Poland, an Italian family, and two fat Australians who joked about the small seats – “I love my wife, but not that much!” the man 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. For some reason, they had a cage with a duck and two sad-looking dogs.
We continued the ride through rice fields, farmers, waterfowl and cows who dabbled in puddles.
After an hour and a half we arrived at a river. There were some simple 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. Long-legged water insects cruised near us. There were red and black gravestones scattered here and there.
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 was easier than others, such as agriculture or construction.
After an hour we got off the boat and went through a steep hill toward a small pagoda.
It was all very quiet. Blue butterflies flew around the 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 Buddhas sat at the entrance.
We went to a restaurant that was nearby where they served 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 on foot. 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 it turned out we were only halfway there. We stopped to breathe for a few moments as 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. Two girls sat 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, concealed in a cloud of humidity and a strong smell of incense They led into a black cave with an entrance that looked like a dragon mouth, lighten by orange candlelight.
To get back down, we got inside the cable railway booth. It began to rain heavily 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.
When we arrived back down we had beer 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 a sweaty ride we arrived at Hanoi again, the city that felt like home.