As a traveler, you realize that there is an insight that can only be gleaned by living in a place and molding yourself to its rhythms. When you flit into a city for days or weeks you might see the the forest but you often miss the trees. It is a blessing when a friend can show you around a new city. They can illuminate the places, moments, and interactions which make a city whole. Thankfully, while in Hanoi I was able to stay with a college friend and experience Hanoi through their eyes which only increased its beauty.
When you travel for a long period of time it’s easy to forget that people live in these places that you explore. Behind every tourist destination is a family trying to make ends meet. Nowhere was this more visible in Hanoi then train street. This street is famous because of the fact that train tracks run down the median of a street lined with restaurants, boutiques, and family homes. I made my way there because it was on the list of things to do in Hanoi. I had hoped to record the street rushing through this narrow street. The train never came, instead I watched as grandmothers hung their wet laundry to dry, as chefs lit their coal on fire to cook their next meal, and as a dog dressed in pajamas peak its head out of a nondescript door. I also saw many other tourists come and go for the spectacle completely missing the beauty of daily life that turned around them.
As we explored Hanoi I got to see versions of things I didn’t expect. For example there is a street in the north of Vietnam dedicated to variations on famous dish pho. Instead of being cut and laddled into soup the rice noodles were used as wraps (pho cuon) or deep fried into delicious squares and then covered with beef, gravy, and herbs. I’ll never forget the day I ate pho cuon for the first time, we woke up that morning and was confused by all the noise coming from the normally quiet street outside. When we peaked our heads over the railings we saw the street bursting at its seams with people huddled around haphazardly made rings. Once we left the house we saw that inside of the rings were cocks fighting each other. The neighborhood had been transformed into a street fighting headquarters. We settled into a booth at a nearby restaurant and watched them quickly turn a pile of rice noodles into the finished pho cuon. Patrons constantly streaming in and out to order food. Later that night when we came back the streets were empty- like it never happened.
My favorite thing about Hanoi besides the skyline was the Old Quarter. An interesting fact about this neighborhood is that it has 36 streets named after a specific trade or guild that used to sell their wares. Many of these streets are still dedicated to their namesake whereas others have evolved into different forms of commerce. On the weekends cars are not allowed in most of the Old Quarter so large groups of people roam around as street performers and food stalls give the area a fair like quality. Sounds of laughter bounce of the walls as the smell of grilled meat fills your nostrils. Hanoi was the only city in SouthEast Asia that I could see myself living in. It had that chaotic energy that makes sense to everyone but foreigners as well as enough touches of modernity like craft breweries and cocktail bars that I could find pieces of comfort.
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