IT IS A TIME WHEN THE SOUL TURNS POETIC, MESMERIZED AND SPELLBOUND BY THE CHARISMA THAT AUTUMN BESTOWS ON HANOI.
The scent of milk flowers in the wind
Green rice scent in your little hands
Leave a fragrance in your footsteps.
Trinh Cong Son’s song, Nho Mua Thu Ha Noi (Missing Hanoi’s Autumn), would play on my neighborhood’s old loudspeaker when I was a little kid.
The indelible memory that evokes extraordinary beauty is refreshed anew every October as I wake up, open the window and a calm and gentle breeze ruffles my hair.
The sun seems mellowed, too.
There are fragrances and hints of fragrances in the air, lingering like a pleasant aftertaste.
When it all seems like a beautiful dream, I know autumn is here, here in Hanoi.
Autumn in Hanoi is a transcendent season. It becomes the muse for poets, musicians, and artists, and it becomes the muse that makes everyone’s heart sing.
It casts a spell on everything – the air, space, the food, the drinks, the fruits.
I was born in Hanoi, and have lived here all my life. Yet, I fall in love every year, at this time of the year.
The spring brings in warmth after a bitingly cold winter, and the scorching summer follows. It rains. Then, autumn steps in gracefully, bringing cool, gentle breezes and sunlight that sprinkles just the right amount of warmth all around. The sky smiles a brilliant smile. The leaves of huge trees turn red, reddish-brown, yellow and other hues that adorn Hanoi in this season.
Hoan Kiem Lake (Sword Lake) and West Lake cast peaceful yet stunning sceneries. Cycling or riding a motorbike slowly through the streets of Hanoi at this time is a lovely experience, watching fallen and falling leaves, feeling the soft breeze and soft warmth of the sunlight.
Autumn also seems to be the season of daisies and lotuses that are carried on many vendors on bicycles and sold on pavements. The sight of women holding bouquets of daisies on a breezy autumn day adds to the beauty of the capital city during his season.
Autumn leaves its mark on the capital city with fruits that are particular to this time of the year, that seemed made particularly for this time of the year.
In summer, young dracontomelons are used to make a syrup for a thirst-quenching drink. But in the autumn, when they are ripe, these are peeled and sugared or salted to make a snack people love. Dracontonmelon is a fruit that reminds people of Hanoi.
From September to October is also the time of ripe persimmons, when the fruit’s skin turns a glossy yellow or orange, and the pulp is crispy and sweet.
Grown in urban areas and usually close to temples, this is a fruit is similar in shape and color as the persimmon because they belong to the same plant species. But the this is not meant to be eaten, because the taste can be quite harsh and bitter if not prepared correctly. Instead, people buy the fruit for its pleasant and fruity smell to place in the house as a natural deodorant.
Apart from the fruits, autumn in Hanoi bring to mind eagerly awaited delicacies like beaten green rice and noodle that are packed with memories for both old-timers and the young.
COM (GREEN RICE FLAKES)
Com, immature rice kernel roasted over very low heat and pounded into flakes is an essential of autumn here. Its special sweetness and nutty flavor get further enhanced by the lotus leaf in which it is typically packed. Having this with ripe bananas is a popular combination that is a must-try dish for all newcomers to the capital city.
Today this simple dish has spawned many other popular dishes like com cake with mung bean filling, com sweet soup, and com ice cream.
Com is not for hasty people. You have to take it really slow, like a food for thought.Thach Lam, Author
Ragworms can either be fried with meat or eggs with tangerine peels, crunchy and fragrant, with a rich taste. Fried ragworm has always been a favorite of gourmets in autumn for two reasons. First, they can only be harvested during high tides, so they are very rare and expensive (VND500,000 or $23 for a kilo). Second, not many places serve great ragworm dishes in Hanoi. The best places are on Hang Chieu Street in the Old Quarter or on Lo Duc Street.
The late author Vu Bang, a Hanoian at heart, wrote: “An autumn without ragworms feels as tragic as a woman who has wasted her youth”.
Boiled snails are another favored autumn food in Hanoi, maybe because these are at their freshest during this season. A bowl of boiled snails can be an appetizer before going on to other dishes made with the molluscs. The steamed snails are taken out of the shell by using a small and flat metal pick and dipped in a chili-garlic sauce.
On colder autumn days, a sweet, sour and savory snail vermicelli soup is great body warmer. An original Hanoi dish, bun oc is a vermicelli soup with a tomato-based broth made by slowly simmering pork or chicken bones, topped with fried tofu, prawns, fish cakes or beef and Vietnamese herbs like perilla and cilantro. Of course, bun oc will not be bun without the famous escargots – as the French refer to snails. To add even more flavor to this dish, you can either use fermented shrimp paste or chili oil. One of the oldest bun oc spots in Hanoi is on Hang Chai Street, where it is always busy and crowded. A bowl of bun oc costs around VND30,000 ($1.28) a bowl.
Another “cooler” version of this dish is called bun oc nguoi (cold snail vermicelli). This is another traditional Hanoian dish. The broth is made of snails, rice vinegar, special herbs and some fried scallion sprinkled on top. A great bun oc nguoi spot can be found on Tay Son Street.
Lotus seed sweet soup
The lotus seeds are used in traditional medicine but can also be turned into a sweet and elegant dessert, cooked in syrup that has a light taste and a fragrant, heavenly smell.
BANH TROI TAU (SWEET RICE SOUP)
This is another autumn-geared dessert made with sticky rice and mung beans cooked in a sweet soup made with water, sugar and grated ginger, garnished with toasted sesame, peanuts and coconut milk. The dish adds to the enjoyment of rare rainy days of autumn.
After all the walking around and the eating, it’s time for another treat that is part of Hanoi’s autumn charms, thirst-quenching drinks that also soothe the soul.
The lotus is Vietnam’s national flower and found in many parts of the country, but connoisseurs will tell you that the most fragrant ones, which are used to make the famous lotus-scented tea, is to be found in Hanoi’s West Lake.
It is said that it takes about 1,500 lotus flowers to make one kilogram of lotus tea, so the price of high-grade lotus tea can go up to hundreds of dollars per kilogram.
A sip of this tea will make you feel the price is worth it. The fragrance and a sweet aftertaste linger long after you have finished your cup. This tea is sold on Nghi Tam Street, and among other places, a lovely café called Huong Mai on Ma May Street in the Old Quarter serves a great cup of lotus tea.
Much has been written about Hanoi’s egg coffee, and it has now reached places as far as Chicago, but the ultimate place to have it is at its birthplace.
One of the best places to get a cup of egg coffee is at Giang, a humble café on Nguyen Huu Huan Street, where Hanoians get together on chilly days and enjoy the feeling of warm coffee running through their veins.
TRA DA (VIETNAMESE GREEN ICED TEA)
Arguably the most popular thirst quencher in Vietnam, tra da is a very simple drink, but an awesome one, nevertheless. Refreshing and affordable, this drink also has a special flavor in Hanoi, compared to other parts of the country. It is more bitter and therefore has great sweet aftertaste. Those who are used to the tra da in Hanoi will tell you that you can get it anywhere else in the country.
In sum, every aspect of life in Hanoi is toughed by the autumn magic, and if you spend a weekend experiencing it, chances are you will extend your stay or play your return even before you leave.