I was born in Saigon. In my early age, like a bookworm, I curiously read all kinds of books that I could reach from my father's library - from thick, heavy Larousse dictionaries with images, to old, missing-pages Jin Yong's kung-fu novels.
And I would probably have learned "Hà Nội 36 phố phường" from one of those books I read at that time, then later in the school I was taught about famous novelists of 1930s such as Thạch Lam, the author of "Hanoi with 36 streets" and his brothers Nhất Linh, Hoàng Đạo. I started to imagine about a vibrant town with 36 streets, about people living in there in the old days, as being a Southern Vietnamese, everything about Hanoi before 1975 was like a taboo, a mystery.
I like Hà Nội. I like the cold weather that Sài Gòn never has. I like the old quarter with those antique small houses (but I can't imagine how to live in there!), those charming old people sitting in front of the house, or right in the pavement on tiny tiny chair, selling some tea, traditional sweets such as peanut candy, sugar candy (kẹo dồi) and smoking mapacho (thuốc lào) with a long bamboo pipe.
I also found Hanoi people very artistic, esp. with the fine arts. I was struggling with my damaged family photos, I couldn't find any artist in Saigon who can revive them with a great skill, until by chance I learnt about an old artist in Hanoi through the internet, we just talked over the phone, I sent photos, even paid in advance by bank transfer. After two months, coming to Hanoi, seeing his works, I was simply amazed.
Some people from Sài Gòn, don't like Hanoi food, they said it's flat, light, not seasoning enough or too much glutamate! As the famous traditional beef noodles in Hanoi, different from Saigon style, only served without any herbs or veggies, the broth is not strong or sweet as in Saigon, but to me - I do love Hanoi cuisine. I found them not only tasty but also very delicate.
I like the way Hanoi people calls "street", especially in the old quarter - they call "phố". That's one of many differences in our language when people from Hanoi and Saigon talk to each others. In some case we may even misunderstand. Talking about the old streets, traced back to the early last century, these streets probably have been named after the goods sold there. Now it has gone, except some as Phố Hàng Bạc (Street of Silver), I still can see many shops selling silver items.
Hà Nội still has many French architectures, remained from the old colonial era, these buildings happily and painfully witnessed a turbulent life of their residents in different stages of time. Nowadays these houses, in very poor conditions, are a roof for several not-related-to-each-other families (we call "collective house"). How to keep, to maintain it as the historical monument - it would be a big challenge for the authorities.
The best time to travel to Hanoi, as I guess, between November and February, when the temperature is down to around 15oC-20oC. The early morning walk along the old street, in the cold weather, would be a pleasure that we, living in Saigon, hardly have. These days, I walk hours and hours and feel no tired!
One more thing - I really envy Hà Nội people - Hà Nội has many lakes, it makes the city very romantic! I would die for Saigon to have some lakes, like Hồ Hoàn Kiếm right in Saigon center, or huge West Lake near to my place, so early morning I could ride on my bike around them.
I will share about the street food in Hanoi in separate posts. Exactly like in Saigon. Everywhere. Every corner. Although Hanoi is smaller than Saigon in size, the stalls also very tiny, but they are everywhere - these street stalls. Their amazing offer varies from most popular like beef noodles (phở bò), rice noodles with tofu (bún đậu), rice noodles with snails (bún ốc), glass noodles with chicken (miến gà), to roll cake (bánh cuốn), sticky rice in Hanoi style (xôi xéo)... and many of them attached to the owner's name or street name as Cháo gà bà Mỹ (chicken porridge of Mme My), bánh cuốn bà Hoành (roll cake of Mme Hoanh) or famous Bát Đàn beef noodles at 49 Bát Đàn street, rice noodles with tofu Phất Lộc (at 5 Phất Lộc).
A street stall in a narrow entrance - near to a luxury shopping mall Tràng Tiền.
But. There is also something that I really don't like Hanoi. Every morning, the local authorities use the loud speaker to read the news, to promote some political views over the streets from early hours. The government used to do that in Saigon, but it has gone after few years. We don't like it, but in Hanoi that noisy sound would be a part of Hanoi's routine life...since the war time.
I've been to Hanoi many times, mostly for business, my itinerary was simple - airport to hotel, hotel to airport, so this time I have time to discover a "big village" as people said about Hanoi, I love this 1000 year old village, I will love more, if we know how to keep its charm in a better way.