Truc Bach “island” has several faces, several moods. The outer loop faces the lake, a row of cafes and restaurants whose patrons and owners spend most of their time on the 1.5 meters of sidewalk across the road, right along the water, along with dogs, chickens, and children. The inner streets – Truc Bach internal – form a small grid of pho cuon restaurants. Pho cuon – for those outside Hanoi – is fresh sheets of rice noodles wrapped around shavings of beef and an assortment of greens, to be dipped in a sauce that varies slightly from shop to shop but is always a tangy/sweet/spicy liquid with fresh chili floating in it. Other food is sold, of course, but this dish is what Truc Bach is known for.
Morning announcements start at seven, vibrating out of old speakers hooked to telephone poles. Residents are reminded that it’s time to rise and shine, that you should keep the front of your house nice and clean, that morning exercises make a person healthy. The reminders are superfluous for most, the streets are already humming with activity. I should admit that I only catch these announcement from time to time, and only from the dark cave that is my bedroom. I groan, usually five or less hours into my night’s sleep, and bury my head in a pillow before retreating quickly back into unconsciousness for another two hours.
Grandmas and grandpas push toddlers on tricycles down the street. They talk to each other, call to neighbors, laugh, and spoon a bit of chao ga (chicken/rice porridge) into the small person strapped into the blue plastic seat. Pho (noodle soup) stands have popped up every 10 meters, stands that arrived on a wheeled cart from somewhere in the neighborhood, serve food for 4-5 hours, and disappear again by early afternoon. People slurp noodles from the ubiquitous white pho bowl and watch the Tay walk by with an oddly shaped dog. Vendors line the streets, renting out the sidewalk in front of shops for the morning, spreading out baskets of vegetables, cutting boards of beef, and shallow plastic buckets of live fish. Once settled, everything is arranged beautifully, balanced piles of tomatoes next to polished white onions and shiny Thai eggplant. Bicycle vendors, those without a permanent shop at which to park, wheel through the street with precarious piles of lime, ginger, and shallots, buckets of gladiolas, baskets of incense. I’ll never understand how they don’t lose the majority of their wares each day, given the hectic nature of these streets and the utter disregard everyone seems to have for self-propelled vehicles. They congregate at intersections, eating pieces of guava or custard apple, expertly peeling pineapples or pomelo while deep in conversation. The neighborhood women buy their produce for the day, walking around in house clothes with a handful of small bills, squeezing vegetables, picking through piles, haggling. The lady with a low table covered in cuts of beef attaches a hand grinder to the edge, and proceeds to turn regular beef into the ground variety on request.
A 20 year old boy (man?) who parks motorbikes in front of a hot-pot restaurant on the central road sits on a stool in front of a charcoal grill that has shallots spread across the grate. The smell wafts across the street, one of several pleasant smell moments on this morning walk. The savory smell of pho broth and fresh herbs is another, the almost-sickly-sweet scent of fresh pineapple, yet another. A block further, a girl who can’t be older than 12 squats and watches skewers full of marinated chicken on a much larger grill, also on the street, one with a turquoise desk fan pointing at it to keep the charcoal hot and the smoke away. That chicken-smoke fills the intersection, making even this vegetarian momentarily hungry. I don’t know how the parking boys can stand there all day, my eyes sting from the smoke just walking through.
At this time of day, the lakeside loop is quieter, with hotpot restaurants not yet open for business and the cafes just getting started. A few early customers sit in plastic chairs in the mini gardens along the water, drinking the morning coffee or green tea. Old men walk this loop in running shoes and shorts, making large circular motions with their arms in a relatively wild manner that would be cause for concern back home. Morning exercises: check. What looks like a bulldog puppy is chained to a tree, whining at everyone who passes for love (or food). A few men with bamboo fishing poles sit on the curb along the lake, hand winding finishing line, throwing small bony fish into a plastic bag to flop around until death comes. Teenage cafe workers in their matching black shirts yawn and stretch, it’s quiet and early but they’re at work.
Three hours later, and activity is at the morning high. The lakeside cafes are now packed, with the teenager waiters rushing back and forth to deliver lemon juices and coffees and teas and fruit smoothies. Groups of people in office attire sit and talk, cracking sunflower seeds and piling the shells in the middle of the table, twenty-somethings sit and play with their smartphones, Ethel and I sit, and I work. A few tourists wander by, very clearly walking the lakeside road as part of their “see real-life Hanoians” plan. They’re inevitably surprised by Ethel. Ethel inevitably barks. The cafe tables are arranged in the shade of big trees that line the lake, and several of the cafes have puppies and small “fancy” chickens that run about. Bicycle vendors and the women who travel the city buying scrap plastic and scrap metal for reselling and reusing sit along the lake in the shade, sometimes taking a sidewalk-nap on a small mat brought along for this purpose. Old men play checkers in the shade on the sidewalk across from their house, a pot of green tea and pack of cigarettes on the table next to the checkerboard. In between orders, the teenagers who work the coffeeshops talk, laugh, listen to music on their knock-off smartphones with one earbud each, and – especially if they’re boys – check their hair in motorbike rearview mirrors. Streaks of blond, gelled to stand on end, hair carefully swooped to the side…these kids have style. A few have visible tattoos, and I get a look that I take to be “fellow badass” approval when they notice my right forearm.
On the internal streets, pho stands are starting to pack up, especially the popular ones that have sold out for the day. Empty carts are carefully stacked with plastic chairs and tables, pots, bowls, and chopsticks…before being wheeled back home. The pho cuon restaurants are ramping up as early lunchers begin to arrive, and a host of boys in matching t-shirts whisk motorbikes away for parking down the street almost as quickly as the patrons arrive on them. Other boys in the same shirts stand in traffic, yelling enticements at bikes and cars weaving through in an attempt to get them to stop at that restaurant, to eat there. It’s a game of chicken, especially for the motorists who don’t want to stop at all, and the boys take a certain pride in jumping out of the way at the very last moment. They whistle at Ethel as we walk through, and they laugh uproariously when she’s offended enough to bark.
The breeze coming across West Lake and Truc Bach Lake shuffles the leaves of the trees, and makes the walk cooler and more pleasant. Hanoi air is not particularly clean, but something about lakeside breeze – even in the middle of the city – feels fresh. The various construction projects in the neighborhood break the peaceful vibe with their drilling and hammering, but construction noise is everywhere here and I barely notice it. They go strong all morning, break for lunch and the post-lunch nap, go strong all afternoon, and then stop (hopefully) around ten. Sometimes it’s midnight. Sometimes cement trucks big enough to require a teenager ride on top to lift the dangling phone lines come through at 3am. Noise ordinances are a “sometimes” thing.
Truc Bach is in full swing. At least two dozen of the motorbike boys and restaurant advertisers fill the main intersections, laughing and talking to each other, competing to bring customers into their establishments, to get the customers bike down to an empty side street as quickly as possible, to push it and then hop on the way I used to do with grocery carts in large American grocery stores. Food is delivered to tables almost as quickly, stir fried beef and veggies on top of crispy fried noodles, the aforementioned pho cuon, fresh beer all set down in front of you just minutes after you arrive. Truc Bach is the go to spot for several of these dishes, and despite the plastic stool plastic table nature of these restaurants, a non-small percentage of the clients arrive in nice cars and nice clothes. Steam rises from the tables with hotpot going, and the entire street is filled with the smell of food. Ethel walks down the middle, grabbing scraps of things that have fallen off plates. Sometimes the girls clearing waste into big bins (to be sold to pig farms outside of town) throw her bits, and she gobbles them up. I’ve stopped fighting this, only getting involved when she decides to eat a dirty napkin or something clearly boney. There are hundreds of people. Hundreds of motorbikes. Private cars and taxis inching through. The outer circle is less food oriented but just as busy, kids on bicycles and entire families at cafes, enjoying the cool air and a fruit juice. This is except for the hotpot restaurants, which find the sidewalk lakeside breeze especially suitable given the constant heat put off by the table-top burners. Young people criss-cross the road with platters of meat, seafood, and vegetables to be added to the broth, and pitchers of broth to be added when diners have put the pot below half-full.
Kids with straw brooms and old buckets of soapy water scrub off the sidewalk where the outdoor kitchens had been set up, where tables had filled the sidewalk and people had filled the tables. The matriarch of the family restaurant overseas in curlers, organizing things, putting stuff away, telling teenagers where to go and what to do. Boys stacking chairs, girls tease boys, the air is cooling down but the parking attendants have removed their matching shirts and thrown them casually over a nearby motorbike, a shoulder, a tree branch. The river of cars and bikes has quieted down, so the staff begins to congregate in the intersections, talking and laughing with the same post-work energy of American waitstaff after hours. Now is their time. A few stragglers eating pho cuon at solitary tables where there had previously been dozens, late-night dining isn’t particularly common.
There’s a giant rooster chained to a tree adjacent to one of the restaurants. He’s huge, shiny, and gloriously dignified, except for the string around his ankle tethering him to the tree. He arrives every day on a motorbike with his owner, that same string tied to the back of the bike, rooster perched behind the driver. Around 10 each night he’s detached from the tree and attached to the bike, before the two of them speed off into the night. This appears to be nothing more than “bring your prized rooster to work”, as he’s not the type bred for fighting and no one appears to consider him a potential meal. I have yet to manage to snap a photo of the rooster perched on the back of his owners honda dream, but it will happen…have faith.
Young people sitting by the lake in pairs, perched on the back of a motorbike or on a coat spread on the stone edging by the lake. They look at the water but not each other, and sometimes at the white girl with the dog walking by. I expect that they’ll start making out again as soon as I get around the corner. Motorbikes flow by every few minutes, almost exclusively couples out for a lakeside evening drive, the boy in front steering with his right hand while his left rests on the leg of the girl behind him.
The streets are silent and empty, internal and external. Streetlights cast a yellow glow over the whole place, and it’d be creepy if it weren’t so beautifully quiet. Sidewalks that had been full of people, full of food, full of yelling and conversation, full of wares…all empty. Ethel and I walk down the middle of the street, her nose to the ground looking for scraps. Sometimes we cross paths with a pair of teenagers out for a romantic walk, not quite holding hands but very clearly working up the guts to do so. At the main intersection, a few of the parking boys play soccer while others sit on the curb shirtless and smoking. The odd rat runs along the curb before disappearing under a gate. The odd dog barks, realizing the motley American dog is walking past.
Ethel and i make our way through the streets, usually walking down the middle. Ethel’s nose is to the ground, smelling the stories of the day.