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One day to spare

From tasting the rich vietnamese coffee and its exquisite cuisine to experiencing Hanoi’s heritage and french colonial architecture. From shop-hopping in the numerous street bazaars to taking a leisurely stroll around the scenic Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi has a lot to offer, even if you have just one day to spare…

In a matter of few months after settling in, I realized that one of the key tricks to survive a city like Yangon, Myanmar was to make as many trips to its interesting neighbors as possible, be it getting lost in the claustrophobic streets of Hong Kong, shop-hopping in the innumerable malls of Bangkok or enjoying the vibrant night life of Singapore. It didn’t matter if the trip was just for a day, when you are living in a city void of shopping malls, cineplexes or just plain traffic rules, causing you to spend hours in your car to reach a cafe, any opportunity that comes your way to get away from the madness and the chaos, you simply got to grab. Even if its just in the hope of staying in a lavish five star or sipping hazelnut latte at the nearby Starbucks. It is not that I did not love Yangon anymore. I did. But she had now become my home and all the shimmery, shiny Pagodas that awed me a few months ago and the thanaka smeared faces of the locals that brought me immense joy, had all become somewhat of the mundane. I had gone from being a tourist to a local and I was desperate for a change.

‘I must warn you. You’ll just have a day in Hanoi and you’ll be on your own,’ my husband warned me as he agreed to let me tag on one of his official trips, I didn’t care. I was ecstatic and it didn’t matter that I just had one day to spare.

Now normally, I hate planning out my trips in advance and prefer the city to unfold in itself as I tread its streets, but this time, I knew was going to be a little different and a certain amount of planning would be essential if I wanted to make the best use of my one day here. So I kept my notepad and pen ready as I exited the Hanoi airport. My stay here was going to be brief and their was no part of her, I wanted to miss. 

ZOOM ON!

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It was a rather short drive to our hotel, The Sofitel Metropole, situated in the old quarter of Hanoi and close to the famous and scenic Hoan Kiem Lake. But the drive was definitely far more adventurous than I had expected it to be, thanks to the hundreds of scooters and bicycles swarming towards our car from all sides. ‘Crossing these streets where going to be impossible especially with my 7 year old,’ I thought nervously chewing onto the ends of my pen. ‘Don’t worry Madam,’ smiled our driver as he swerved the car amidst the spool of two wheelers. ‘They know how to avoid you.’

And boy was I glad that he was right! Though they seemed intimidating at first, I soon realized that just the sheer concentration of vehicles on the road makes it almost impossible for any of them to gain a high speed, giving us enough time to make our way across the road, safely. And like my driver said, they were well used to the numerous pedestrians and had developed a strategy to coexist, swerving right around them. ‘We’ll be fine,’ I assured my daughter as we crossed the road to reach our very first stop of the day, an old non glamorous coffee shop in Nguyen Huu Huan Street to savor the famous Vietnamese coffee.

A COFFEE LOVER’S DREAM
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There were plenty of international coffee chains and boutique style cafes all around the posh locality surrounding the hotel but I was told, that this particular shop was special and famous for its unique blend of coffee made with egg yolk, cheese, butter and yogurt. As I had just a day, a flight back the very next and a seven year old to look after, I decided not to play too adventurous and stuck to the traditional coffee blended with sweetened condensed milk. Coffee is to the Vietnamese as chai is to us Indians and no trip to the country is complete without savoring the intrinsically brewed coffee. And as soon as I took my first sip of the strong concoction diluted by the sweetness of the rich creamy condensed milk, I felt no guilt that I had passed off on my favorite brand of international coffee that I had been craving for so long.

TEMPLE OF LITERATURE
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Our next stop was the Temple of literature, a temple dedicated to the great Chinese philosopher and scholar, Confucius. A mere ten minute drive from our current location at Hoan Kiem Lake, this historical site also houses the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first ever university. Though there was quite a fair number of tourists, visiting that day, we could almost immediately sense the sanctity of the place as we exited the taxi and slowly made way through, ‘The Great Portico,’ or the first entrance into the temple. 

Despite the sanctity of the place, touring around was neither intimidating nor overwhelming. It felt extremely calming as I walked hand in hand with my daughter amidst the picturesque gardens bordering the different courtyards (There are a total of five courtyards, one leading to the other), quite a relief from the chaos and congestion of motorcyclists aligning outside. There were three paths leading to the main temple and we were told that the middle path was reserved for the king, while the other two were for the officials. ‘Middle path it is,’ I joked to my little one as I pulled her delicate frame to further explore what lay ahead.

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The third courtyard was our personal favorite, thanks to a walled pond, named the Well of Heavenly Clarity situated right in the centre of the Temple. Surrounding the well are stone plaques with names of all those who cleared the exams and received their doctorates at the University. The plaques have been mounted on tortoises also carved in stone. After paying a quick homage at the lacquered statue of Confucius, housed at the end of the courtyard  and a few quick photo sessions, it was time for our little gang of two to delve into the chaotic streets of Hanoi yet again. We still had a lot to do and not much time to waste. 

IN A WORLD OF PUPPETS
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My research had suggested one more monument, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, one of the largest memorial in Hanoi. But time was scarce and after all the walking around, I was doubtful if my seven year old could handle yet another historical site. I also knew I wasn’t leaving without exploring the innumerable shops surrounding the Hoan Kiem lake and if she was ever going to let me do that, I had to throw in a little kiddy bribe. ‘How about a little puppet show my doll?’ 

I have always been extremely critical when it comes to puppetry and coming from a a country like India, where I have grown up watching some exquisite shows, like the shadow puppetry (Tholpavakoothu) of Kerala or the string puppetry (Kathputli) of Rajasthan, it would have had to be spectacular for me to take notice. And spectacular it definitely was!

Beautiful and colorful hand carved wooden lacquered puppets (including fire blowing dragons, flip flopping fish and turtles) are shown farming, fighting, dancing or simply rejoicing in the festivities in a pool of water, all while being dragged around with the help of bamboo rods or strings by puppeteers from behind a screen. The performance divided as little skits show life in rural Vietnam and is explained with the help of a live orchestra through songs and dialogues. The language was traditional Vietnamese, but the sheer acts by the puppets were enough for us to understand it’s comical nature and interpret the folktales that formed the very essence of the play.   

IN & AROUND HOAN KIEM LAKE
The next part was obviously my personal favorite and the whole reason for me tagging along with my husband to any destination in the first place, shopping! Markets were a plenty in Hanoi, but there wasn’t much time left to wrap up and so I decided to simply walk across from the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre to further explore the innumerable shops. Traditional Vietnamese Lacquer, wooden, hand-painted handicrafts, silk scarfs, tablecloths, interesting fake goods, souvenirs, bags, shoes, jewelry, paintings by local artists and what not. You think of it and you were sure to find it here. 

I would have hardly been to four shops, a lacquerware one, a silk shop, a souvenir shop and an art gallery and my hands were already full. I could feel the weight of the shopping bags beginning to take a toll on my shoulders and my daughter was slowly starting to lose her patience. And it’s at that point, a friendly rickshaw or cyclo as the Vietnamese call it, offered to take us around the lake.

Although we could just about catch glimpses of the famous turtle tower and the Huc Bridge, the ride was enough to truly absorb the beauty of the lake and the sheer vibrancy and character of Hanoi.

CHA CA LA VONG
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My jeans were all dusty and hair messed up. The shimmery bronzer and foundation that I had generously smeared on my face was long gone. We were exhausted and I felt so glad as I walked into this tiny restaurant that we had not chosen anything fancy for our last and most important pit stop, our dinner!

The place was crowded and I couldn’t help but wonder if the small wooden shop would be able to take all the weight. There was no menu and no questions. People went there for one dish and as soon as we sat down it was served to us in great élan. It was obvious the Cha Ca Thang Long, was definitely going to be a dish the Vietnamese was proud about.

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First came a steaming frying pan mounted on a flaming stove with tiny pieces of fish marinated in turmeric, ginger, garlic and fish sauce. This was followed by  a big bowl of freshly boiled vermicelli noodles, dill and smaller bowls of fish oil and nuts. I was asked to add the Dill into the hot oil while the fish cooked which was later mixed into the bowl of noodles along with extra fish oil and garnished with peanuts. 

Considered to be one amongst the top 1000 things to eat before you die, it was definitely not the best restaurant I had ever been. It was hot, crowded and noisy, but the infusion of flavors that burst inside my mouth, definitely made it one of the best meals I had ever eaten and also the most memorable part of my day in Hanoi.

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