Gems in the heart of Hanoi

Bún chả at Hàng Quạt.| Photo by Vinh Nguyen.

I am here in Hanoi, Vietnam for three months and I am thrilled to re-explore the beauty of the city where I was born and raised. Looking around at the densely populated houses and the people, I know hidden gems will be found and fun will be had.

As my friend and I walk down the Old Quarter streets, I realize how different the houses look compared to the scene of urbanization in Hanoi. One can see this in the red brick rooftops, the aged yellow walls, the old decorative brown and green doors, and the window style that is prevalent in the Old Quarter. Homes situated within the Old Quarter all share their space in larger buildings that connect the vendors and stores together within one convenient footstep.

It feels as if they did not and would not conform to the ever-changing trends around the city. Rather, they are very happy and contented with who they are and what they do, even if some stores in the Old Quarter do change their wares to match the marketplace’s demand. It is their identity and has always been theirs for decades. This contrast of urbanization and modernization with the retro infrastructure of the Old Quarter is a unique quality well known to citizens of Hanoi.

In my early years of childhood, I would often hear from adults that the Old Quarter streets are named according to what people sold there. For example, “Hàng Bông” street would always have cotton or cotton clothing in stores to be sold. “Bông” means cotton and “Hàng” means marketplace in Vietnamese. There are thirty-six streets named in a similar way that are all connected together. They are carved in the hearts of Hanoi people through catchy songs, idioms and various forms of literature.

Street food is always the spotlight if you are venturing out in the Old Quarter. Every day you can enjoy a hot, steamy bowl of vằn thắn noodles on Cầu Gỗ street, or tasty dishes of bún chả on Hàng Quạt street. I have had bún chả throughout the course of my life and the strong taste always lingers on the tip of my tongue. Bún chả is a dish of white noodles served with roasted pork and a bowl of salty fish sauce. I would recommend an additional side of fresh herbs, usually coriander and perilla, to balance the saltiness in fish sauce and the essence in the vegetable. A cup of chè bưởi on Hàng Bạc street should refresh you under the scorching heat of Hanoi in summertime. Dessert lovers will give their hearts to chè bưởi for the sweet, thick coconut cream that blends well with another thick layer of pomelo bits and green beans. It has earned itself a top place in my favourite desserts list.

Another suggestion for everyone on their free day is having dishes of fried nem chua or fried potatoes with their friends to catch up with their busy lives. Nem chua is basically fermented, minced meat mixed with various spices which gives rise to a strong smell of herbs and meat. It is well enjoyed and is served in daily life for more purposes than I can count. If anyone prefers a drink and a view, there’s always lemonade to drink, fried sunflower seeds to nibble on, or seats near a busy street or a lake where you can catch the cool evening breeze. It is the vibrant atmosphere in the Old Quarter that truly enlivens people’s busy days.

You can always count on the ever-flowing, lively atmosphere contained within the intricate net of the Old Quarter streets.