Hanoi Old Quarter has always been the symbol area that truthfully reveals the lifestyle of Hanoian. Established since the 11th century, the Old Quarter has 36 streets named after the commodity produced and sold at each street, such as sugar, bamboo, leather or silver, ect. Even though some of streets had their name changed, many of them still keep that characteristic nowadays.
In Vietnam, life happens on the street. And this life has a colour. It’s not the lush green of its paddy fields, abundant though they are. It’s not the grey of the exhaust smoke the millions of motorbikes spew every day. It’s blue, specifically, the bright, synthetic blue of tiny plastic stools that dot every street and pavement.
These stools are marvels of construction. Mostly blue, though you’ll see the occasional rebellious red, they’re made of cheap plastic, occupy minimal space and they’re stackable in towers a hundred high. They’re smaller than a kindergartener’s chair, they hover mere inches off the grimy pavements and they have one purpose only: for the populace to park their backsides while they eat their way through the country’s cornucopia of street food. So ubiquitous are they and their connect to food so inseparable that food blogger and author Graham Holliday titled his book Eating Vietnam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table.
In Hanoi, these come out at the crack of dawn, the thwack, thwack of chairs being laid out a siren call for office goers to get their morning coffee, around the city’s central landmark of Hoan Kiem lake. Vietnamese coffee is not your weak kettle brew, it’s a drink that bypasses your alimentary canal to sucker punch your frontal lobe — a shot of thick, dark espresso laid over a tablespoon of sweetened condensed milk. And that’s just one variation: in Vietnam, coffee can be drunk warm or cold, with egg yolk foam, yoghurt, coconut milk and even fruits.
By lunch, the coffee hawkers have wound down, and the food vendors have taken over. Everyone has their own plastic stools, even the old ladies who carry their entire stall yoked across a bamboo pole on their shoulders. Lunchtime brings the office crowds pouring onto the streets to quickly and efficiently slurp down bowls of noodle soup — hearty, beef-broth laden pho (though more breakfast than lunch), citrus-spiked bún bò Hu , with vermicelli a good hit of chilli, bún oc with rice noodles and snails. These soups come with multiple accoutrements: fish sauce and lemon slices and a humungous bowl of fresh, green herbs.
Over glasses of cold bia hoi — locally brewed beer made fresh every day, and sold at VND 5,000 (Rs 15) a glass — people gather to watch the evening’s entertainment: the band of teenagers butchering Bon Jovi and Cake, a guerrilla ice cream truck that sets up in the middle of street, running cables illegally from the nearest lamp post. A group of toddlers who put on a school show at 10 pm with their parents cheer them on. Every now and then a sharp crack will rend the air — it’s the unfortunate sound of a little stool giving way under a big foreign person and it invariably draws loud cheers from the whole street. And as the night grows longer, the blue plastic stools draw closer, strangers become neighbours, and neighbours become friends.