First impressions of Ha Noi
by Jak Philips
(VNS) It's little over a fortnight since I swapped London for Ha Noi and what was initially a bold, slightly scary decision, has started to feel like the right one.
|Hubble bubble: In the eyes of many foreign tourists, bun cha on the streets of Ha Noi is something new, with its distinctive smell wafting out of cauldrons up and down the street, cooked by what look like witches casting spells and sorcery on suspicious meat. — VNS Photo Truong Vi
After an eye-opening first 14 days I'm starting to settle in, but it hasn't all been plain sailing.
As the airport taxi driver dropped me - bleary eyed and in desperate need of a shower - at the centre of Ha Noi's Old Quarter, I felt like I'd been hit with a sensory sledge hammer.
The first thing I noticed, or should I say couldn't fail to miss, was that life in this place moves quicker than I could presently comprehend.
Whizzing past my weary head was a blizzard of smells, sounds and xe oms like nothing I'd ever experienced.
The foreign surroundings were hitting me like an overpowering orchestra, so I knew I needed to take a deep breath and examine every instrument.
The smell, I traced to the coven of elderly ladies, huddled over cauldrons up and down the street, casting what looked like spells and sorcery on suspicious looking meat - it later turned out to be bun cha[rice vermicelli with grilled hot pork], a Ha Noi delicacy and my new favourite dish.
As the smell won me over, I turned my attention to the noise.
This was partly a by-product of furious haggling over said bun cha, but moreso the din of an endless river of scooters rushing past me with alarming alacrity.
The traffic I have since got used to, though it took me a while to figure out that Hanoians drive on the opposite side of the road to Londoners as even when on the right side of the road, dozens of scooters still come crashing towards me.
I comfort myself with the notion that, rather than seriously maiming me, these people are trying to make me feel welcome by driving down the wrong side of the street to remind me of home.
Back to the sensory assault - by now all this bedazzlement had given me quite an appetite, so my thoughts turned to food and I shuffled into one of the witches' lairs to give my tastebuds a workout.
Bun cha aside, I was actually already acquainted with many Vietnamese dishes from my time in London.
It's a little known fact that slightly north of London's uber-trendy Shoreditch, just before Haggerston, is an area known as Little Hanoi - the home of many Vietnamese expats and as you might expect, the home of several tasty restaurants.
As my mind trailed back to the pho xao bo [stir-fried rice noodle with beef] I would devour in London and how it tasted remarkably similar 9,000 miles away in Ha Noi, I started thinking about common ground the two cities share.
Aside from both being capital cities and cultural epicentres, there are some interesting historical parallels.
Both had been occupied sporadically for thousands of years, but can trace their first settlements to around 2,000 years ago - London AD43, Ha Noi approximately 200BC.
Since inception, the two cities have been occupied by foreign rulers several times and both can look to inspirational leaders who stood up to fight oppression in their country's hour of need.
Ho Chi Minh's great deeds need no introduction of course, but shortly before he fought off the French, Britain's Winston Churchill gallantly led his country to war against the oppressive Nazi Germany.
Both men are woven into their cities fabric and share the ability to inspire national pride through their courage and charisma.
As Edmund Burke famously said, "All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."
Winston Churchill and Ho Chi Minh knew this and rallied their troops to overcome evil for the sake of their nations' freedom.
The pair are examples of the greatness that can be achieved when good men do something.
But in terms of present day comparisons, I think there's an important similarity which is actually quite rare in modern cities.
Like London, the streets of Ha Noi are not just a means of travel, they are a destination in themselves - full of inimitable characters and unforgettable experiences.
Despite differing climates, both are outdoor cities where the bulk of trading, creating and socialising takes place on the streets.
Materially and spiritually, the lanes, alleys and pavements form the building blocks of these two cities, ensuring that adventure is always on your doorstep.
As I left London, its streets were glowing with pride having hosted a sensational Olympic Games.
The mood of the nation had never been better in my lifetime and the Games instilled a fresh sense of pride.
People were looking at their country with a fresh perspective and loving what they saw.
As I finished my meal and strolled through Hoan Kiem [Sword Lake] I thought: "Wouldn't it be great to one day see the Olympic torch lighting up the streets of Ha Noi...." —VNS