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Ngõ Nooks: At Đống Đa's Gác Miên Cafe, a Midsummer's Dream

“Gác" means attic, but “Miên,” on the other hand, is something almost untranslatable, simply because there is no word in English that can fully encapsulate its essence.

I always find myself back in this apartment complex, up the staircase that seems to lead me to a different part of my mind. The first time I came here, I was desperately trying to find my personal definition of Hanoi. Could it be the coffee, the vendors, the yellow walls, or the old communist remnants?

Tucked away on the third floor of a charming old apartment building in Khương Thượng, it is as if Miên doesn't want to be found. As there are no signs whatsoever, not even at the door of the apartment itself, you just have to be confident that you are at the right place. Here is a tiny hint: the entrance to Gác Miên is adorned by multiple potted plants.

Miên is a little bit of everything; everything that gives a definition of Hanoi. Here, you’ll find quilts as curtains, recycled fabrics as tablecloths, and empty glass bottles as flower vases. Every corner of the place seems to carry a story of its own. One has a sofa placed vertically against the wall, another is home to the owner’s bookshelf.

The one I chose, though, overlooks the sun-filled balcony. The red brick floors, green screen doors, and walls showing signs of time almost remind me of my grandparent’s old home, the one where my mother grew up. Being at Miên feels like wandering around a time capsule I never knew I would cherish so much.

I ordered a cup of bạc xỉu and decided to not open my computer as I had planned. Instead, I chose to journal what had been on my mind recently. At that moment, it felt as if the world really paused. The world that exists in this attic and the real world outside are merely separated by a rusting, makeshift window frame, yet somehow that is perfectly enough. I watched as the few lucky rays of sunlight peeked through the chiffon curtain. The lamp above my head lightly swung to the rhythm of the oscillating fan. Out on the balcony, the cats were bathing under the sun.

Miên is a place of familiar sounds. The sounds of the old rusted fan, the faint love songs playing in the background, cats quarrelling on the window sills, and book pages being turned. Occasionally the doorbell would ring, signaling more visits. Most importantly, you will find that people often come here to be alone. The apartment is absent of conversations. Instead, visitors allowed themselves to fully escape from the world and be completely silent, or in my case, to take the weight off my shoulders just for a little while.

When writing about a place, I normally would snatch a chance to converse with its owner(s) to get to know more about its backstory. However, somehow I didn’t find it necessary to do so for Miên. I feel like the owner has already said what they needed to say through every element of this place.

People describe Miên as “the attic of the most beautiful melancholy.” I think that is somewhat true. There is something about this place that feels like a distant familiarity: warm, yet so strange. Miên is unmoved, unstirred by the outside world. To me, Miên feels like a quiet cadence, a place to fall in and out of love.

Have I found the definition of Hanoi? Not fully. I don’t think there is simply one way or one element that defines this city. But this attic of memories has contributed to my personal jumble of words that, in its perfectly cluttered way, trace my definition of Hanoi.

To sum up:

Taste: 3.5/5
Price: 5/5
Atmosphere: 5/5
Friendliness: 4/5
Location: 5/5

Gác Miên

Room 306, Staircase 1, Ngõ 1A Tôn Thất Tùng, Đống Đa

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