As I lay eyes for the very first time on this city which I came to know and appreciate, all I can see is a buzzing chaos everywhere around me.
I am amazed at how many times the cab driver honks the horn and at how the motorcycle riders driving past us do not seem the least bit bothered by the blaring sound of it.
I try to count the number of karaokes I see, but I soon abandon, for there must be one appearing every other minute. Come to think of it I might as well have tried to count the number of ‘cafes’ or ‘pho’ stands on the way, just to realise how futile a task this would be.
People are going about their daily routine in this tumultuous city as a couple of friends and I make our way, packs on our backs, to our hostel. The dorms are exactly the way the travel guide depicts them, clean but humid, comfortable yet noisy, this is no surprise, I knew what to expect travelling on a low budget. Heading out to enjoy the traditional North Vietnamese ‘pho’, we go over a few stands but all of them seem to be full, we end up going to the first one with some free sitting stools.
After a disastrous ordering experience, we receive a bowl of what we think must be ‘pho’, we were in for a treat; our first meal turns out to be a cow stomach and bamboo shoots noodle soup. I manage to finish it, my two friends look at me with puzzled looks on their faces, full bowls in their hands and a grumbling in their stomach: we were off to a great start!
I am one of the many expats teaching English in Hanoi, though unlike most, my staying here was never planned to begin with.
Originally the plan was to explore the northern region of Vietnam and visit a few acquaintances along the way. With the sole purpose of travelling inside Southeast Asia, no intention of going back home anytime soon, one thing leading to another, I found myself sharing a huge flat with 12 interesting characters and working part-time in Hanoi.
Venturing across this maze of a city on my rental scooter, I quickly became accustomed to the ways of the road in Viet Nam. What I thought was a complete mess upon my arrival was really nothing that bad seen from inside the traffic. I would simply compare it to a school of fish moving together: once in it, I just had to go with the flow, the difficulty lies in joining in the first few times.
The next step was to acquire basic conversation skills, which is easier said than done. To find someone willing to teach you Vietnamese is probably one of the easiest things in Hanoi.
Nevertheless, learning it is something entirely different. There are a lot of young students looking for a chance to practice English with a native speaker and most of them will be glad to teach a few Vietnamese sentences as an exchange of services.
I remember walking by Hoan Kiem lake and sitting down on a bench to read or to study; I have never spent more than half an hour sitting alone. At some point, someone would ask if they could sit down and speak English with me. I never refused the opportunity and made a point of practicing Vietnamese as much as I could. Making new friends had never been so easy!
Aside from my first meal in Viet Nam, pretty much all I have tasted so far has been a real delight, or if not so, a particularly interesting culinary experience. My first impression couldn’t have been further from reality, the impressive variety of meals I could try and enjoy over the last year all account for it.
The endless array of restaurants, bistros, street stands and the famous ‘bia hoi’ all around town is remarkable, considering that a good portion of them have only one meal on their menus to attract customers: these are the ones I wanted to try.
One item on the menu means a lot to me: if they managed to stay opened with that, they must know what they’re doing and indeed they do! The way to prepare food here is far from what I was used to back home and having been a chef for 7 years gives me a good perspective.
First of all, there is none, or very little, refrigeration. The need to stay fresh doesn’t need to be reminded to anyone here. Everything is made from scratch, there are basically no substitutes to replace the real thing, what you see is what you get.
The ingredients used in Vietnamese cuisine are not stored for months, canned, or imported from halfway across the world. The meals are made fresh, healthy, simple, even humble, yet tasty and delicious.
Of course there are some meals which a lot would call unconventional to say the least, but having tried a panoply of these local delicacies myself, I can say it really is just a question of habits and traditions, for the taste was always pleasing.
Throughout the year I lived in Hanoi, spending time with local friends and foreigners `living here as well, I was given the chance to perceive this intriguing city from all angles. The beauty found here lies not only in the amazing lakes and parks to walk by or the myriad of museums and monuments to visit.
For its cultural and historical background, the warm-hearted, most welcoming and forgiving people I have come to understand the Vietnamese to be, I realise now how many treasures this land truly beholds. I do not know how long I will remain in Vietnam, but all I can say is that it was well worth exploring it in the first place.
The sun is rising and amidst the bustle of the city I see what is probably the first bus full of tourists of the day arriving. They too will assuredly feel the surprising effect as I was under when I first arrived. I can simply wish that they, too, would feel the same charm as I do about this lovely country that is Vietnam.