My senses don’t just evoke my past, they help to define it as well. But these aren’t the only vessels of nostalgia as I reminisce on this trip now over two years past since it began, and almost exactly two years from my time in Hanoi and the surrounding areas.
I searched far and wide just to find a bookstore that sold books written in English. Unsurprisingly, Teresa and I got lost despite writing down detailed directions that my lady read out to me from her spot on the back of our motorbike. The streets go all over the place, end abruptly, and curve so that you end up facing the opposite direction that you think you are. It’s amazing and frustrating at the same time, especially when you have a goal in mind and you realize that the design of the city is partly what’s hindering your path to that goal.
So the first time we set out in search of this bookstore, we failed, and eventually we made our way back to the old area we were a bit more familiar with (although still managed to get lost in from time to time anyhow). The second time we set out, we finally found it, in the general area we’d been looking in before. We asked tons of locals the first time around and either no one knew what we were talking about or no one wanted to seem like they didn’t know so just gave us random directions that led nowhere.
When we did find it, it was behind a cooking school. Yeah, I said it. There’s this tiny alleyway that cuts through two buildings, on one side is a cooking school with open air windows letting the fumes out. It was really cool, actually, peeking in. Students surrounding a teacher as she was showing them some technique or other. Behind it, as we walked along the alley, was the bookstore, just beyond this little grassy square between the two buildings. I actually parked the bike in front of the culinary institute.
When I walked in, I was just so happy. I was surrounded by more books that I was able to read than at any other point on our travels. We had actually gone into a bookstore in Huế in search of some new reading material. The only English books they had were Vietnamese-English dictionaries, and basic learning books that taught kids how to speak and spell English phrases. Here in Hanoi, it was like finding a treasure chest full of gold.
We browsed through the books for a long time. It was here that I bought my first Wheel of Time book, The Eye of the World. I’d never heard of the series before (although when I got back to Canada, I’d find out that a lot of people I knew had, and had read many or all of them). I was never too big on fantasy leading up to this, with the exception of the Dark Tower series, which I’d categorize as a Western-Sci-fi-Fantasy hybrid, the Harry Potter series which gripped me as a 12 year old and forever more, as well as an interest in the LOTR series. I also bought what would turn out to be one of my favourite books of all time, an underrated sci-fi classic in my opinion called Feersum Enjinn by Iain M. Banks. I traded almost all the books I had bought in Asia for more books later on, but I regret trading this one. It was an older publication whose version I haven’t come across since.
This book somehow defines this time period in Northern Vietnam for me, the way a certain scent, taste, or sight does for a lot of other moments in my life. The cover of this book, the way I felt while reading it, the places I read it (like on a bumpy van ride coming back to Hanoi from Halong Bay). Everything about it transports me to this amazing time in my life and perhaps creates a fairly substantial bias on my part regarding the greatness of this piece of literature. But when putting in a great deal of effort to push those feelings to the side, I actually do think it’s a great book, despite some challenges with a quirky lexicon that exists on about a quarter of its pages and has been the source of criticism from other readers.
Feersum Enjinn, and my time spent at the bookstore (which was two or three times after the first visit), wasn’t the only evocative aspect of Hanoi. We got to enjoy some of the best bánh xèo we’ve ever had which we found in another tiny little back alley, far away from both our hotel and the bookstore. I feel like it was south, but I honestly didn’t know directions in Hanoi, it was way too confusing, and for me, that’s saying something if I do say so myself. All I know for sure is that this stretch of interconnected alley that housed an array of shops and food stalls was in the opposite direction of the freeway we came in on. The bánh xèo was made fresh to order and the 5 sisters who ran the place literally had a garbage bag full of leafy vegetables and bean sprouts for us to wrap around the delicious fried snack. We killed it with the biggest smiles on our faces.
I know I said I would talk about “bong hits on the side of the road”, which was a real thing by the way, but I think I’ll end it here for now and talk about that little escapade in another article. There’re a few more excursions in Vietnam to talk about, all amazing, and then on to Malaysia where both my sister Desiree and Teresa’s sister Mary would join us for 5 weeks and 2 ½ weeks, respectively. A new and exciting leg of the adventure was about to begin!