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Farewell, Puku, old chap.

15 May

Puku Cafe, 60 Hang Trong Street, Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam.

A much-loved expat haunt down a dark blue-lamp-lit alley in he centre of downtown Hanoi.

On the third floor terrace, it’s light and airy, cool and relaxing, above the sweltering humidity and dust on the streets below. Yet, the place has an earthy grunginess to it as well. In other words, it’s a down-to-earth place for expats to meet up, chat, bury themselves in a book over a cool beverage or use the free wi-fi on their laptops.

I remember on arrival in Hanoi, the in-country managers of the volunteer program took us volunteers to Puku for our casual meet n’ greet. Ever since then, it’s been a second home to us. The atmosphere is relaxed; it’s got greenery (rare in most cafes in Hanoi) and isn’t pretentious; it has an all-day breakfast menu, and serves the Vietnamese coffees that give you diabetes, as well frosty beers.

My friends and I would rock up there at any time of day, and sometimes stay to eat two meals there. We were well and truly regulars.

It’s no longer there.

Puku moved location and ‘upgraded’ to a more high-class look to lend itself more to expats. It’s lost its chilled-out vibe.

I don’t have many photos of Puku. I searched online on Google images and the above two photos were the only two I could find of the old Puku.

Its online presence has dissipated along with its real physical presence.

It lives on to a certain extent in the blogosphere.

However, it lives on mainly in the minds of those who used to occupy and engage with that space. For those of us who became attached to Puku, we can reminisce and be transported back there and share our memories with those fellow travelers in that time and space.

Another cafe which I heard is no longer in existence is another much-loved expat hangout, called Nola Cafe. It’s similar in concept to Puku, but it’s fittings and décor is informed more so by culture. The interior design is exquisite and also has an earthy feel. Nola was designed by a Vietnamese guy who went to New Orleans and came back inspired and channeled that into the interior design of a new inner-city cafe. Thus emerged Nola. Like Puku, tt doesn’t have a frontage to the street either. Yet, people find it. It has around 5 interlocking half-levels. Each room or terrace area is decked out differently, but it all works together. One outdoor space has umbrellas suspended above the seating area.

Itinerant street food stalls have a similar story. They can be set up and serve customers day in and day out for decades. And then, one day, it may not turn up. By Truc Bach Lake are a row of hot pot restaurants. The owners spread out mats for patrons to sit lakeside and enjoy steaming hot pot. When the police come around, they shuffle all the customers inside the cramped restaurants, take the mats in and throw any plastic chairs into the lake. It is illegal to operate food outlets with seating on the street. Once the police have left, the restaurant owners spread the mats out again and pull the plastic chairs out of the lake. Business continues as usual. It could all come to a stop one day and the restaurant owners would move elsewhere or get into another business. And life goes on in this bustling city.

Another feature of Hanoi is its continual state of being constructed and renovated. There are always buildings under construction, road potholes being filled, residences being subdivided, merged and everything in between.

For those of us who develop emotional attachments to places, experiences, the people we shared those spaces with and the seasons which we occupied those spaces, it’s at times heart-wrenching.

On the one hand, I acknowledge that Hanoi is an ever-changing, always-transforming chameleon. That is the mark of a society and economy which embraces change and strives towards development and prosperity.

On the other hand, the experiences I had in Hanoi are very precious to me and I want some things to remain the same – like my old Puku Cafe, or my Nola, or my favourite lakeside hot pot stall.

I consider them mine, yet, they are shared with everyone as well. The fact they are no longer there to be experienced is terribly saddening and engulfs me with a sense of loss and regret. A regret that we can no longer share in that space, time and experience.

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