Born and raised on a small street lined with milk flower trees and French-style houses with balconies, I have known Hanoi’s French colonial district since before I could ride a bicycle.
In the first grade, on my way to school, I always stopped in front of the iron gate of the house at the end of my street. Standing on my tiptoes I’d put my face to the rusty gate and peer into the silent yard. I’d pluck a hibiscus flower and crush its petals across my fingernails.
To this day, each time I look at my pale and rough hands I still think of that garden.
The second story of the house had a strange door. Hidden behind a patterned balcony, its curved design was different from any other that I’ve seen. Even now, the door is never opened, leaving me curious as to what lies beyond. To my mind, that house is a thousand times nicer than any apartment in Kim Lien.
My maternal grandfather lived on Hai Ba Trung Street. For me, it was the most beautiful street of my childhood, especially on Sunday mornings when my mother carried me there with the sundries on a Diamond bicycle.
I loved the feeling of grasping to the buttons of her shirts as I clung to her back. Sitting on the luggage carrier hugging my mum or a bag of sweet potatoes, I could only see one side of the street. I often saw an old woman sweeping dead leaves in front of the long fence that surrounded a big house.
The tips of the fence reminded me of foreign films about noble ladies in big shirts. I’d fashion similar skirts from blankets fixed with clothes pegs and frolic around the house, proudly commanding my own noble word.
Mum let me play on the sidewalk while she cooked at my grandfather’s house. At the end of the road was a fence hidden beneath a trellis of bougainvillea flowers. I was always drawn toward this green canopy. To this day, I can't help but to turn down this enchanting stretch of road. I loved climbing the fence and sitting with my legs dangling, watching bicycles go passed, kids holding their parents’ hands, and If I looked toward the sky, I would see the tall, tiled roof of the French- style house.
In the late afternoon I’d watch lonely old women and the yellow light on the road. I’d clench the rusty bars and dream of meeting a prince who would live with me in a house with such a fence. I’d picture us strolling in beautiful clothes, until awakened by my mum’s call to come in for lunch.
Grandfather used to take me to get ice cream on Trang Tien Street. He often told me to visit one of his friends in a small house with an orchid tree and an unlocked iron gate. While they took off their felt hats and chatted, I preferred to sit in the bench in the yard, looking beyond the gate. Although I had just come in from the street, the world outside the gate appeared new and different.
Was it these things that later inspired me to learn French and to listen to French love songs? I don’t know. I only know that my present love for Hanoi’s streets stems from my childhood love for the streets of old. Each French colonial house behind a fence, each wrought iron, reminds me of my childhood, my white-haired grandfather, and my mum.
Travel tip shared by Lan Nguyen