It is almost 11pm of a long day and I’m lying awake on a hotel bed with the husband and the little one fast asleep next to me. The low hum of the AC is the only sound to give me company. That, and the buzz in my ear from the sudden silence after an evening of being subjected to loud noises. My legs ache as does my back from carrying Miss Munchkin for most of the evening. By all rights I should have been dead tired. By all rights I should have fallen asleep the moment my head hit the pillow (although I have never had that happen to me, ever). But I am on a high I rarely feel. I’m so used to feeling tired all the time that this weird feeling of wanting to go on and on and wishing the day never ended is a novelty.
Note to self: refrain from drinking coffee, specially the potent Vietnamese stuff, after four in the afternoon.
I can’t stop grinning. We are in Hanoi, the city that has given me so much happiness my heart still swells each time I think about it. We landed yesterday, and checked in to the Hilton, my in-laws and little one all huddled together in a cab, the Husband and I annoyingly saying out loud the street names that we recognised. From the moment the good officer in the airport ushered us to the front of the immigration line because I was carrying the little one, it has been nothing but pleasant. Five years is a long time to be away from a place and a lot has changed but I love the fact that the people are still the same.
After a breakfast of steamed buns and banh cuons today morning, we sent my in-laws, including my Brother-in-law on a day tour around Hanoi and leisurely made our way to Nguyễn Thi Dinh, the street where we used to live. Choked up on emotions, we walked around that wet market where we used to buy our fresh produce from. The Husband stopped for a cup of coffee in a quaint little cafe and we relished the calm. I wanted to visit each and every place we’d frequented, including that small supermarket where I used to shop for groceries. We had our lunch at our favourite restaurant, the one where we used to order our Friday pizza from. After a customary afternoon siesta we went for a cup of coffee at the Highlands Coffee and then to Vincom Tower, where we used to go for movies every Friday.
Keeping up with the literal walk down memory lane we dined at the restaurant near the centre where I got my CELTA training in, and sending the Husband with the little one back to the hotel, the Brother-in-law and I went to the famous Night Market by Hoan Kiem Lake.
The driver dropped us nearly two blocks away from Hoan Kiem, pointing to the barricade in front, yelling at us for not giving him small change. Thus unceremoniously dismissed, and shamelessly giggling at being yelled at, we took in the crowd. There’s just one word for it: festive. With the wide streets being dedicated to only pedestrians and the buildings all around decked up in their Christmas best, it looked like all of Hanoi had come out to celebrate. Families with young kids lazily walked around, toddlers holding bunches of balloons clumsily waddling next to their parents, puffy jackets squeaking as they walked. Babies wrapped in layers took in the lights with eyes wide open from their mother’s arms. Somewhere someone played Jingle Bells on the flute.
A massive tug of war took place bang in the middle of the street, with kids holding on to their Dad’s jackets as they too did their part and pulled with all their might. A group of teenagers sat on the street in a circle with a speaker in the centre, holding sheafs of paper with songs written on them. Crowds gathered here and there as street performers performed their shows, music blaring from speakers, loud cheers and claps filling the air. Someone even brought a long skipping rope and at least ten people skipped in sync as another crowd watched them.
And in the midst of all that noise and chaos, my beloved Hoan Kiem lake glittered and shimmered in the dark, the branches of the trees still bent low like I remembered them, the fairy lights as gorgeous as I saw in my dreams.
Bracing myself for the crowd, telling my claustrophobia to kindly stay away, I plunged in, holding tight on to my brother’s arms to keep myself from being drifted away in the crowd. The same stalls, the same smells, the familiar language… it was like being transported to five years ago. I forgot that this was not an ordinary Saturday, that this time round I was technically a tourist, that instead of going back to our apartment I’d have to come back to the hotel. I felt right in place. I conversed in Vietnamese, haggling just like I was taught to by Ms. Thao five years ago. I smiled at strangers, stopped to caress little babies’ cheeks, took my time to tell their proud Momma just how cute their baby was. I hummed to myself, and even as we aimlessly walked onto unknown streets, not for a moment did I feel like I was on a strange land.
This is what Hanoi does to me. It makes me want to stop and smell the flowers. Literally. It makes me want to go on long walks on the streets, taking in all the hustle and bustle. I realise I am way more “chilled” when I am here, as though I am one with the place. Today, as we walked all over the place, stopping to ask for directions now and then, and I realised that I had not forgotten my Vietnamese after all, I was reminded yet again that I had left a huge piece of my heart here when we left five years ago.
Here’s to Hanoi, once again. I could keep singing her praise for my whole life, and to people who know me it would seem like I have been doing just that, but then again, it is not everyday you come back to your soul place. I have one whole day with this city before we have to say bye and I intend to make the most of it. Which reminds me I should probably try and get some sleep.