We are in the middle of tiny, winding streets; motorbikes and cars are honking while people and bicycles weave in and out of traffic. The smell of fried food and diesel fill the air. We grab an insanely cheap bahn my and a stool on the corner. The cheap, local Bia Hoi is cold and refreshing at all times of the day. Brewed fresh daily, it has no preservatives and a mere 3% abv - it's the perfect beer for people watching.
We get lost in the old merchants streets where we are constantly bombarded by all sorts of things to buy - from fast fashion factory overflow to huge woks and mixing bowls. Merchants invite us into their shops loudly as we stroll past. The streets of the Old Quarter are named for what their shops used to sell. On Sunday night the area is blocked off to all but foot traffic and the alleyways come alive with people chatting, drinking and enjoying different types of fried foods. The Old Quarter of Hanoi still feels like a thriving merchants center.
Another part of the Old Quarter feels decidedly more French - most prominently due to a giant grey cathedral. St. Joseph's Cathedral presides grimly over a bustling corner that houses numerous excellent caphe's. We order sweetened coffees at Cong Caphe and watch the hip young Hanoians do what hip young people do all over the world. A few blocks away we find a small restaurant serving steaming bowls of pho with broth ladled right out of the pot. The noodles are delicate and the greens are tangy. It's the perfect meal for a grey day, hearty yet fresh.
We walk to Hoan Kiem Lake to see the flowers and the fog. Looking at the crowded, teetering facades of vaguely European buildings brings San Francisco to mind. There's even tai-chi in the park, but here it's practiced by old Vietnamese men. Students in uniform practice their English on the benches of tourists. The streets around the park swarm with vehicles and business, but the lake is peaceful and quiet. Gardeners work quietly at tending the masses of flowers that pop brightly through the grey scene. When viewed from the high perch of Caphe Pho Co, the little island of serenity is marked by a ring of trees that are said to bloom like fire in the springtime.
Hanoi reminds me of San Francisco. It's grey here. Grey but bright and shining, just like home. The buildings are tall and skinny with French facades, and somehow, the fog assists in both muting and intensifying their painted colors. There are hidden gems just waiting to be stumbled upon. There are bright, cheery flowers in the park but the trees are quiet and shady. Every block has a quirky caphe or a cozy place to eat. You can walk in silent thought or you can join in the raucous activity. Even with mad motorbike traffic and a huge population, Hanoi just feels like home.