My first time in Hà Nội…probably in 1991 or 1992, all my trips to Hà Nội at that time – only for business, I didn’t have time to explore Hà Nội properly….my itineraries were simple : from airport to hotel, from hotel back to airport, and in the between hotel and airport – the hotel’s restaurant!
In 2012, after a 7-year long, I came back to Hà Nội and for the first time, as a free man, without any plan, just for pleasure! I like Hà Nội. I love the culture, I fall in love with the cuisine in Hà Nội…but that was Hà Nội in the old days.
Hà Nội has autumn and winter, not that sharp but more fun than Sài Gòn, where only two – the day-long rain season and the extreme barbecue sun season! I love Hà Nội because Hà Nội has lakes, beautiful lakes with a historical legend like The Lake of the returned sword.
According to the legend, in early 1428, our King Lê Lợi was boating on the lake when a Golden Turtle God surfaced and asked our King to return his magic sword, the King remembered long in the past the Dragon King gave him the sword to fight against the Ming China and his promise to return the sword back to the Golden turtle after the victory over China.
For people, born and living in Sài Gòn, especially before 1975, the word “Hà Nội” sounds dangerously mysterious because it was in the North with the communism, at the same time – romantically beautiful thanks to those novels by the famous Northern novelists, back to early 20th century, long before the war. My curiosity, my love toward to Hà Nội probably was born after reading these beautiful novels.
I love the expression – Hà Nội with 36 streets, it sounds much better, more lovely in Vietnamese “Hà Nội 36 phố phường”. Nowadays, these 36 streets are located in one quarter – the Old quarter. The most famous trait of the Old Quarter are its areas dedicated to one specific trade or guild.
In the old days, the farmers, the craftsmen from villages around the town used to gather in one area of their guild to sell their wares to merchants. The crafts or guilds of each area gave the names to the streets of the quarter…such as Hàng Tre street “bamboo wares street” or Hàng Đồng street “copper wares street”. Nowadays many streets remained with the old name but the crafts or guilds have already gone for long!
It’s quite interesting to listen to the conversation between two people in Hanoi, the words they use, the expression, the way they address to each other…I love that! It’s very different from Sài Gòn in the South and to me, it’s quite lovely funny.
Some said in Hà Nội people are good at speaking, good at selecting nice words but…just to please you! I was told it’s difficult now to find the original Hà Nội voice, the original accent…original “Hanoians” don’t live in Hà Nội anymore!
In 2012, actually I came back to Hà Nội, with a mission, to meet an artist who specialized in “reviving” the old, damaged family photos. We call “truyền thần”, i.e a portrait painter who could show the inner essence of the subject, not only the outward appearance.
Seven years ago, I read an article about the artist. I called and sent him my family photos, after two months over the phone he asked me to pick up the paintings or he could send over to Sai Gòn for me. I told him I will be in Hà Nội, I was so pleased with his amazing job. Today I passed by his small studio in Hàng Ngang, not open, hope it’s just closed for lunch time. When I first met him, back to 2012, he was already in his early 70s.
Food in Hà Nội is simply marvelous. I like the taste, I like the story behind the table that Hà Nội people could create and share…but many Saigoneses couldn’t bear the taste. To them, it’s terribly flat or too much MSG. Really?
The living style in Hà Nội is different from Sài Gòn, sometime I find it a bit “exaggerated” but sometime quite “charming”. I love the way people here, very early in the morning, queue for cheap but good “breakfast”. You may wonder what kind of “breakfast” they queue for?
Street vendors or peddlers or hawkers, I don’t know which word is better. Anyway in Hà Nội these sellers are another charming colorful picture for the old quarter, by the times they changed a lot. I still remember an old movie made in the South before 1975 – “Gánh hàng hoa”, literally means a street flower vendor, based on a novel by two famous novelists in Hà Nội, in early 20th century. It’s about the destiny of a street flower vendor in the old Hà Nội, a broken-heart story.
Hà Nội has much more to offer, beautiful corners, quiet alleys in the old town, good meal, Hà Nội still has many colonial French architectures…but I remember another Hà Nội, back to early 1990s, more peaceful, more “original” or “traditional”, today I was struggling while walking in the old town, the noise, the traffic, the crowd, the merchandises on the sidewalk…made Hà Nội like a big market not a village anymore.