Travel Tales - The city with the soul of poet

It was a fine day in the autumn of 2016 when I decided to wrap up my Consulting assignment in Ho Chi Minh city and head to Hanoi for a few days. I was no stranger to traveling alone, but as I navigated this city endowed with lakes, with its network of streets lined with color-changing leaves, vendors and flower-carrying bicycles, its sense of history and ethos enthralled me.
The unmistakable impression of Chinese architecture in the form of grey pagodas across the city's many charming lakes doesn’t let you forget that the Chinese once ruled the land. As I gazed upon the St. Joseph's Cathedral, its resemblance to Notra-Dame reminded me that the French too had ruled this city. I couldn’t shake away the influence of American culture, though evidence of the war was long gone.

While the world celebrates four seasons, Hanoi relishes twelves flower seasons, with a flower for every month. I found the roads straddled with flower-sellers, adding color to its streets and markets. When I encouraged a lady to share her story, she said she belonged to Phù Long, one of the largest flower-growing villages in Vietnam. ‘My children want to work with computers, they don’t want to get their hands dirty, I work to send them to college.’ she said, with pride, masking any signs of disappointment stemming from their reluctance to join the legacy business.

I spent my days walking around the many lakes, which were surrounded by Pagodas and temples. I housed myself at Hanoi’s Old Quarter, its historical and cultural epicenter. As I looked around, I soon hit the infamous Hanoi Train street, located between, Lê Duẩn and Khâm Thin street, an unusual residential area, where a speeding train passes through twice a day, while the folks around carry on their day-to-day activities. At night I often meandered around the Hoan Kiem Lake, the aquatic home to the historic Hoan Kiem Turtle, taking in the magically lit bridge and its reflected illuminations.
As the day faded, and the noise subsided, I saw the city’s old-world feel give way to an amalgam of culinary treasure dipped in lights and colors. I befriended a local, who helped me explore the true charm of Hanoi. From trying out the deliciously rich and potent filter-coffee called Cà phê Phin to gorging on the delicious Pho, we took on many culinary adventures. When the evening sunset and traffic was barricaded, we headed to the intersection of Tạ Hiện and Lương Ngọc Quyến Street, where rows of low plastic stools lined up perfected the famous "Beer Junction."

As I spent more time with her family and with the local families, I realized that Hanoi is similar in more ways than one to India. Not only are its roads filled with unruly two-wheelers with an absolute disregard for rules, but the hustle of street vendors reminds you of the busy bylanes of India. ‘Make sure you look at both sides of the road before you cross’, advised a local, unaware that as an Indian, it’s second nature to do that! A love and respect for friends and family dominate their lives, and so does a never-give-up spirit that has willed them to go on since time immemorial.

I later read that Nguyen Du Mau, one of Vietnam’s most beloved poets, had once quoted to National Geographic, “This is a city that nurtures the soul of a poet. It’s not something easily explained but is something you feel. In the touch of the mist. In the sight of the Red River. In the traditions, the lives of struggle. A sense of romance hovers over Hanoi like no other city I know. You walk the streets, and you’re passing through a thousand years of history.” Nothing sums up Hanoi better.

As I walked down the streets of Hanoi, saluting its spirit, I felt it waving back to me with love and cheer.
Ratti Bhalla is an alumnus from PGP Class of 2013 and the Co-founder of Towno, an Experiential Travel Start-up funded by StartupIndia.