~dedicated to Prerna Mukherjee
Mizu was getting used to Hanoi’s streets. It wasn’t long until she realized the lack of street-crossing rules. She had waited for a good fifteen minutes before she took a step, and then another, dodged a big Hanoi cyclo and scurried across the road. She didn’t dare look up to see the locals amusing themselves at her nescience.
Before Mizu, stood the Vietnam Backpacker Hostel, a popular party hostel in Downtown, Hanoi. When she entered the place, she heard a burst of noise, some people were huffing and puffing like wolves and she felt a little trepidation. She thought twice before paying 500 yen ($4.7) for a dorm bed. She wasn’t accustomed to the Western party culture, the small talk, atleast that’s what she thought. She hadn’t been to a party her whole life, but she had this unrelenting inkling to try everything her mother forbade her to do. So, here she was in Vietnam, walking up a flight of steps with her suitcase to a dorm room filled with strangers.
But, when Mizu reached the room packed with a hundred bunkers, it was empty. Bulky duffel bags lay aimlessly on mattresses, as if they were the first thing that people got rid off when they stepped into the dorm.
On Mizu’s bunk, there lay a wine bottle with a snake immersed into it. She had heard that snake wine was common in Vietnam. The wine was made by infusing a venomous snake into it that made for a good dose of virility. But, Mizu thought that the snake inside looked alive and drunk and was still hissing, as if it would emerge from the bottle the moment it was opened.
Mizu sat on her bunk, which was comforting and saw that the dorm was rather clean and spacious, so she didn’t mind the mess, it made her feel like the duffel bags were remnants of different lives left behind. The only thing that bothered Mizu was the receptionist of the hostel. She was a farcical character who had amused Mizu by telling her that the bar was open the whole day, but she’d get free beer only after 7 pm – as if it were the only reason she’d some to Hanoi! How petty!
To dissuade these thoughts, Mizu left her suitcase at her bunk and hurried out of the hostel, craving for some local Vietnamese experience. She walked in the direction that the majority of crowd was heading in. Hanoi had busy streets, people merrily rode past Mizu on scooters, stopping ahead to buy fruits from street vendors, exchanging greetings and sharing a laugh or two. It was noisy, but harmonious. Few local men and women were wearing conical bamboo hats to protect themselves from untoward rain or sun. Mizu thought to buy one for herself too for Hanoi’s sunbeams kept meddling with her eyes.
Mizu stopped by the Dong Xuan market and chanced upon a very peculiar lady sitting in her own private corner selling Hanoi bamboo hats. When she saw Mizu approach her, she rose in an animated fashion. Mizu greeted her saying “xin chao” that she picked up from the catty receptionist back at the hostel. Mizu pointed towards the bamboo hats and asked the lady to name the price.
But, the lady nodded vehemently, and said, “For you, these ugly hats wont do. I have one from Hue (another city in Vietnam). These Hanoi hats are good for the Hanoi or Saigon girls. But, for you, I have this.” She bent and took out a very slender exquisite hat with two white net ribbons. “This is a hat from Hue, 300 years old.” The lady then stood and held it against the sun. The hat turned transparent and a few words appeared on its surface.
“It’s a poem, go on read it, I hope you read, this hat is of no worth to a woman who doesn’t read”, said the lady. And, so Mizu read:
“Night fell on the path she had traveled.
The sky seemed endless, with no horizon,
Even seeing the moon made her ashamed,
the moon, her witness to broken vows.”
“Hmm, good, you’re good. This is from The Tale of Kieu, a Vietnamese verse. Some American translated it, Mr. Balaban. He seems to like Vietnam too much.”
“An American? But, you said the hat was 300 years old?”, asked Mizu.
“The poem is and whoever reads the poem turns 300 years old”, reassured the lady.
Mizu suddenly felt the weight of the words in her head, and its slow light fleetingness, it was like a prisoner of the past slowly escaping the bars of her mind. She held the hat up in the sun and re-read the poem. It was truly 300 years old. So, Mizu paid 50,000 dong for it and thanked the lady.
Mizu then walked around Hanoi’s streets, wearing the bamboo hat, and everyone’s attention was on her. A POETIC CONICAL HAT in Hanoi, from HUE. Mizu felt like she was wearing a crown jewel on her head.
Luckily she came by a small cafe called Egg Coffee Cafe Trứng that had chairs on the outside and Mizu took a seat for she needed a diversion from all the attention. She glanced at the menu which read “Egg Coffee – Espresso” and she wondered if it really had egg and coffee together.
When the order arrived, it sure was egg coffee! Mizu sipped it to taste the creamiest coffee she ever had. It definitely came from the egg whites, she reckoned. It had foam like nectar and there was a tiny candle at the bottom of the cup which kept the coffee warm. This was Hanoi’s specialty- egg coffee, you could find it all over the the city. Mizu sipped on it slowly, watching Hanoi move quickly past her, as if the city was on rails, and she was an onlooker on the outside.
After Mizu was done, she asked the cafe owner to direct her to Hao Lo Prison Relic . In a spirit of kindness familiar only to two strangers, he told his helper to take Mizu there on a Honai Cyclo, that to her, seemed like a cycle carriage, and she was thrilled to sit in one, especially with her crown jewel of a hat on.
It was a fifteen minute ride and Mizu finally felt like she was part of the city. On the way, she saw many men carrying lemons on yokes that looked like mighty scales. Her kind and homely coachman, whose name was Vu, told her stories about Hanoi, especially about the water puppet show that Mizu had to visit before she left the city. So, they struck a deal – he would take her there in the evening, and she would treat him to a Vietnamese dish of his liking.
The Hao Lo Prison Relic was a prison museum. North Vietnam had used it for U.S. prisoners of war at the time of the harrowing Vietnam War. Vu waited outside, while Mizu toured the museum. But, it wasn’t just a tour, it was like walking into the dark dungeons of history. The last bit of humanity was left at the entrance of the museum and inside prisoners were rotting in the cruelty of a monstrous world. Only, they were now life sized mannequins with vacant but alive eyes, like that of the snake in the wine bottle, and Mizu thought time and again of her parents…
Vu had waited for two hours until Mizu emerged out of the museum. She looked spent, but she now knew little more about what made her take this journey – to become Mizu City. Vu helped her get on the Cyclo and in desperate need for some light entertainment, they rode to Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre to watch the water puppet show.
This show was nothing like Mizu had seen before. It began with a group of Vietnamese musicians playing a rural-countryside melody. Soon, puppets emerged in a pool of water playing drums and enacting a humourous local fable. Dragons were shooting water left right and center and everyone in the crowd was hysterical with laughter and while it was all in the Vietnamese language, Mizu understood every word.
After the show, it was time for Mizu to treat Vu with a Vietnamese meal, like she had promised. They walked down the street near the theater and it soon began to rain. But, not a drop touched Mizu, and she wondered if it was due to the hat. “Seems like this hat has some wizardry”, she turned to tell Vu, but he had already gone back to get the carriage.
They got off at a tiny restaurant near the theater and Vu ordered for two wholesome bowls of Bun Cha. He said that this dish originated in the city of Hanoi itself. When it arrived, Mizu saw that it made of white rice noodles, meaty pork and a dipping sauce. Mizu savoured the dipping sauce, especially, and noticing this, Vu told her that the sauce was the soul of the dish. It was made with fish sauce, sugar and vinegar and every Hanoian he knew had their own proportions of these ingredients to make their version of the perfect sauce. As they ate, Vu told Mizu about his family, his two kids who would wait for him to return home with the leftovers from the Egg Coffee cafe… of his wife, who’d worry if their life was ever going to change…and although, Mizu truly felt for Vu, she began to feel lonely again.
It was soon 7 pm and Mizu recalled what the receptionist had said about the party. It was at the back of her mind the entire day and she decided that she would head back to the hostel. Vu rode the carriage back, and after Mizu got off the Cyclo and paid Vu for the day’s trip, she thanked him by handing over her bamboo hat to him. “Give it to your wife”, she said and bid him well.
The moment Mizu entered the hostel, she heard the huff and puff, and the music and she was filled with great anxiousness. The receptionist of the hostel saw her and told her she had arrived just in time. She then escorted her to a narrow staircase which led to a room filled with a thousand strangers. The receptionist introduced her to a bunch of people who were in no state of pleasantries, let alone the small talk that she had dreaded.
Mizu waited there for quite a while, she spoke to a few teenage Korean girls who were delighted to hear that she was from Tokyo and had traveled to Hong Kong. She told them all sorts of stories, but she seemed to get nothing of the sort in return. So in half and hour, she headed back to her dorm room and called it a night.
As she lay on her bed, she thought about Hanoi, of how the people she had just met seemed dull and dead, while the prison mannequins and water show puppets had a life of their own. She shifted in her bed for a while, until she saw the snake wine bottle that lay besides her pillow. She had to peak twice into it to reassure herself that the snake had disappeared.
Which city will Mizu head to next? Find out soon 🙂