We didn’t have to go far the next morning to find our first meal. Nam Ngu is a small alley behind the Mercure Hanoi La Gare, our hotel for the weekend, with a number of small restaurants competing with parked scooters and vegetable vendors for space along its weathered walls. The one we were looking for was Pho Lam, a hole in the wall specializing in silky smooth pho ga. As we sat and waited on narrow wooden benches, the boss lady used her bare hands to throw together noodles, chicken, greens, and broth, oblivious to the searing heat of the chipped ceramic bowls. The morning was already uncomfortably warm and humid, and yet we happily consumed our pho, sweat dripping from flushed faces, lost in our own little worlds.
When the last bite of pho, the last sliver of chicken, and the last drop of broth had disappeared down our discerning gullets, we peeled our sweat-soaked butts off of our seats and aired out our overheated bodies with a walk towards Hanoi’s famous St. Joseph’s Cathedral. The 19th century church was one of the first buildings built by the French in the city, demolishing an ancient pagoda dating back to the founding of Hanoi in the process. With the collapse of French Indochina in 1954, however, St. Joseph’s doors were shuttered for the next 36 years, until 1990, when the Vietnamese government allowed local Catholics to celebrate Mass on Christmas Eve.
This was of little interest to us, however, and most of us barely glanced at the building as we walked by. Instead, our goal was a coffee shop on the other side of the church square – Cong Ca Phe. Their claim to fame is their incredible iced coconut coffee, an otherwise unremarkable glass of coffee mixed with condensed milk, except for the iceberg of shaved coconut ice that some saint must have seen in a heavenly vision in the building across the street. This is, perhaps, the most refreshing drink of all time, perfected by generations of old, wiry Vietnamese clergy, worshipers of the almighty coffee bean, measuring out precise amounts of delicious ingredients in order to create the ultimate summer beverage. Hallelujah.
Our group scattered after finishing our iced coconut coffees – half the group went back to the hotel to recharge, a few members went shopping for cheap runners, and the rest of us felt we had room for one more meal. Bun Bo Nam Bo is both a restaurant and a noodle dish, consisting of dry vermicelli, chunks of beef, vegetables, peanuts, fried shallots, fish sauce, lemon, chili, and peppers. The restaurant is in the Old Quarter, about a 10-minute walk from St. Joseph’s Cathedral, and, like most dishes here in Vietnam, the food comes hot and fast. While it doesn’t necessarily dislodge pho ga from its place at the top of my Vietnamese food pyramid, it’s good enough to make a trip worthwhile, and I’d probably go back the next time I’m in Hanoi.
After another late afternoon session at the spa on Hang Buom Street, we made our way on foot to Green Tangerine, a Vietnamese-influenced French restaurant northeast of Hoan Kiem Lake. Like Ngon Villa, the place where we had dinner the night before, Green Tangerine also occupies a former French villa, dating to 1928. The menu is known to be a bit adventurous and experimental at times, combining ingredients and flavours in ways that don’t always succeed, though, judging by the reviews and its reputation, there seem to be more hits than misses. Most of us took the boring but safe route that night, sticking to the familiar and comforting flavours of steak, but I remember the caramelized pork dish to be quite good as well.
Our last morning in Hanoi was spent revisiting some of our greatest hits that weekend. Breakfast was pho ga at Pho Lam on Nam Ngu Street again, though when they ran out of tables, they seated us at a café across the street, which seemingly had no issues with the makeshift arrangement. Afterwards, we went to a closer branch of Cong Ca Phe, just down the street from our hotel, where we gladly submitted ourselves before the blessed lords of coffee. When we’d drained the last of our iced coconut coffees, we went back to the banh cuon place from the day before, scarfing down another few plates of the shrimp and pork-filled rice noodle rolls.
We didn’t have much planned in between our last meal and the airport. The day had become overcast, and energy levels among our group were running dangerously low. It got to the point where I readily engaged in my absolute least favourite activity to do while traveling – shopping – just so I could stop for a while in an air-conditioned space. I’ve gotten soft, I think, or even softer, and I really can’t go very far without the promise of air conditioning at some point. The days of staying in dungeon-like guesthouses in the mountains of Nepal, or in loud overnight junks with gap year kids like my first trip to Vietnam five years ago, are a thing of the past for this pampered traveler.
We flew back to Hong Kong that night, and the next morning I started my last month of work. Those last few weeks passed by in excruciatingly slow fashion, but the day of reckoning came soon enough, and it was with great relief that I turned in my access card and got in the lift on the 19th floor for the last time. A few days after that, I hopped on a plane back home to Toronto, where I would stay for most of the month of August. There was the small matter of my sister’s wedding to take care of, as well as some long-awaited quality time with family and close friends. It was the longest amount of time I’ve been back in Toronto since moving to Hong Kong in 2009, and the days passed by too quickly. Mere hours after my sister’s wedding reception at the end of the month, Ashley and I were boarding our plane to Hong Kong, and, four hours after touching down, I was meeting new classmates and friends on the University of Hong Kong campus at the program orientation. With three solid months of school blocking up my fall and winter calendar, this trip to Hanoi would end up being my last true holiday of 2016.
It wouldn’t be my last time abroad, however, as the program offered a number of overseas internships in December and January. Some of the options included placements in the Philippines, Malaysia, Nepal, and India, but there was one place in particular that I had my eye on – where Kipling wrote longingly of the maiden by the old Moulmein Pagoda, where Neruda derided the British colonial overlords and found his lover and muse, and where Orwell kept the peace in his police uniform and wielded his pen against the corruption of the almighty British Raj.