Ask an expat, and he will probably tell you about the crowded street, the insane traffic flow, the middle age women doing their very early morning aerobics, or the old men playing Chinese Chess on plastics tools on just every corner of the city.
Ask a Saigoneer and she will probably tell you about the properness of the city, demeanor that is somewhat reserved and more slowly paced, about the refreshing air of the coming autumn, and the slightly saltier breakfast.
But ask a Hanoian, and you’ll get different answers. Perhaps there will be a mention of Hoan Kiem Lake, or the Old Quarter, or the big Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, or the Opera House, or the electric tram that is no longer there, or the cold wind of winter, or the food stamp era. Truth is, everyone has a different Hanoi, even people from there, because Hanoi is a mosaic of a thousands different things threaded together, a jigsaw puzzle of a million pieces that everyone keeps each piece for himself.
Hanoi has a long history of over a thousand years, and it has been under the influence of very different foreign cultures, from Chinese to French to Russian, of which physical manifestations still stand till this day. Pick any temple and you’ll see Chinese characters in it, Hanoi Opera House is an imitation from THE Paris Opera House, while Ho Chi Minh mausoleum is reminiscent of Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow. Those odd juxtaposition of architecture creates a very unique and oddly satisfying canvas blending an Eastern way of life with elements of Western philosophy. And from that canvas, everyone can pick a piece that they most identify with the city and their memories. For the older generation who grew up during the French colonial rule, his Hanoi would have taking the electric tram around Hoan Kiem Lake to get to school. For someone who grew up during the two wars, his Hanoi would include looking for a bomb shelter around the lake whenever there’s an airstrike siren thundering the sky. For later generations, perhaps their Hanoi would only have the Trang Tien Ice-cream and none of what their parents and grandparents went through. For the same Hanoi, there are so many different Hanoi living in each Hanoian’s memories.
Yet, with all those different aspects, different influences, different times, is there anything that is commonly and uniquely Hanoi, something that transcends time and history? Is there anything that IS Hanoi? Perhaps, not culture, since it’s a fluid and every changing entity, perhaps not architecture since things break and things get built, and perhaps not Hanoi spirit because no one really knows what it is. But perhaps, just perhaps, it’s Hanoi cuisine, from Bun Cha, to Pho, to Cha Ca, the dishes that gets passed down from generations to generations, from mothers to daughters, from fathers to sons. Perhaps, it’s Hanoi cuisine that is able to stand the test of time.
“Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.”
Mark Kurlansky, 'Choice Cuts'