In hindsight, I guess I can ‘blame’ it on the bowl of pho I was served on the Sydney-Tokyo flight I took last September.
I was thrilled to have got a hot airfare package and eager to see Tokyo in the fall, something that I’d heard and read about and seen in pictures, but never in person.
It was a great time to go there. Autumn is the time when cool winds wash away the heat of summer, and leaves fall off the trees and prepare for the freezing times of winter. Especially in Tokyo, autumn is not only beautiful because of the stunning colors, but also because of the absence of summer crowds. The holiday is over, children are back to school, and families are back to work after finishing their traditional August break.
I imagined enjoying Tokyo in the autumn, walking along peaceful streets, trying food that would warm the body, breathing in the quiet of serene temples. It was a heady feeling.
From the Kingsford Smith Airport in Sydney, Flight VN786 would take nine hours to Hanoi and another flight would leave for Tokyo the next morning. And as the wide-bodied Boeing 787-900 aircraft soared above the clouds smoothly, I was able to enjoy an Onboard-signature Vietnamese meal, the famous, unmatched pho (flat rice noodle soup). Except, it did not taste the same as pho in Sydney or even pho in Saigon. I was not sure if the ingredients were modified to suit commercial flights, but it got me thinking, and thinking hard, about a bowl of pho in Hanoi.
People enjoy food and beer on Ta Hien street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Photo by Bao Yen
The transit time in Hanoi was not too long, but it was long enough to nip out of the airport, go downtown, and find the best pho possible at that moment, I thought, the craving increasing at the prospect.
So I lost no time in taking a cab downtown, to the Old Quarter, after the plane landed at the Noi Bai airport in Hanoi at 9 p.m. The cab dropped me off at the corner of two Old Quarter streets, Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen. It was a good spot. The smell of food from street stalls and outdoor restaurants made my stomach growl and I made my way, helped by local directions and advice, to a shop that sold really good pho.
The aroma of an authentic bowl of pho from north Vietnam, with its condiments, cinnamon, black cardamom, garlic and clear beef broth with no fat on the surface is so alluring that I remember it to this day. It is no wonder that anyone who has it puts it on his or her list of favorite foods.
I had done what I’d come for in Hanoi, and was fully satisfied. But I had time to kill, so I mingled with the crowds enjoying the night on the walking streets around the Hoan Kiem Lake. It was a cool night, and I got lost in the spell cast by autumn over Hanoi. I was no stranger to the capital city, but I felt I was in an enchanted land.
A woman waits for her customers at a tea shop on the streetside in Hanoi. Photo by Quynh Trang
After walking for a while, I took a xe om and got dropped off at the corner of Nguyen Du and Quang Trung streets. It was midnight, and the clock was ticking away for my flight to Tokyo, but I felt at peace as I sat down at a small tea shop, which was not really one. A few tiny stools, and a small table with some traditional snacks in glass and plastic jars – peanut candy, sweet bean cakes – things like that.
As I sipped the green tea and enjoyed the serenity of an autumn night in Hanoi, looking at the old colonial buildings and leaves strewn by the trees on the ground as if it was some sort of ritual, I realized I was actually floating on the fragrance exuded by the sua, or blackboard trees, in bloom. It was a magic carpet that only Hanoi in autumn could produce.
A blackboard tree is in bloom in Hanoi in autumn. Photo by Vnexpress
I knew I had to leave soon for the airport to continue my journey. But I didn’t want to. I wanted this transit magic to continue, to stay on in wonderland.
Tokyo could wait. I had arrived. I was home.