Unlike Saigon where eateries are crammed tightly side by side, in Hanoi, unless you’re staying in the Old Quarter, you may need to walk several blocks to find a good place to eat.
I’m saying this, of course, on hindsight. I didn’t know that until we got lost trying to locate a restaurant that would satisfy carnivorous me and I-don’t-eat-mammals-and-poultry Sam.
But let me start at the beginning. For proper context.
It was raining when we arrived in Hanoi. It was between 2.00 and 3.00 Friday morning. A light rain fell all the way from the airport to the hotel where we would be staying for a night before transferring to the Airbnb apartment. Why the transfer is an altogether different story. I’ll get to that when I write about the hotel and the apartment which were both great.
So, it was raining. It rained through the night and, by morning, there was a heavy downpour. It did stop around noon when we moved to the apartment. But, by that time, we were fully aware that the skies would likely stay gray for the next seven days and there might be intermittent rains as well.
The gray skies were bad for photography. As Sam the photographer put it succinctly, you can’t Photoshop light.
And rains would be bad for sightseeing.
Lost in Hanoi
Saturday. We woke up just before lunch. Because we weren’t sure if it would rain, we made no definite plans. We’d just have lunch and decide later. On Google maps, I found a restaurant about two streets away from the apartment. While trying to find it, we got lost.
We walked. We turned right, we walked, we turned again… We weren’t just lost. I completely lost my bearings after twenty minutes of walking and I didn’t know where we were anymore in relation to the apartment. Sam was in a bad mood already but we just kept walking.
Then, we saw Trang Tien Plaza, a mall. Surely, there are restaurants there? We went in, checked the directory and the only place that sold food was a donut outlet. That couldn’t be right, surely? We approached the guard, he spoke no English, we spoke no Vietnamese…
We exited Trang Tien. And… voila! A huge and beautiful restaurant across the street. A wide facade with alcoves that opened to the sidewalk where smaller tables and chairs were strategically positioned. It looked pricey but what the heck did I care at that point?
SI Cuisine & Mixology
We crossed the street and entered SI Cuisine & Mixology. Plush chairs and couches, muted lighting, velvet drapes and a huge bar.
We chose a table beside an alcove. The street between SI Cuisine & Mixology and Trang Tien was closed to vehicles for some reason. Curious. And pleasant.
After ordering, we watched families, many with young children in tow, stroll by. There were balloon and soap bubble vendors. We started to relax. I thought to myself it was the kind of place where I could spend an entire afternoon… Drinking coffee (or, maybe, some cocktails), chatting or, if I were by myself, reading.
The food was served.
Fortunately, SI Cuisine & Mixology is not one of the those places that’s all ambience and so-so food. We had a lovely meal. I’ve never eaten octopus cooked so well. Moist. Tender. Just like the tiny scallops in the salad and the pork patties in my banh mi.
We lingered over our meal and even after the plates had been taken away. I asked Sam if she wanted to go to Union Park. According to photos on Google maps, there were black swans there and she might want to take photos. No, she said, because it might rain.
In the end, because we couldn’t decide where to go, we paid the bill, stood up and started walking along that closed-to-traffic street. And we ended up on the promenade that goes around the entire perimeter of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Hoan Kiem Lake and that moment I fell in love with Hanoi
I looked around and held my breath. It’s not Hoan Kiem Lake, per se. It was everything that was going on around it that afternoon. I would learn later that on weekends beginning on Friday afternoon, the streets around the area were closed to vehicles.
In the evenings, there was the night market nearby. During the day, the entire area transformed into a huge children’s playground.
I am pretty sure that someone was in charge of organizing all these activities around Hoan Kiem Lake. Someone drew those ô ăn quan boards with chalk on the pavement and provided the small white stones. The wood sticks that the young boys were stacking to make towers didn’t come from nowhere and I don’t think they brought it with them because there were several groups playing with wooden sticks and the sticks were of similar size and shape.
Yes, despite the children running about, everything looked well organized. There were sellers of souvenirs, balloons, street food and every imaginable thing around the lake but they did not usurp the spaces allotted for children’s games. There was no playing in the areas near the benches where the adults (the elderly, especially) sat and relaxed.
It’s just not realistic to expect that such order can be maintained without a bunch of people assigning spaces for everything. Someone was in charge. Whoever it was, I salute him, her or them. Hoan Kiem Lake on a Saturday afternoon was paradise for urban dwellers.
If this was Hanoi and the Hanoian way of life, I wanted to embrace all of it.
It was beautiful. Dreamy. It felt like a perfect movie scene but there was nothing fictitious about it. I imagined that if I stayed in Hanoi for a few months, I’d walk around the lake everyday. Late in the afternoon. I’d rest on one of those benches, nod and smile at the old ladies sitting nearby, stare at the lake and just watch Hanoi go by.
Someday, Hanoi, I’ll visit you again. And I’ll stay a while.