Though I’ve been forewarned, nothing prepares me for the pandemonium that is the motorbike in Vietnam ”“ all 1,761,306 (source: here) of them. It’s absolutely indescribable.
A veritable free-for-all that makes Manila traffic look like Disneyland, there’s blatant disrespect for the stoplight, red simply means “proceed with caution.” For the first few times, my attempts to cross the street are horrific, like a game of patintero (Philippine tag) gone horribly awry. But I’m told that it’s easier to swerve on a motorbike, and soon crossing the street becomes a dance, albeit one that’s more Breakdance: The Movie than Swan Lake: The Ballet. Everyman (not a typo) zips around on a motorbike ”“ from men off to work to well-dressed ladies in skirts and heels and the odd sort ferrying the entire family of five while holding a full bouquet of flowers, to boot! The roads virtually groan from the varieties of transport ”“ bikes, buses, motorbikes, cyclos (see below), cars, cabs, and people like me (and my fellow tourists), pounding the pavement in sneakers. This is a compact city and walking is the easiest, quickest way to get around.
Hanoi is a blend of old and new Asia and its ability to retain its charms from its French colonial past is awe-inspiring. Parisian architecture juxtapose billboards of modernity while boulevards that actually still have their trees run parallel with a network of alleys that change names every two blocks.
Hanoi’s heart is Hoan Kiem Lake, a placid body of water that inspires contemplation. A walk about its shaded perimeter is a good way for me to orient myself with the city. I especially enjoy the early mornings when I watch the joggers and brigades of seniors energetically going about their calisthenics.
A well-known café along the lake, Hapro, is at such an ideal spot that I have my morning coffee here twice just for an excuse to sit nearby. The first time, a steaming cup of cÃ phÃª sua nÃ³ng (“coffee+condensed milk+hot”), the following times, a cÃ phÃª sua Ä‘Ã¡, the same but on ice.
While guidebooks wax romantic about the exotic chic that is Hanoi, I wax fanciful about Vietnamese coffee. It’s grown, dried, and roasted differently from any other coffee in the world, which includes its 100-day manual drying and ripening process. Unlike those 16-oz tanks served in Western-style coffee shops, Vietnamese coffee is served in a 6-oz cup crowned with a metal top “hat.” The coffee drips ever so slowly staining its midnight liquid onto the purity that is the condensed milk. Vietnam is a tropical country where fresh milk and cream do not store well, so this is the milk of choice.
This unique brewing method gifts me with an intensity of flavors I haven’t found in any other style of coffee. Sipped slowly, I taste the sweetness at first, and then a communion of complexity that is at once earthy and haunting with an encompassing mouth feel. Giving it time, the flavor rings through my mouth. It’s potent stuff. One more cup of this and I can power a speedboat around Hoan Kiem Lake.
Hanoians are a spirited lot; vibrant and the antithesis of shy ”“ except when being photographed. I find that they prefer I train my camera on anything else except their faces. Of course there are exceptions, and that’s what they are ”“ exceptions to the rule.
As I soak in the city, there’s no getting around the numerous stalls scattered on the sidewalk. The cement groans with vendors, their mini kitchens, and customers squatting on monobloc chairs and tables better suited for five year olds playing tea set. Various aromas assault my nose as I walk past: anise, slow-cooking broth, and some unknown, new smells.
While shy, Hanoians can also be curious. I’m approached every time I unfold my map; I know such a move screams “tourist!” but hey, that’s what I am, yes? While sitting on a bench for a respite, I’m asked if I’d like to buy tourist books, a whole bevy of everything from maps to phrase books. Every 100 meters greets me with echoes of, “Where you like to go?” by drivers of cyclos and motorbikes. The latter in particular are huddled at street corners offering ”xe ome”, motorbike taxi. For the hell of it, I jump on one and find myself exhilarated by the wind blowing through my (short) hair and giggling in giddiness every time we come dangerously close to other xe omes. No wonder there are close to 2 million of these two-wheelers. Another time, I ride a cyclo, appreciating its decidedly more relaxed pace.