Hanoi City: The Enchanting Capital of Vietnam

Tom Marks mixes business with pleasure in Hanoi City while attending a conference recruiting international college students, and reports back on this vibrant, enchanting capital city of Vietnam.

Lakeside Cafe in Hanoi.(Photo by Tom Marks)

HANOI CITY,VIETNAM, March 12, 2017 – Getting to Hanoi takes time. The cross-Pacific flight to Tokyo or Seoul is followed by another four-hour flight to Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport, and then by a 45-minute taxi ride to Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

But then the enchantment begins, as the excellent service, delicious food, and the mahogany smoothness of your boutique hotel’s decor envelop you in the charms of this capital city.

Business first. The next morning, after the free hotel breakfast of fresh jackfruit, pho (a kind of beef noodle soup, flavored with star anise), and pastries, a very affordable taxi whisks you to the first appointment across town.

On the way, it’s easy to marvel at the many French colonial-era buildings that survived 20th-century wars with both the French and the Americans.

Nearing the destination, the taxi driver struggles to find the office address in one of the many alley-like streets that wind through the Old Quarter of Hanoi. He finally stops to ask a pedestrian for help, and everyone feels triumphant when the office is finally found.

Business concluded it’s time for lunch at one of the many French-influenced restaurants that dot the city like nonpareils. It’s hard to choose between sandwiches served on sliced baguettes, thin-crust pizza, or the ubiquitous omelet.

But no meal in Vietnam is complete without coffee, where the foam on the coffee lattes is as thick as Ho Chi Minh’s humidity, while the espresso coffee cuts through it like the clear air in Hanoi – some 20 degrees cooler than its southern counterpart, at least in March.

The variety of food choices is matched by the variety of languages overheard at the restaurant, and it’s hard not to laugh when someone with a British accent tells a story about renting a car in Washington, DC.

The rental car agent warned her not to accept help from anyone if her car broke down in certain neighborhoods. “Apparently Americans,” she said to her friend, “are either super friendly, or they want to kill you.”

After lunch, it’s time for a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, where Hanoi residents go to practice tai chi at daybreak. Now the park surrounding the lake is filled with tourists and locals, all strolling among the flowerbeds of anthurium and staring at the lake’s emerald green waters.

On one island is Ngoc Son Temple, bristling with bright flags and a scarlet bridge. On the other island is Turtle Tower, its silhouette surprisingly familiar until you realize it’s often used as a Hanoi icon.

The red bridge leading to Ngoc Son Temple. (Photo by Tom Marks)

The trees lining the mile-long path around the lake keep the park cool and refreshing — an island of peace in the middle of the city.

It’s afternoon now, and jet lag is starting to kick in. (Vietnam is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, so 3:00 pm in Hanoi is 3:00 am in New York.) Time for the cure: Vietnamese-style filter coffee with sweetened condensed milk, known here as café sua nuong.

A fresh pot of cafe’ sua nuong, Vietnamese style coffee with sweetened condensed milk. (Photo by Tom Marks)

You order a cup and sit on the porch outside your hotel, watching the traffic pass by as the hot water passes through the grounds and slowly drips (for 15 minutes) into the glass underneath.

Once finished, you add the sweetened condensed milk and enjoy, waiting for the strong caffeine and sugar kick that follows. Now you are ready for the recruitment fair.

Another taxi takes you to the Daewoo Hotel, a beautiful luxury hotel in the designer store section of town, and the site of the fair.

In the hotel ballroom, school representatives at booths decorated with the pennants and banners of over 60 U.S. universities wait for the students to arrive.

The next several hours are spent describing programs and explaining admissions requirements to high school students and their parents.

Tom Marks recruiting international college students for Western Michigan University at a conference in Hanoi. (Photo by Tom Marks)

Their eagerness to study in the U.S. is inspiring, and the large turnout is stunning, as the crowds at the booths don’t thin out until long after the fair was originally scheduled to end.

Exhausted, you collapse into another taxi for the ride back to the hotel, where you ask the concierge for directions to a good Vietnamese restaurant. Armed with his treasure map, you wind through the alleyways again in search of edible gold: Vietnamese cuisine.

St. Josephs Cathedral in Hanoi. (Photo by Tom Marks)

Near St. Joseph’s, the late 19th century French cathedral that resembles Notre Dame, you find what you are looking for: Madame Hien’s restaurant (15 Chan Cam, Hoan Kiem district), which serves French-Vietnamese fusion cuisine in a small courtyard beneath red lanterns, French colonial villa walls, and palm fronds.

Madame Hien’s restaurant, Hanoi City. (Photo by Tom Marks)

The fish you ordered is cooked Hanoi-style, over a hot plate at the table, the server mixing dill, spring onions and a magic sauce with the perch, which is then eaten with rice noodles and fish sauce.

No fish has ever tasted so good.

A post-prandial ambulation takes you past mom-and-pop stores selling old propaganda posters and Japanese jeans, jade paperweights and paper lanterns.

Street side cafe’s provide a relaxing and vibrant glimpse of day to day Vietnamese life. (Photo by Tom Marks)

The main road surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake has been blocked off for pedestrians, and families and young professionals on dates walk beneath the lighted trees.

The Turtle Tower is brightly lit, as is the red bridge leading to Ngoc Son Temple.

Since it’s too early to call it a night, it would simply seem rude not to enter “The Polite Pub” (5 Bao Khanh, Hoan Kiem district) for a nightcap.

Here you can sip an IPA, watch young Vietnamese professionals drink balloon glasses of French wine, and listen to the live band playing jazz on Friday nights. The young Asian crooner sings scat like Fitzgerald, and the drummer’s beat keeps feet tapping and heads bobbing.

But tomorrow is another busy day of recruiting, so it’s soon time to go. You leave reluctantly, slowly, vowing to return to this vibrantly surprising, truly enchanting capital city of Hanoi.

Tom Marks is a U.S. Citizen who has worked in international education since 1985, and is the Director of the Center for English Language & Culture for International Students at Western Michigan University.

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