The light is different in this city. It’s soft, dreamy … diffused by the haze that wafts slowly over the numerous lakes. Rows of narrow houses embrace the bodies of water ultimately snaking through the chaotic streets of the old city. Haphazard architecture of nostalgic colonialism and shiny new development. Young couples dressed in their wedding finest posing all over the town, postcard perfect. People spill over to the sidewalks. Sitting on low, grimy plastic stools, smoking, peddling, drinking tea, playing chess … everywhere there is someone cooking.
As you navigate through the low-lying crowd, the familiar smells of Vietnam cling to your skin. Pungent fish sauce, tempered by the distinct sweet odor of sugar and fragrant garlic. The soft caramel burn of fried shallots. The bright, tangy notes of lime. Leafy mountains of lush green herbs call out invitingly, their grassy scent intoxicating: cilantro, mint, lemongrass, basil… There’s the richness of a boiling pot of pho, or the welcome smoke from a fired-up grill where tender morsels of pork slowly char into deliciousness.
After years of never giving it a second thought, this year I find myself smitten with Vietnam. After visiting Ho Chi Minh twice it was high time I visited her northern cousin, Hanoi. There is no doubt Hanoi is a more beautiful city. Much of the buildings hail from their colonial times, best preserved in our hotel, the Sofitel Legend Hotel Metropole. Turn-of-the-century French architecture with a timeless chic and the flakiest croissants around. The club floor had by far the best perk I’ve seen so far: room-service breakfast is inclusive — a definite plus when you’re enjoying the plush surroundings. We had managed to catch the beginning of their oyster festival, as fresh oysters flown in from France were served on the terrace. Washed down with a cool white wine, equally cool notes from a lone saxophone serenading the streets, across from which two old men sat contemplatively on a cyclo aptly named “sans souci,” or “with no problems.” The cars whizzed by and I couldn’t help but feel that every night they sat there, just in time to catch a little private concert of jazz.
The culinary highlights are numerous. Dinner at Madame Hien, iconic local chef Didier Corlou’s most recent baby, was simply wonderful. We sat on the soft, candlelit terrace of a beautiful villa and were served Vietnamese dishes with French finesse. Among the many dishes we ordered, our crab spring rolls or nem cua be were unanimously the best darn spring rolls either of us had in our lives. The rice paper was so thin and crisp, void of any chewiness, giving way to a heavenly filling of crab meat. The pho bo was rich and aromatic, the telltale clarity of the broth assuring us there were no shortcuts. Steamed crab with turmeric and lemongrass whose perfume was so alluring, no sauces were needed, a beautiful crisp rosé, dessert and coffee — all under P3,000.
Another evening had us feasting on spicy lemongrass cockles and soy steamed fluffy garoupa in a breezy courtyard. The cockles were amazing! Soft morsels in a sticky slightly sweet sauce, adorned with ruby-fresh chilis, wrapped with a Vietnamese mint leaf then dipped in a mixture of salt and lime. Hai San Ngon offers fish so fresh it’s swimming in the tank in front of you. The staff was unusually friendly, laughing at my comical drawing, trying to explain what kind of seafood I wanted. How I wished we were more than two; there were lots to be tried.
Local food and street food are a must. It is where you’ll find the most authentic and the boldest flavors. You can’t walk the streets of Hanoi without looking enviously at the various snacks, nibbles, noodles, soups, and brochettes that the locals eat. A walk through the old quarter will lead you to number 14 Hang Ga street, the home of the most perfect banh cuon. Steamed rice rolls transparently parchment-thin, stuffed with a mixture of earthy mushrooms and pork, topped with a garden of fresh cilantro and my favorite sweet, slightly charred bitter fried shallots. Dipped in that omnipresent Vietnamese dressing laced with some chili — at $1.50 it’ll probably be the best value meal you’ll have in your life.
The more adventurous should try the grilled quail stand next to Mao’s Red Lounge on #7 Ta Hien. Black male quails marinated in five spice are grilled on demand and served with lime and salt. If you can avert your eyes from the head that is still attached, the tender limbs are a true delight. We were rather a novelty in the stall as the local looked at us amused that we ate something so local. Don’t be fooled, everyone eats these. At the table next to us, three pretty young ladies dressed in trendy clothing toting Chanel bags daintily nibbled the scrumptious birds.
One mustn’t leave without trying cha ca la vong, a delicious pot of fish simmering in turmeric oil covered in fresh herbs served with rice noodles. A typical Hanoian dish, you can still eat it at the original house where it was created at #14 Cha Ca street. There are no polite niceties at the door; you just say how many and that’s that. You can’t choose where to sit, you can’t choose anything except your beverage, but you leave the grimy, crooked, seafoam-green home happy.
This city also has a more happening nightlife. While in Saigon, apart from the sleaze bars or clubs, the night scene dies down pretty early, Hanoi has some nice options to offer. We visited the Press Club for some aperitifs but most especially Rooftop on a Friday is the place to be. Young and hip Hanoians, dressed to the nines, move to a surprisingly electrifying mix of 10 old house music and pop. The interiors are sleek and well-designed as glass windows open to a nice terrace with a breathtaking view.
Hanoi is a feast for the senses. Vestiges of elegant old French villas, the contrast of wide, majestic avenues and small, winding streets, colors bursting all around. Large leafy trees cast lace like shadows on the bustling streets. Pockets of peaceful living awaiting to surprise you. The happy chaos of everyday life goes on around you while you stand like an axis in awe as the world turns. Don’t be fooled by the idyllic charm of your surroundings as Hanoi is a city bursting with pride. Unlike in Saigon, where determination is still veiled in affability and dealing with locals can be tough but still enjoyable, the Hanoi population is rather different — a painful past that is all too recent and still vividly imprinted in the collective memory. Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum perpetuates the glory of their victory. There’s an obvious mefiance in the air … an evident wall of distance and suspicion of all those who are not from there.
In my quest for ceramic bowls, I had many an encounter where I was taken aback by the brashness. “No discount because you are a foreigner,” is what I had as a constant response. I managed to sweet-talk a man into selling me bowls for 30,000 dong a piece instead of 35,000 and as I was handing over the money, my wares already being wrapped up, his wife stormed out of nowhere, berated him harshly for probably giving in to a smile and proceeded to tell me she didn’t want my business if it wasn’t at her price. She abruptly turned on her heels and disappeared as fast as she came. The man offered a sorry smile and I managed to get a free bowl as a consolation. An hour later, I pointed out to my fiancé the grumpy lady. There she sat cross-legged, staring happily into the television, smiling from ear to ear, giddy like a schoolgirl. A wave of empathy crept up on me. Perhaps she wasn’t so bad after all. I would probably be the same if I had to endure the destructive consecutive wars her country had to go through. There’s a strength that stems from pain. And a hope that is born out of their strength.
As we stood in the eerie bomb shelters under the Hotel Metropole, the voice of Joan Baez recalling the anguish of a mother who’s lost her son, a flurry of emotions well up inside me. Sadness, relief, astonishment, but above all, admiration. For a people stood up for what they believed in, moving forward while openly accepting their past. The words outside the bomb shelter summed it up nicely: “Remember. Forgive. Forever.” Memories of Vietnam continue to haunt me, and they go beyond the plate down to the authenticity and honesty of it all, leaving me hungry for more.
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To book at Hotel Metropole, visit www.sofitel.com/fr/hotel-1555-sofitel-legend-metropole-hanoi/index.shtml.
Hai San Ngon is at 199A Nghi Tam, Hanoi,
For info on Madame Hien, visit http://verticale-hanoi.com/en/madame-hien.
For more on Rooftop, visit http://therooftop.vn/.