Enjoy this post in Tiếng Việt 😉

When people think of the Netherlands, they immediately picture the bustling capital of Amsterdam, known for its “red light and green smoke” allure. This nickname refers to the famous red-light districts and the many cafés where buying and smoking cannabis is legal, making Amsterdam one of Europe’s top “party cities.”

We initially planned to experience Amsterdam during our visit to the land of windmills. However, fate led us to Haarlem, a small city about twenty kilometers from central Amsterdam. We stayed in an eight-bed dorm room, a bit crowded but bright and the cheapest option we found on the booking site for accommodations in the Netherlands.

It was a chilly, gray afternoon when we stumbled upon a hostel in Haarlem named “Hello, I’m Local.” After landing at Schiphol-Amsterdam airport, we took a bus to the main station in Haarlem amidst pouring rain. We had to wait for the rain to subside and the Dutch winds to begin their gentle sweep along the narrow streets before we could start walking with our suitcases to the hostel. That night, exhausted from our long journey through various cities and towns, we barely managed to eat a peach each before collapsing into sleep.

On our second evening at the hostel, we befriended an American named Eric, whom we jokingly called “Eric Butt” because his full name was Eric Button. We met Eric in the dorm after a self-prepared dinner of bread, cheese, smoked meat, and blueberries in the hostel’s communal kitchen. Eric was fumbling his way up to the top bunk in the dark and gleefully exclaimed, “OMG! They even have lights here?!” when we entered and turned on the lights. We laughed, and thus began our friendship.

Eric, around 30 years old and pursuing a Ph.D., hailed from the remote state of Idaho, which he humorously described as “the middle of nowhere.” Tall, cheerful, and seemingly fond of us, Eric dubbed us “The wing couple” (like the wingman concept in “How I Met Your Mother”) and made us promise to set him up with a Dutch girl we might randomly meet. Eric insisted, “I’m going to marry a Dutch wife. Dutch women are awesome.”

That very night, the three of us went for a walk along the windy canals, illuminated by the golden glow from the quaint houses and streetlights. With a crumpled paper map in hand, Eric took charge, leading us in circles as we tried to find a pub. When I lost patience and opened Google Maps on my phone, Eric shook his head vigorously, saying, “Let’s not rely on that Google Maps stuff, okay?” So, we continued wandering until we finally found a pub. Actually, we never found the intended pub, but instead, we stopped a Dutch couple for directions to a good pub with great beer. The Dutch couple remarked, “You guys chose Haarlem, which is the real Dutch essence. Amsterdam is just a mess. We locals don’t enjoy living there; we only go there for work and then return to nearby cities like Haarlem.”

That night, we enjoyed exceptional IPA beers at the local pub they directed us to. It was our first encounter with IPA beers, explained in detail by Eric, who seemed like a beer expert. IPA (India Pale Ale) is a renowned craft beer favored by beer aficionados across Europe and the USA. The IPA beers we tasted had a fruity aroma, a rich malt flavor, and a distinct hop bitterness brewed traditionally. We ordered a plate of bagels and a large bowl of cold Dutch cheese cubes to accompany our drinks. Eric, more knowledgeable about IPAs, took the lead in ordering. The wise-looking Dutch bartender served us six sample-sized IPA beers in a neat row, explaining that the beers were arranged in a specific order to be tasted sequentially to ensure that the increasing alcohol content and complementary flavors harmonized without overshadowing one another. It was our first time savoring beers in such a refined manner, enjoying the flavors as if we were sipping coffee or tea rather than the typical beer-drinking sessions back home.

While Eric enthusiastically explained the art and science of beer, we introduced him to the pure coffee of Da Lat, Vietnam. Eric listened intently, eager to learn and always curious.

The beer adventures didn’t end there. Late that night, we visited another smaller pub bustling with locals. As soon as we entered, Eric loudly introduced us to a Dutch guy, saying, “These two are from Vietnam. They have amazing coffee technology…” and went on to boast about Vietnamese coffee as if it were his family heritage. Eric’s honesty, openness, humor, and natural charm made us like him even more.

We walked back to the hostel, the cool night wind whipping through our hair and faces in the windy, watery city of Haarlem.

The next morning, sunlight bathed Haarlem, turning the canals and rivers into a golden spectacle. The glass-like European sunlight seemed more vibrant in Haarlem, reflecting off the cheerful, energetic faces of the locals.

The Dutch are tall, but their houses are quaint and uniform, like colorful, neatly arranged dollhouses lining the clear canals. Like many Dutch cities, Haarlem is filled with the sounds of the wind and has numerous waterways. Residents can travel anywhere in Haarlem not only by bike, car, or foot but also by gliding along the canals in boats.

We were fortunate to visit Haarlem during its annual “Boat Festival.” That morning, Haarlem was not only bright with the Dutch sun but also vibrant with hundreds of boats from all over the Netherlands gathering on the Haarlem River. Each boat was a party, with families and friends celebrating with music right on the water. We stood on bridges or along the canals, marveling at the colorful, polished wooden boats and their fluttering flags.

Seeing us—a tall American and two short Asians—standing awestruck by the river, a middle-aged Dutch man enthusiastically invited us onto his boat. We eagerly climbed aboard, listening to the man’s stories about the boats. He shared that each boat, besides having a meaningful name, had an anecdote—a humorous or interesting story linked to it. For example, his boat’s story involved a dramatic moment at sea when a dropped sausage seemingly calmed a storm.

Before we left the boat, the Dutch man gifted each of us a small book on the history and culture of Dutch boats, written in Dutch. We assured him we could use Google Translate to read it.

We spent the rest of the day wandering through Haarlem with Eric, exploring the colorful pedestrian paths in the town center, strolling along sunlit canals, crossing charming bridges, and meandering through residential lanes filled with flowers and fresh, fragrant breezes. In a quiet alley, we met a friendly Dutch woman who invited us into her home, where we enjoyed pastries and chatted about travel, work, and Dutch life. Her room was still cluttered with bags from her recent backpacking trip through South America and Africa. She introduced us to her roommate, treating us like old friends.

The locals we met in Haarlem were genuinely warm and welcoming.

This warmth and these memorable encounters are why I fell in love with Haarlem from the very first visit, despite the inconvenience of being bitten by bugs and developing a wind allergy rash during my stay.

I also fondly remember a charming, open-hearted Chinese girl I met at the hostel, unlike the somewhat conservative Chinese boy I met in Prague. Or the teenage girl from California, passionate about history and politics, who approached us and whom we coincidentally met again on our next trip to Paris.

These moments and stories from Haarlem, a quintessentially Dutch city, created lasting memories of the Netherlands, far more vivid than the impressions Amsterdam tried to make.

Amsterdam is beautiful with its charming Dutch houses, clear canals, and quaint bridges. But everything else—the gaudy red-light districts with their closed doors and “dollhouse windows,” the cafés thick with the pungent smell of cannabis, the numerous shops selling “green cupcakes,” “green chocolates,” and various “herbal teas”—all pale in comparison to what I experienced and felt in Haarlem.


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