“Hanoi served as my meet-cute to Vietnam. It was love at first sight”, are the beautiful words for Hanoi written by Mel Grau, a traveler from the United States and owner of the travel blog Missives from Abroad.
|Mel Grau has an egg coffee cup at Giang cafe in Hanoi’s Old Quarter Area. Photo: Mel Grau
Having been working in the field of journalism, marketing and communications, Mel is seeking stories worth telling as she adventures throughout Southeast Asia with her childhood best friends. The enthusiastic traveler has recently introduced an impressive series of articles with the title: “Hanoi, Vietnam: A love letter”.
The Hanoi Times introduces a series of articles that express Mel Grau’s love for the charming capital city of Vietnam.
Hanoi: A Love Letter- Part 1
Hanoi is dazzling and dizzying and electrifying. With unhinged motorbike drivers, merchants balancing baskets and bicycles, and pop-up cafes filling sidewalks, Hanoi’s streets are frenetic and kinetic. You feel acutely alive because sudden death is as near as stepping into the unrelenting traffic.
Above the fray, on the city’s second floor, awaits friendly quiet in crowded coffee shops. Egg coffee, coconut coffee, and coffee blended with other deliciousness is served up with a spoon.
Full of caffeine and energy, I believe Hanoi sparked a rearranging of the universe in my favor. It magically fixed my camera and altered the entire course of our trip with its gifts of grace.
|A tranquil morning on the bank of the West Lake, Hanoi. A flower vendor is busily preparing for his trade. Photo: Cao Anh Tuan
The Mysterious Camera Resurrection
As I mentioned in a previous post, I accidentally submerged my camera in a Laotian waterfall two weeks prior to arriving in Vietnam. I believed it to be dead.
Every day, I lugged it around in my already-heavy backpack, useless. I cursed my clumsiness and knack for ruining expensive electronic devices. I scoured my trip’s budget, wondering if I could afford a new camera.
I hesitantly hoped the big city of Hanoi could fix it or offer an affordable replacement. On our first morning, I woke up early, braved the hot city streets alone, and found a DSLR camera shop along Hoan Kiem Lake. I showed the shop ladies the Vietnamese translation of, “Camera in waterfall. Please help,” on my phone. They laughed and responded in perfect English, “Impossible.” They pointed me to the new Canons on display, with prices starting at $550.
I begged them to at least look at my camera. I took it out of my bag, reassembled the parts, and dramatically flipped the ON switch to showcase the issue. But it turned on. It took a picture!
I squealed with surprise and ran around snapping pictures of nothing, thanking the women for the blessing they didn’t know they bestowed upon me. I’m sure they were Hanoi-ed (this pun never got old) that I didn’t buy anything, but I was too elated to care. I ran across the street with the gumption of Disney Mulan’s grandma with a lucky cricket and rushed upstairs to Cafe Dinh to relate this miracle to my friends.
Fueled by Joie de Vivre and Coffee
Our first 24 hours in Hanoi felt as sensational as the camera revival. Louise, Avi, and I stayed in the same hostel in the Old Quarter, and we arrived in the late afternoon sunshine. My room featured a balcony overlooking the street’s symphony, and our first foray onto the patio inspired an impromptu song of our own, imaginatively called “Welcome to Hanoi.”
|A bustling Hanoi at night. Photo: Hue Anh
We were sleep deprived and slapstick silly.
We took that buoyant behavior down the street to a cafe and joined the line of people waiting for a bowl of pho. The traditional noodle soup was indeed fabulous, and we slurped it up, perched on kid-sized plastic chairs.
Our next stop was “Beer Corner” to meet Zen, who traveled to Hanoi a couple days earlier. Yes, the legendarily cheap beer was nice (of course my favorite beer is called Bia Ha Noi), but the best part of Beer Corner is the nightly shuffle of illicit bars.
Every couple hour, police roll down the street, ostensibly to bust these bars. But like seagulls returning to land when they sense the pressure drop before a storm, bar owners have an instinct for when cops get close. They immediately make you stand up so they can combine plastic chairs and tables like competitive cup stackers. In less than a minute, the street corners once packed with revelers look innocuous.
The moment police round the corner, you’re back on a plastic stool, raising your beer for a Vietnamese “cheer” — “Mot, hi, ba, yo!”
|Mel goes shopping for her sister’s Christmas gift in Hanoi. Photo: Mel Grau
Following my camera phenomenon the next morning, the four of us explored more of the Old Quarter. We tried Hanoi’s famous egg coffee, walked around the Hoan Kiem Lake to sample fried foods, and ventured to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum (more on Vietnamese women in a future post). I ate pigeon and whatever is in Vietnamese sausage.
Feeling full and tired, we returned to our hostel. There, Hanoi granted us another gift. Free trip to Ha Long Bay? Yes, please! In exchange for unfettered photos of us doing touristy things to use in a future brochure, we got a free boat tour and transportation to Ha Long Bay.
We’d return to Hanoi in a couple weeks, where my love affair with the city would continue. For now, we were off to this new world wonder.
Hanoi: A Love Letter- Part 2
After our side trips to Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa, and Ha Giang Province, Louise and I joyfully returned to my beloved Hanoi. I prepared to experience the city’s charms more fully during this longer stay. I couldn’t wait to learn about the Vietnam War at the Hanoi Prison, see a traditional water puppet show, taste test more egg coffee, and explore the famed Ceramic Village.
But what charmed me more than these experiences was Hanoi’s hospitality. The city and its inhabitants make it easy to live there, if you don’t mind jumping into the frenzied fray or having five cups of coffee every day.
|A peaceful corner of Hanoi. Photo: Chuyen cua Hanoi
Louise and I settled into a routine quickly. Every morning, I woke up early and hopscotched to a new coffee shop to write. Then Louise met me for yoga at different studios throughout the city. We set aside the afternoons to tick off the activities on my list. Sprinkled in were lunch dates with local friends and shopping for Christmas (we mailed packages home in October so they would make it in time for the holidays).
For the first and only time on the trip, I settled in to a place. Hanoi felt comfortable and familiar, though it was of course still new to me.
It was paradoxical.
It was love.
To love Hanoi, you have to find beauty in the streets. You have to love thousands of mask-wearing, helmet-less people zipping around on their motorbikes with ridiculously-sized packages attached. You have to love street vendors in their conical hats and sidewalks made impassable by squatting cafes. You have to love honking and caged birds chirping and smells wafting. You have to love looking everywhere at once, lest you trip on the uneven road or get hit by a bicycle coming up behind you….