Hanoian introversion

Half past seven on a Friday morning, mildly cold after erratic drizzle. The slight chill wrapped my limbs and back as I calmly strolled across the courtyard at 17 Ly Nam De Street, in one corner of which stood my wife’s scooter ready for her commute.

But there was something unusual in the background. Just as I turned my eyes around, a little thing sprinted from a bush and sat oddly petrified just some steps from where I was. Apparently, his slick dash was too eye-catching amid the static lot. It was a squirrel.

Having lived in the downtown of Hanoi for 28 years, this was the first time I saw such a thing. Not only as squirrels were elusive, it is also because the urban sprawl left them not much room to survive. The encounter with the spiky-eared rodent was unusual, yet so sweet that it hooked my sight until a wake-up call came.

“Darling, it’s almost eight.” My wife spoke via phone. “Hurry!”

As her words came out, they struck my mind as if the situation was pushing me to make an unlikely decision.

“Let’s take a day off.” I said.

After just a short pause of surprise, my wife took the offer. She had just closed her tiring projects successfully. A one-day escape would be of perfect timing. In fact, it only took us a few minutes to plan out the day – breakfast in Phung Hung Street, coffee at The Coffee Bean, bun cha for lunch, an afternoon with lemon tea, and a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake before dinner.

Seated by a stall on Phung Hung Street, we ordered two bowls of beef pho for our breakfast. Just as I squish lime juice in to the bowl of rich broth, a herby and citric sour aroma struck via its pleasantly warming steam. The first sip was as heavenly tasty as ever. The umami from long boiled bones twisted with greens and lime flavours quenched the gustatory thirst. As it went further down, the concentrated smells of basil and shallots amplified a boggling pleasure. The heat from every mouthful permeated into my veins from inside purging my limbs from the cold as it weaved through. Slim cuts of beef and noodle strips, having absorbed the sweet spice from cinnamon, came as the last piece of the taste pattern as well as energised the body.

We savoured our treat since there was not any need to rush. It was also because I was a picky eater: I never ate shallots but still needed them for seasoning. So every spoon must be taken slowly to avoid unwanted shallot slices.

After the super fine meal, we headed to Thanh Nien Road for some drinks. As I turned to the roundabout near Hang Cot Street, a familiar building revealed itself in the view. Locals commonly called its “Hang Dau Military Post” perhaps because of its rugged and defensive look. It had three storeys and round floors covered by honeycomb stone walls. Along these walls narrow and high openings were featured regularly like embrasures. Such details and its overlooking setting prompted speculation that it might have been a “bird’s nest” for sharpshooters. Yet its actual role was merely a water tower.

This 122-year-old tower had housed a 1000-cube-meter tank on its top before its retirement in 1960. Interestingly, even in darkest periods when the city was carpeted with bombing, not a single splinter hit this tower. True devastation only came when they replaced its genuine weathered skin with dull cement plaster. They called it a renovation.

The resulting renovation could have varied positively. As architects, my friends and I also devised our own proposal. We designed a blue-tinted, transparent, and free-flowing internal staircase symbolising a concept of fluid movement. Interior spaces could serve as exhibition. Our vision was that this building could follow the way Londoners preserve their vernacular architecture. In my memory of Oxford Street – the most frequented high street of London, exuberant lifestyle shopping was juxtaposed with houses of traditional style. The modern interior settings and business were inextricably intertwined with their conservative cover.

Reminiscences faded out as we reached the café – The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. With its views of two lakes and wood-cladded exterior and interior, this coffee shop drew a romantic resemblance to a sailing yacht. Good views allowed a tempting guilty pleasure. We love enjoying some hours of doing nothing in the middle of morning quietness, watching people trotting on the other side of the windows, ground and stretched by their workload. We sat in the coffee shop just chewing the fat until hunger pangs came calling for nice treats again.

The main dish for lunch was my all-time favorite – bun cha. My wife suggested a stall in Cua Dong Street, where I had never come before. In fact, for years, I have never had bun cha twice at the same restaurant. It is my search for the best bun cha in town, yet so far none could beat my childhood’s mouth-watering dish in Hang Bun Street.

When I was ten years old, my father took me to a bun cha stand in Hang Bun Street on my way to primary school like once or twice a month. I always took grilled pork belly only while dad sometimes preferred grilled meatballs. Either way, they were well-seasoned with fish sauce, brown sugary syrup, and garlic then grilled on glowing charcoal, carefully enough to leave only a sheer charred edge on each bit. The sauce bowl, into which aromatic and juicy grilled pieces were dipped, were concocted with fish sauce and water, spiced with a pinch of pepper, sweetened with sugar, and all accented with a subtle touch of vinegar. At the bottom of the bowl, some crispy slices of pickled papaya added bitter and sour delicacy. Rice vermicelli and greens would be dipped into the sauce, then picked up along with a pork piece. When the pick reached my mouth, sharp umami and sourness would drench my tongue, followed by lingering sweetness.

It ended up as memories when I advanced to junior high school. We did not tread past Hang Bun until 7 years later. The stand was no longer there, so had my only true bun cha gone without a trace. My hunger for the dish grew insatiable ever since. Neither were it satisfied this time though I had to admit that our meal was good.

Lunch being done, it was tea time then. My plan was that we would reach the café on our scooter, but my wife suddenly came up with an idea: we would walk. She wanted to enjoy the afternoon more slowly.

Having put the scooter in a public parking lot near Hoan Kiem Lake, we continued on foot to Dao Duy Tu Street. The stroll led us to another twist in our plan. Upon passing Ma May Street, the old house at No. 87 lured our footsteps. Having known of its vernacular architecture for years, this was the first time I actually paid it a visit.

Spatial delight in this architectural piece was materialised with a layout responding to cultural, functional, and micro-climatic demands. Unlike the multi-functionality of the rural house, this urban shop-house must accommodate both external and internal activities, trading, and living. Consequently, a courtyard-centred layout was applied. The courtyards provided subtle separation as well as adequate and convenient links between the main living rooms. The living room’s windows viewing main streets were deliberately minimised whereas doors leading to the courtyard were of 4-pane large type, suggesting that the courtyards were the main sources of fresh air and natural light. The cleverly sized verandah gave just enough shading to shield the living room from problematic glare while retaining excellent indirect illumination.

The house at No. 87 Ma May Street saved a silver lining amid the cloudy vision of architectural preservation. When many vernacular buildings were falling apart, the restoration of this house showed that there would always be ways for better architectural adaptation.

We were back to Hoan Kiem Lake strolling around after our visit to the old house. Unusual crystal sunlight fell on the large dial on the South-East side of the lake. The dial turned luminescent with it soft emerald tint. There came a rare chance for pedestrians to cherish some precious winter light before sunset. It was Friday night, meaning some streets and roads surrounding the lake would be car-free from 7pm until Monday.

As the night fell, people flooded to the pedestrian zone for all kinds of improvised outdoor entertainment. In front of the headquarters of Hanoi Municipal People’s Committee, infamously named The Guillotine by its chief designer, two teams of men and women, grown-ups and children, were sweating in a tug of war game. Gripping the rope, the competitors stretched hard in the middle of the cheering crowd. As the red flag crossed over a side mark, both teams burst out laughing. On the other end of the road, close to the luxury shopping mall of Trang Tien Street, a band was playing some alternative rock songs. They looked passionate tonight, possibly because of the generous tips from the circles of audience. All across the zone, youngsters roamed on hoverboards. Hoverboarding gained popularity only a few weeks after the introduction of this pedestrian zone. The feeling of floating along streets was surely enticing.

Whether it was for sports, dances, music, hoverboarding, or simply the atmosphere that people came, their excitement justified the need for a cultural playground. In fact, the project had been proposed for years and was only realised recently. Public reception may vary, but all sank as trivial things in the joy of these pedestrians. That affirmed a long-standing development trend: simply give our people the place and chance and they would create the rest.

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