Happiness is a bowl of bún chả in the rain

Everyday Hanoi

As a first-time visitor to Vietnam, I was completely disarmed by the incessant traffic, noise and chaos in the capital city of Hanoi. Everything from a grocery run at the supermarket to an everyday endeavour to get dinner felt like a life-threatening situation.

In Hanoi, crossing the road is an acquired skill.

After an exhausting day in the Old Quarters with aggressive hawkers and motorists on bikes who seemed to have no qualms about running you down in a bid to get past their obstacles (yes, that’s you), my travel companion and I resolved to venture into the the more local neighbourhoods.

The question was, how? For fellow first-timers, I highly advocate the Foody.vn app. It is a local food app similar to Yelp that is very popular with the Hanoi locals, and it will take you to all the local areas you never knew about. We first discovered this app when we saw a bumper sticker on the wall of a local desserts shop.

This morning, we woke up to a rainy day in Hanoi. Temperatures dropped heavily by almost ten degrees Celsius. It was freezing, and we jumped on a GrabCar (yes, they have it here so use the Grab app for the best transport deal) to a nostalgic 90s cafe on the other side of town, loved by locals for bringing them back to their childhood days. We were curious to see how the already nostalgic city to us could travel further back in time, and how the childhood of Vietnamese youths our age looked like.

In the comfort of the warm car with Vietnamese tunes playing on the radio, and the rain glazing the roads outside, it felt like I was in a film, watching the people in their assortment of colourful raincoats whizz by on their bikes. There is something about the rain that makes everything more beautiful, and especially so here, when the roads burst with colour.

Backyard of a typical local flat

The cafe was hard to find even by local standards, according to the reviews on the app. This picture shows the little back alley we walked in from, hidden behind a row of shops. We went up a flight of stairs that looked like local housing, and indeed, we realised that there were residents living there. The cafe itself also looked like the interior of an old house. By Singapore standards, I felt like I was transported back to the 60's. So this was what childhood was like in the Vietnam of the 90's.

Unfortunately I was so excited I forgot to take pictures of the interior…we went out to the balcony which looked something like this:

A happy girl in Hanoi
Sweet potato fritters, a Vietnamese childhood snack for the 90’s kids

The cafe staff were surprised and a bit lost when we didn’t understand what they were saying, because I think no tourists ever came here. Thanks to Google translate and a girl who spoke some English, we managed to make some sense of the Vietnamese menu. A warm, comforting plate of sweet potato fritters was soon served. When I showed my Vietnamese new friend (I’ll come to that later) this picture later, she was really excited because it was a snack she missed from her childhood.

Flavoured frozen yogurt and old-school popcorn
Vietnam has the world’s best coffee — any contenders?
Vietnamese Monopoly

This is the local version of the board game Monopoly. The board is the unfolded wooden case containing the Monopoly notes and property cards, all made with flimsy laminated paper. It had a very handmade DIY feel.

This was the view from the balcony, a classic scene of motorbikes in Hanoi. If you think this traffic is busy, wait till you see what happens next.

After-school situation in Hanoi

The cafe is situated right opposite a local primary school, so what we saw at around 4:30PM was a crowd of parents on motorbikes waiting for the school gates to open. And around them, the usual traffic continued unabated.

Soon the school gates open, and the crowd of motorbikes flood into the school compound. Children are seated behind their dad or mum, or else inserted between both parents on their bike, sometimes up to 4 family members huddled on one bike. Some kids hold on to their parent’s hands while they calmly navigate the heart-stopping (to us) tirade of honking bikes, taxis and cars.

This is their everyday life, while it seems like an exciting dramatic scene unfolding before our eyes. Watching these kids brave the monstrous traffic at such a young age, I learn that the Vietnamese are a resilient people — and this word means so many things on different levels I cannot even begin to claim to understand.

The epitome of coexistence

Witnessing this moving scene of people braving the traffic, I felt humbled, and for the first time, felt at ease with the movement and noise. Soon the cacophony blended into the rhythms of my environment, and I took out my Kindle, opened a half-read book, and read Montaigne’s philosophy for an hour.

Philosophy — of all things, in the midst of the roar of Vietnamese traffic! This was definitely a transformative moment for me, learning how to find inner peace surrounded by chaos.

A local favourite haunt for bún chả

As the night fell and the peak hour traffic subsided after more than two hours, we left the cafe for a bún chả stall I found on the food app, rated highly by Hanoi locals. We were dropped by our Grab driver along a busy main road, but somehow managed to wind our way into a narrow back alley.

There we discovered a row of food stalls like the one above, which we managed to identify after some time. It was around 8PM, and finally, we had found the unassuming place where locals ate their daily dinners, and not the tourist-priced stalls in the Old Quarters…where we felt shoved around like animals waiting to be fed.

Dinner situation
Best we’ve ever tasted

We ordered what we thought was bún chả as we had eaten before in Singapore’s Vietnamese eateries. Little did we know! This was bún trộn, made of the same ingredients except that they were mixed. It was the Southern Vietnam interpretation of the dish more commonly found in Ho Chi Minh down south, and indeed, like the pho we had in Singapore, was much sweeter.

As you may find out for yourself, Vietnamese cuisine varies greatly in taste between Hanoi (North) and Ho Chi Minh (South). The Southern Vietnamese have a sweeter palate and eat more vegetables, while Northern cuisine favours meat and more savoury spices and seasoning.

And bún chả was a Northern dish that actually originated from Hanoi itself! We learned all this when a friendly Vietnamese girl sat down beside me. The first thing she said to us was, “this version of bún chả tastes better”, as she pointed to the noodles, pork slices and vegetables separated into bowls in front of her which she had ordered. It looked like this:

Image of bún chả from the same stall, taken from Foody.vn

That began a conversation as we shared dinner with a university student from the nearby economics university. She told us that this was her favourite bún chả stall, and she always came here after school. How lucky we felt! Although we ordered the mixed version, it was more delicious than any we’d ever tasted. Such tastes and experiences simply cannot be transported across geographical spaces.

Alice (the English name she chose for her love of Alice in Wonderland), was surprised and (seemed) impressed that I came here through the Foody app, and on a Grab car. She said I already integrated into the Vietnamese way of life, and I told her I am trying very hard. It was not easy indeed! Everything was so unfamiliar and intimidating at first.

Sharing desserts with our new Vietnamese friend

She later brought us to a nearby dessert shop she frequented. She taught me a few Vietnamese phrases, which was so much more effective than struggling to repeat what I heard on Google translate.

Desserts galore of tropical fruits, pudding and sago

And I never knew Vietnam had such amazing desserts! The leftmost one is a very sweet mixture of caramel pudding, black glutinous rice, jackfruit slices and sago. At the top is some cheese based jelly with sago. On the right, which was my favourite, mango sago with coconut jelly and milk.

Only upon coming to Hanoi did we realise the Vietnamese people liked eating desserts. Our friend ordered the three which we all shared, and I was touched by her gesture of being willing to spend time with two foreigners she met at a bún chả stall.

Finding magic in Hanoi

I came to Hanoi only knowing of the Old Quarters and French Quarters, due to limited time to plan for this trip and rather limited information found online. It seems like not many people have explored the city of Hanoi extensively.

Initially disarmed by the hostility we faced in the Old Quarters, I am now thankful for it was my perturbed feelings that led me to discover, and become determined to visit the places where locals lived and ate. Breaking through the appearance of a mysterious foreign culture that seemed inhospitable at first encounter, I found human warmth and hospitality with a bowl of 20k dong bún chả.

Today, I found magic in Hanoi, and I found a new friend.

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