Family Fun Adventures by Dulce Zamora
On a recent trip to Hanoi, my family and I risked our lives every time we crossed the street or bypassed the sidewalks which doubled as motorbike parking. As pedestrians, we dodged testosterone-fueled cars, mopeds, and bicycles on the road. To survive Vietnam’s capital, we activated the New Yorker within us.
Although our teenage daughters, Sienna and Jasmine, were born in Singapore, their gritty city genes showed up amidst the frenzy. They casually maneuvered the labyrinth of avenues and alleys, striding past pushy vendors and teeming crowds. It probably helped that this was not their first time in the Southeast Asian country. After previous visits to Hoi An, Phu Quoc, and Hanoi, they were familiar with the frenetic pace and no-nonsense culture. So familiar that while walking through the Big Apple’s Times Square some years ago, they shrugged off the hustle-bustle, saying, “It’s not as loud as Vietnam.”
As raucous as the streets were in Hanoi, equally as deafening was its penchant for the artistic. There were paintings galore from panoramic murals to meter box compositions. Bold colors -- punctuated by greenery and bamboo silk lanterns -- highlighted individual shophouses and tubehouses which would have otherwise gotten lost in numerous rows of uniformity. Imposing buildings like the Presidential Palace and the Grand Opera House also sported golden yellow hues.
Yet, the picturesque structures paled in comparison to the life passing in and around them. Bikers transported everything from stacks of bricks and fabric, bundles of fruits and flowers, and cages of chickens and pigs. We couldn’t help but gawk at the towering piles and appreciated the craftsmanship involved in balancing them while zipping in and out of chaos. It was mesmerizing.
After walking around the Old Quarter on the last full day of our trip, Noel wanted a snack and the girls longed to sit somewhere. We researched café options. That’s when we discovered the subculture of coffee shops feeding the city’s appetite for speed and style.
We checked out three java joints. The first one was Café Giảng, a cavernous three-story walk-up jampacked with people steeped in conversation while huddling around little tables and chairs. The venue’s founder was known as the godfather of the nation’s famous egg coffee -- a strong dark brew with creamy foam made of egg yolks and condensed milk. There were many versions of the specialty drink, which included egg cocoa, egg with mung bean, and egg with rum. Noel and I tried the egg coffee while Sienna and Jasmine enjoyed cocoa and condensed milk on ice.
After drinks, we wanted to continue lounging after a hectic week in the region. We walked five minutes to the Floral and Book Café, a more serene setting with a florist on the ground floor and a refreshment bar on the second. It was a perfect spot to decompress: The wooden arches promoted an airy vibe while the books and nooks encouraged coziness. Our teens requested some alone time. So, Noel and I left them inside while we had our snacks in a small outdoor balcony overlooking a busy street. The people watching there was spectacular!
Before dinner, we wanted to see one more watering hole. We searched the internet and settled upon the Hidden Gem Café and Pub. To get there, we entered a long, narrow passageway into a cramped indoor motorbike parking lot. Then we went up a concrete staircase with handrails made of bare reinforcing steel bars. The steps led to an intricate maze involving more stairs and mezzanines that reminded me of an M.C. Escher drawing, except this multi-layered indoor/outdoor space had colorful and lively ambience. There were wall-to-wall murals and eclectic furniture and decor made with recycled materials. I wish we could have stayed longer to explore more of it, but some of us weren’t too thrilled about the faint marijuana smell wafting in the air at that time. Hence, we trekked to our fourth coffeehouse of the day.
Raaw Café had minimal décor. In the lobby, an elegant white balustrade flanked the red clay-colored tiles leading up to the second floor. The hunter green windowpanes and shutters accented otherwise pale white or yellow walls. Upstairs, there were two spacious rooms and an outdoor courtyard. We had our pick of seating as there were only a couple of studying students there. Then again, it was almost dinnertime. Who had pre-dinner coffee? We chose a big indoor table because it had started sprinkling outside. We ended our café-hopping expedition with tea while we either read a book or wrote our own stories.
Prior to this trip, my family and I had never visited so many coffee shops in one day. Nonetheless, excess seemed very much part of the fabric of this Red River Delta town – in a good way, or not, depending on one’s preference. This place had so much in spades, from traffic, to art, to architecture, to good food (but that’s another story). The constant stimulation excited us, yet, at times, it was also depleting. It helped to have plenty of cafés to recharge our minds and bodies. It also didn’t hurt to have cuppas in style, for art was infused in everything, everywhere, and in motion all at once. Indeed, if the multiverse ever existed, Hanoi would be one of those mind-bending, interdimensional settings. With this vibrant landscape, it’s no wonder that the city has earned distinction as the art and culture capital of Vietnam.