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Street Talk :Tran Huy Lieu

By: Julia Plevin Posted: September-24-2010 in
Julia Plevin

Julia Plevin waxes poetic about an invigorating street that allures to an era bygone. Photos by Francis Roux / Noi Pictures.

Tran Huy Lieu is far too easy to miss but definitely worth a visit. It snakes around Giang Vo Lake and connects two major thoroughfares – Kim Ma and Giang Vo.

At the top of it stands The Deli (18 Tran Huy Lieu). The socialist simplicity of the name could be ironic, like the trendy New York City restaurant called Cafeteria. But actually, The Deli is just as it sounds – a mediocre spot for some unadorned western staples. Inside is dreary, but from a window looking out onto the street, patrons can watch diners feast on mien tron dau and bun ca at the bun rieu cua shop (1B3 Tran Huy Lieu). Everything being served there looks more appetizing than what’s on offer at The Deli.

On some plastic stools nearby, a man sipping freshly squeezed sugarcane juice gives me a history lesson. He explains the significance of the street’s name.

Tran Huy Who?
“Tran Huy Lieu was part of the intelligentsia, a compatriot who acted in The Revolution,” says the man, who once worked in General Department II of the Defense Industry, the Vietnamese counterpart to the CIA.

The younger generation seems to be more apathetic towards the country’s history, focused instead on the ‘here and now’. Two business-savvy, twenty-something men enjoying an après-lunch café sua da and cigarette pull out their iPhones when quizzed about Tran Huy Lieu. The street is charged with cafes full of caffeinated beverages and free internet access. But unable to find anything quickly on his Smartphone, one of the young men said, “Ask the old people. All of the streets in Vietnam are named after important people from the war, like Le Loi.”

As the history of Vietnam is one of many wars, it is safe to assume that a person noteworthy enough for a street to be named after him was probably a figure from a major conflict. But Tran Huy Lieu was in fact a writer and activist who opposed French rule – an outspoken journalist and poet who was imprisoned for five years in Con Dao Prison. The street named after him has taken on a fitting character. It is an intellectual hotspot with socialist undertones. It is also home to the academic powerhouse Hanoi Amsterdam High School, one of three public magnet high schools in the city.

At night, it morphs into a funky spot with neon lights and restaurants brimming with unusual sea-food dishes. At all times, it is a charmed respite from the busy streets surrounding it.

Power to the People
There is something reminiscent of a school cafeteria in the way the pre-cooked dishes are presented on large platters at the Com Binh Dan shop directly to the left of Avatar Café (it’s on Tran Huy Lieu, but for some inexplicable reason the address is P1, B2 Giang Vo). Serving yourself rice, canteen-style, from an industrial sized steel pot and then choosing rations of traditional meat, tofu, vegetable and egg dishes does not sound like something anyone would choose to do. But there is something delightful about dining on the concrete patio outside and the food is perhaps the most delicious and well-priced around.

The rice stall has no name and it is not glamorous. But it is real and popular among locals. It is important to arrive at twelve o’clock sharp – if not a few minutes before – to ensure the whole selection is still available. Each lunch-goer fills his plate and then hands it over to the person in charge. No meat? Expect your meal to be less than VND20,000. Filled your plate to the brim? Your lunch could cost you VND35,000 at most. Try to be too greedy? No soup for you!

As the lunch rush ends, the sweet coffee rush begins. The café sua chua (yogurt with coffee) down by the lake at 102B is standard, but the location is unbeatable. From here, it is possible to see all around the bench-marked lake and watch people wile away the hours reading newspapers, drinking tea, or just enjoying a quiet moment.

For sweet tooth satisfaction, there is a new Snowball ice cream stand wedged between Café Viet (122 A6 Tran Huy Lieu) and Café Hang (120 A6 Tran Huy Lieu) that serves Dippin’ Dots-style ice cream pellets. The so-called “ice cream of the future” is now a relic of the past. And while there has to be an incredible amount of chemicals at work to make ice cream into perfect miniature circles, it is undeniably delicious. Banana split and double chocolate are two of the most tempting flavors.

Evening is even Better
The street named after a man who opposed French rule has an unmistakable Parisian feel to it when night falls. The trees, lit up with neon lights, become more pronounced. Young lovers replace the newspaper readers on the lakeside benches. The main draw to this drag at night is the seafood, foot massages and late night fun at the Hanoi Hotel (D8 Giang Vo).

The series of seafood restaurants on the street are famous for their water snails in tamarind sauce (oc sot cua me), while the waterside strip is a perennial favourite location for the Amsterdam High School students. Rows of diners open, peel and devour clams, shrimp, and oysters. Anything from the ocean that’s in a shell can be found here. At 111 Tran Huy Lieu, the tom hap (steamed shrimp), so nuong (small grilled black clams that remain raw on the inside), and ngao luoc (clam in a broth with lemongrass and pineapple) are all on the menu. These restaurants are an ideal evening activity – it is possible to eat tons of tiny clams for hours and still not get full.

There is no better way to finish a meal than a foot massage. There seems to be a pressure point for everything in the feet, so there is most likely one for speeding up the digestion of snails. 30 divine minutes will set you back just VND60,000 at Kim Ma Foot Massage (102-C6 Tran Huy Lieu). It is no five-star spa experience, but if you can handle the slight seediness, you will enjoy yourself and be ready to emerge onto Kim Ma or Giang Vo.

A Charmed Existence
Tran Huy Lieu is, in a sense, nothing but one of a million streets. The food and coffee is delicious, but not unique. What makes the street stand out against the maze of arteries that makes up Hanoi is its character – smart and relaxed. It is an eddy in the fast moving current of the capital and it is true to Vietnam the same way its namesake was.

The man was a poet, revolutionary and historian. The street stands strong and is replete with hidden charm. Whether it is for a lunch or seafood feast, it is highly worth navigating the hectic surrounding roads for a visit to Tran Huy Lieu.

Republished with the kind Permission of WordHanoi


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