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West Lake and the Best Little Bookstore in Southeast Asia

I love to read books, and I don’t just love to read books. I also love to visit small and independent bookstores because I want to collect books and I know most bookshop owners are also book lovers. They are, in fact, book experts! So, it was a good surprise to learn that Hanoi has an independent bookstore selling English books. And that was the reason why we were headed to the West Lake on a Friday afternoon.

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At The Bookworm’s second level — all books are about Vietnam.

 

West Lake (Ho Tay) is a large freshwater north of the Old Quarter. If the Old Quarter and the Hoan Kiem Lake is the “old Hanoi,” West Lake is the “new Hanoi” surrounded by high-rise buildings and expat residents. Maybe the expat residents are the reason why the bookstore we were heading to is located near the edge of the lake — because many people in the area speak English! The bookstore is small and is just like Giang Cafe, hidden behind another building, the Hanoi Culinary Centre.

The Bookworm Hanoi — that’s the bookstore’s name. Isn’t it apt? It is a two-storey bookstore but is actually very small, which means their books are very select. And select it was. Upon opening the door, I met the owner and his staff. At the side of the door are their books written by Nobel Prize winners. If I was not married to my husband, I would have married… these books. Haha! I was also there because of their extensive Haruki Murakami selection. But don’t be mislead by my “extensive” description. They had almost all of Murakami’s books when I visited but only one copy of each.

And Murakami was not the only reason I visited the bookstore. I was there to look for Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, which was semi-autobiographical. The book is about a French girl living in Sa Dec, a small town hours from Sai Gon and near the Me Kong river, and a rich Chinese immigrant. It is an erotic, forbidden love. But more than the love, it was story of two outsiders in Vietnamese society at a time when Vietnam was in turmoil. It’s a small book but, to me, it was a difficult read. And that was how I set the tune of our Vietnam travel.

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Shared courtyard of The Bookworm and Hanoi Culinary Centre.

After selecting the books I wanted with my limited shopping budget — I brought home Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, Duras’ The Lover, and a book called K: The Art of Love written by Hong Ying — we decided to have coffee at the HCC. The HCC and Bookworm share a courtyard, a lovely courtyard, but the HCC staff led us to their second-level dining area because it was cooler. We ordered egg coffee and the traditional Vietnamese coffee, paired with banh mi (served with butter), and ice cream. The HCC has very limited menu but they also offer food tours, cooking classes, and they have a colorful book of recipe of traditional Vietnamese food.

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The sun was already on its way to being golden when we went out of the HCC, but it was not quite sunset yet (sunset in Vietnam is at 6:30PM), so we decided to take a walk to the West Lake. Now, the lake is very big, bigger than Hoan Kiem lake, that there was a electric car for rent offer. But we loved the spacious and shady pathway from the Tran Quoc Pagoda, an 11th century temple that is the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi and is still being used until today. The benches invited me to sit down and start opening the pages of The Lover, the ice cream shop across the street is enticing me with more kem. I choose to sit down, enjoy the pages of the book, and the orangey sunset.

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