Happiness is a bowl of bún chả in the rain

As promised from the previous post, I set out to explore more local parts of Hanoi – all thanks to the discovery of a food review app used by locals, Foody.vn. Please do use this when you’re in Vietnam! It will bring you to well loved local eats at local prices. Without this app, I don’t think I could have ventured to local hangouts, due to the lack of information in English online.

So, my trip really took a dramatic turn for the better, and it was a truly magical day for me that involved rain, a nostalgic 90’s cafe, witnessing the chaos of school dismissal at a local school, finding delicious bún chả and making a local friend.

I shall start from the beginning, and include videos to show you an actual glimpse / fragment of the chaos, colour and life of Hanoi.

Woke up to a rainy day in Hanoi today. Temperatures dropped heavily by almost ten degrees. It was freezing, and we jumped on a GrabCar (yes, they have it here so use the Grab app for the best transport deal) to a nostalgic 90’s cafe on the other side of town, loved by locals for bringing them back to their childhood days. We were curious to see how the already nostalgic city to us could travel further back in time, and how the childhood of Vietnamese youths our age looked like.

In the comfort of the warm car with Vietnamese tunes playing on the radio, and the rain glazing the roads outside, it felt like I was in a film, watching the people in their assortment of colourful raincoats whizz by on their bikes. There is something about the rain that makes everything more beautiful, and especially so here, when the roads burst with colour.

The cafe was hard to find even by local standards, according to the reviews on the app. This picture shows the little back alley we walked in from, hidden behind a row of shops. We went up a flight of stairs that looked like local housing, and indeed, we discovered that there were residents living there. The cafe itself also looked like the interior of an old house. By Singapore standards, I felt like I was transported back to the 60’s. So this was what childhood was like in the Vietnam of the 90’s.

Unfortunately I was too excited and forgot to take pictures of the interior…we went out to the balcony which looked something like this:

That’s me, and I realise this is the first time I posted a picture of myself. I am trying out a more candid style of blogging on the go via my phone.

The cafe staff were surprised and a bit lost when we didn’t understand what they were saying, because I think no tourists ever came here. Thanks to Google translate and a girl who spoke some English, we managed to make some sense of the Vietnamese menu. A warm, comforting plate of sweet potato fritters was soon served. When I showed my Vietnamese new friend (I’ll come to that later) this picture later, she was really excited because it was really her childhood snack.

We also got some flavoured frozen yoghurt in cute little tubs, complimentary roasted popcorn, and the legendary Vietnamese coffee we can’t get enough of.

This is the local version of the board game Monopoly. The board is the unfolded wooden case containing the Monopoly notes and property cards, all made with flimsy laminated paper.

This was the view from the balcony, a classic scene of motorbikes in Hanoi. If you think this traffic is bad, wait till you see what happens next.

The cafe is situated right opposite a local primary school, so what we saw at around 4:30PM was a crowd of parents on motorbikes waiting for the school gates to open. And around them, the usual traffic continued unabated.

Soon the school gates open, and the crowd of motorbikes flood into the school compound. Children are seated behind their dad or mum, or else inserted between both parents on their bike, or sometimes up to 4 family members huddled on one bike. Some kids hold on to their parent’s hands while they calmly navigate the heart stopping (to us) tirade of honking bikes, taxis and cars.

This is their everyday life, while it seems like an exciting dramatic scene unfolding before our eyes. Watching these kids brave the monstrous traffic at such a young age, I learn that the Vietnamese are a resilient people – and this word means so many things on different levels I cannot even begin to claim to understand.

More stills from the unstoppable gushing river of vehicles.

Witnessing this moving scene of people braving the traffic, I felt humbled, and for the first time, felt at ease with the movement and noise. Soon the cacophony blended into the rhythms of my environment, and I took out my Kindle, opened a half-read book, and read Montaigne’s philosophy for an hour.

Philosophy – of all things, in the midst of the roar of Vietnamese traffic! This was definitely a transformative moment for me, learning how to find inner peace surrounded by chaos.

As the night fell and the peak hour traffic subsided after more than two hours, we departed the cafe for a bún chả stall I found on the food app, rated highly by Hanoi locals. We were dropped by our Grab driver along a busy main road, but somehow manage to wind our way into a narrow back alley.

There we discovered a row of food stalls like the one above, which we managed to identify after some time. It was around 8PM, and finally, we had found the unassuming place where locals ate their daily dinners, and not the tourist-priced street stall I mentioned in my previous post where we were “shoved around like animals waiting to be fed”.

Our dinner situation.

We ordered what we thought was bún chả as we had eaten before in Singapore’s Vietnamese eateries. Little did we know! This was bún trộn, made of the same ingredients except that they were mixed. It was the Southern Vietnam interpretation of the dish more commonly found in Ho Chi Minh down south, and indeed, like the pho we had in Singapore, was much sweeter. This confirms our realisation on this trip that the Vietnamese food found in Singapore hails mostly from Ho Chi Minh.

And bún chả was a Northern dish that actually originated from Hanoi itself! We learned all this when a friendly Vietnamese girl sat down beside me. The first thing she said was, “this version of bún chả tastes better”, as she pointed to the noodles, pork slices and vegetables separated into bowls in front of her which she had ordered. It looked something like this:

foody-mobile-buncha-jpg-826-636222492785316714

Photo taken at the same stall, from Foody.vn app

That began a conversation over dinner with a university student from the nearby economics university. She told us that this was her favourite bún chả stall, and she always came here after school. How lucky we felt! Although we ordered the mixed version, it was more delicious than any we’d ever tasted. Such tastes and experiences simply cannot be transported across geographical spaces.

Alice (the English name she chose for her love of Alice in Wonderland), was surprised and (seemed) impressed that I came here through the Foody app, and on a Grab car. She said I know a lot about Vietnam life, and I told her I am trying very hard. It was not easy indeed! Everything was so unfamiliar and intimidating on the first few days, but things are becoming clearer.

She later brought us to a nearby dessert shop she frequented. She taught me a few Vietnamese phrases, which was so much more effective than struggling to repeat what I heard on Google translate.

And I never knew Vietnam had such nice desserts! The leftmost one is a very sweet mixture of caramel pudding, black glutinous rice, jackfruit slices and sago. At the top is some cheese based jelly with sago. On the right, which was my favourite, was mango sago with coconut jelly and milk.

Only upon coming to Hanoi did we realise the Vietnamese people liked eating desserts. Our friend ordered the three which we all shared, and I was touched by her gesture of being willing to spend time with two foreigners she met at a bún chả stall.

I came to Hanoi only knowing of the Old Quarters and French Quarters, due to limited time to plan for this trip and rather limited information found online. It seems like not many people have explored the city of Hanoi extensively.

Initially disarmed by the hostility we faced in the Old Quarters, I am now thankful for it was my perturbed feelings that led me to discover, and become determined to visit the places where locals lived and ate. Breaking through the appearance of a mysterious foreign culture that seemed inhospitable at first encounter, I found human warmth and hospitality with a bowl of 20k dong bún chả.

Today, I found magic in Hanoi, and I found a new friend.

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