A warm, humid breeze lifts a Soviet Union flag into the air as it glides its way toward McDonalds. It pauses and hovers for a moment before redirecting itself down Tràng Tiền Street. Grazing the edges of the Louis Vutton store, the once strong gust starts to lose steam before finally dissipating at the front door of Emporio Armani.
I don’t think anyone else noticed it.
Elsewhere in the city, a giant statue of Vladimir Lenin towers over mainly locals as they socialize, exercise, and play with their children in the park that bears his name.
Talk about contradictions.
But that’s Hanoi for you.
It’s an onion with juicy layers that you can peel for days — weeks even — and never truly grasp all its nuanced flavors. It’s an onion that I’ve tasted three times now and despite getting a little deeper each time, I still feel like I’m not even halfway through the bulb.
How could I be?
Everyday there’s about a hundred different stimuli all fighting for my attention.
Horns honking. Radios playing. Street musicians and singers performing. Waiters and waitresses taking orders. Locals socializing over coffee. Taxi drivers offering rides in multiple formats.
Fried chicken feet. Exhaled smoke from water pipes. Burning trash in small, contained fires. Tourists trying Bún chả for the first time. Durian. Exhaust fumes. Hot sauce.
Low-rise seating everywhere. Women fully-covered from head-to-toe despite the sweltering heat. Three generations of a family riding on one scooter. Scooters carrying things that have no business being attached to a scooter. Buddhist temples adorned with Chinese characters. Barber shops. Tattoo parlors. Circle K convenience stores.
There’s no shortage of them and they sell everything you can think of.
My favorite is the fruit.
The durian you can smell from 10 steps away. The mangosteen you have to get a little closer to inspect. Papayas, pomelos and sapodillas are common too. As are custard apples. Oranges, but with their namesake color only on the inside. The outside skin is greener than the banana leaves they’re resting on. Don’t let the green fool you though. They are ripe and they are sweet. They’re just different than what you’re used to. Then again, a lot of things here are different than what you’re used to.
The fruit is definitely good though. It stands out amongst the plethora of other offerings.
Some of these vendors have items for sale that you didn’t know existed or that you didn’t know you needed. If you’re not fast on your feet, you might just become their newest customer. One thing’s for sure — if you don’t approach them, then they will approach you.
Lighters. Wallets. Hats. Rechargeable batteries. Fans.
You name it.
The offerings aren’t limited to the legal realm either.
Stand in the Old Quarter when the sun goes down and the pimps will be on you faster than the mosquitoes.
If you’re a single man that is.
Within the time it takes you to think about what you might want for dinner, you’ll be offered all sorts of services. When you decline, the default backup offer will probably be Bob Marley’s favorite plant. If you decline that too, you may even get a final, desperate ‘so what do you want then?’ — as if you’re the one who approached them asking for something. When your solicitors finally realize that they’re getting nowhere, they will quickly blend into the sea of motorbikes that whizz through the streets of Hanoi at any given moment.
I take a first sip.
That’s how many estimated xe may (motorcycles) there are in this place. For those who grew up here it’s just everyday life, but for many first-timers, it can be the most overwhelming aspect of setting foot in Hanoi. The sheer abundance is one thing, but the fact that traffic rules are more like ‘suggestions’ is another.
En lieu of strict driving laws, Hanoians primarily rely on the mighty horn. It governs both the flow of traffic and the personal safety of the riders.
I’m coming up behind you. I’m on your left. I’m on your right. I’m riding my break but still going pretty fast as I enter this four way intersection.
The horn means all of these things and more. For this reason it’s also an almost constant sound. You notice it at first, but after a few days it just becomes part of the Hanoi background music.
Actions that once seemed suicidal to you — like watching in real time as your motorbike taxi driver swerves into opposing traffic to make incremental distance gains — are now normalized.
The gradual desensitization continues as the days go by. You almost wish you could slow it down.
I take another sip.
It’s an odd pairing.
Created more out of necessity than out of a desire to innovate, cà phê trứng (egg coffee) is now a staple drink of locals and tourists alike.
Its humble beginnings go all the way back to the late 1940’s when a man named Nguyen Giang was faced with an existential dilemma — how to bring European cappuccinos to Hanoi when there was barely any milk to go around?
It worked. Decades later and his cafe is a booming hotspot for everyone wishing to sample egg coffee in its Mecca. I myself withstood temptation for hours until I found the famous ‘Cafe Giang’ on 39 Nguyễn Hữu Huân Street.
It was worth it.
The experience was akin to drinking liquid tiramisu. More dessert than beverage, it’s something that everyone should taste at some point in their life. I’ve had it many times at many cafes in Hanoi since then, and there is only one place that makes it better than its spiritual home.
That place is Café Dinh — founded by none other than Mr. Giang’s daughter! Unfortunately she passed away two years ago, but her spirit and coffee making skills are alive and well. Should you find yourself in Hanoi, do yourself the favor. You can thank me later.
It’s been a long day.
As I’m typing these last few lines, I find myself thinking about the many other layers of Hanoi I could have shared with you. However, I also think that there’s no need to force it. Hanoi is a never-ending story and my gut tells me that this isn’t my last time writing about it.
That was some damn good egg coffee by the way.
NOTE: All photographs taken by the author. Please don’t use without permission.