Today we took a walking tour of ‘Hidden Hanoi’ and learned how the history, culture and architecture combine to make the Old Quarter of Hanoi so vibrant, mysterious and interesting.
The tour started in a hidden cafe…behind a shop, down a lane, through another shop, up the stairs, and up the spiral stairway to a balcony overlooking the lake…I have no idea how people know it is even there, never mind how they would ever find it. Our guide led us and it was the perfect place to start.
Here we had a short history lesson while sipping tea and watching brides compete for the perfect photo-op in the park around the lake. We had noticed these bridal photo shoots the day before – the bride and groom, decked out like models, and their photography teams would slowly circle the lake, all looking for that perfect location to take their photos. The dresses were all poufy and brightly colored – pink, purple, red and gold – and the grooms outfits were just as elaborate. Anne explained to us that couples marry on an auspicious day, linked to their birthday and the phase of the moon and told to them by a fortune teller. She said that, traditionally, a bride would wear a red Vietnamese suit to marry in but that recent fashion is taking hold – hence the brightly colored fashion dresses.
And then we were out onto the street competing with the scooters. Hanoi is completely overrun by scooters… scooters on the street, scooters parked on the sidewalks so tight you can’t squeeze between them, scooters driving down the sidewalk, scooters squeezing through the market…you get the picture, scooters everywhere. So we walk on the street, with the traffic, very carefully. Crossing is fun…just bravely step out and go, slow and steady…make eye contact with the oncoming driver and they will go around…no eye contact, then we have to dodge…just keep moving. We pretty much had the hang of it already, but Anne took it up a notch, heading right into the middle of a crazy busy intersection…and we survived! It’s actually fun and isn’t nearly as dangerous as it sounds!
One of the first things I noticed about Hanoi was that people seemed to be living in the street. I don’t mean ‘street people’ who have no home…but that people seemed to be living their lives in the street in front of their buildings, ‘on the stoop’ so to speak. Everywhere I looked there were people sitting on low stools drinking tea, playing cards, reading the paper, and playing with their children. Some were minding their small shop or tending to the street side ‘restaurant’ but many were just passing time.
Today I learned that people think of the sidewalk outside of their building as an extension of their home. Due to old tax laws buildings are extremely narrow and long. Due to an increase in population these long, narrow buildings no longer have any natural light – the old courtyards, once open to the sky, have long ago been filled in to allow for another story or two to be added. Buildings that used to house one family now house up to 6 or 7 families with shared kitchen and washroom facilities and very little private space. They are dark, dank and smelly. People sit outside because it’s more pleasant, more social, and likely they have a business to run.
Generally the person who owns the building runs the business that is the storefront of it but a building with 6 or 7 families can support many more businesses than just the one. Next to the main storefront of every building is the laneway – this laneway is perfect real estate to set up a small shop or street food stall. Some laneways support multiple street food stalls owing to the schedule of meals that Vietnamese keep. In the morning the Pho stall sets up warming up patrons with steaming bowls of noodles and beef, in the afternoon perhaps a small barbeque will be sparked up to sell meat skewers as snacks, and in the evening it’s time for seafood for the dinner crowd. Each business is owned by a different family and a strict schedule is followed – this explains why we can walk down the same street at different times and not see the same thing twice!!
We found the last hidden hideaway of the day on our own while searching out some lunch. A small shop advertizing ‘Bun Bo’ (beef with vermicelli noodles, greens and herbs…yummy!) looked inviting and so we stepped inside. It was crazy busy but we could see that maybe there was a back room so we pushed through…it was full too but there was a set of stairs, so up we went to find an entire second floor filled with diners enjoying Bun Bo. We sat down, ordered and enjoyed a fabulous, hidden lunch.