I did a double take when I saw this mural. I’ve been missing Latin America something fierce, but did I really see a large piece of artwork celebrating Venezuela in Hanoi, Vietnam? The short answer: yes. In honor of Hanoi’s 1,000 year anniversary, a beautiful stretch of road is covered in mosaics and murals…and there was this, a piece of my heart for all to see.
This mural hinted at what I would soon discover: the highlight of my three week sojourn through Cambodia and Vietnam would easily be Hanoi. The moment I stepped into the Old Quarter’s streets I couldn’t help but smile at the energy that sizzled around me. Hawkers sold fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers, and fish. The heat radiating around my ankles was actually a woman fanning coals to roast corn or chicken satay. The constant roar of an approaching motorcycle called out to me to be careful. After all–according to my Hanoi Cooking Centre street food tour guide–there are about 8 million people in Hanoi and 6 million motorbikes. Stepping into Vietnamese traffic is stepping out on faith that one of those millions of motorcycles will not clip you as the drivers navigate them through winding, narrow alleys made even smaller with all of the outdoor cafe seating and parked bikes.
Yet in the midst of the organized chaos there is flavorful beef pho, a soup and traditional Vietnamese dish, to be consumed and bahn mi sandwiches to devour. The Vietnamese rendition of the French baguette puts the original to shame, trust me. Snail soup awaits in a back alley where people squat on stools so small any American adult would think they were meant for a daycare. Iced coffee with condensed milk wants you to swirl it in a clear glass and, of course, fried spring rolls dare you not to eat them at least every other day.
Vietnamese cuisine is heavenly, and if I had died in Vietnam God would’ve scowled at me and accused me of gluttony. Knowing me, I probably would’ve been trying to hide a bahn mi sandwich behind my back as He reprimanded me.
Yet there are quiet corners of Hanoi too where pagodas hug lake shores and coffee shops murmur welcomes to passersby. A lovely expat introduced me to Cinemateque, a teeny movie theater without a website that artsy types patronize.
Then there are the restaurants Pots N’ Pans and Cau Go. I literally stumbled into Cua Go with a competitor’s menu still in my hand (I thought the space was all one restaurant). Both Pots N’ Pans and Cua Go treated me so graciously as a solo diner instead of tossing me into any old corner. The ambiance was wonderful, the food divine, and the staff extremely friendly. Cau Go’s view of Hoan Kiem Lake at night is so beautiful I braved the crazy roundabout it’s located at twice to eat there. It’s mere blocks from the Water Puppet Theater if inclined to see a folkloric part of Vietnamese culture. Art galleries and souvenir shops overflow in the area along with surprisingly aggressive women asking you to taste their fried sweets. Even when I got lost and was scared to ask armed soldiers for directions I didn’t want to leave Hanoi, plain and simple. Besides, I think the military check point that was at my apartment my first six months in Venezuela made me develop a comfortable unease with armed soldiers.
But, eventually I did leave Hanoi…to go to the famous Halong Bay. It’s a place I think God personally kisses everyday, and my next post will be about it. Keep (im)migrating with me!