Hanoi happened upon us like a maelstrom in a a field of unsuspecting daisies.
We landed very early in the morning and spent a ridiculous amount of time in the customs, eventually leaving the airport in a taxi drained, spent and irritable. As we drove towards the city, a thick mist covered the fields and we were introduced for the first time to the ubiquitous Vietnamese motos/scooters and their fully covered riders: helmets atop face masks seemingly made of bedsheets or tableclothes extended like bibs over their throats, making them look like ragtag bandits from an Asian Mad Max remake. In hindsight, it all makes perfect sense: the combination of dust and smog is more than anyone lung or face can take on a daily basis
My naive notions of Hanoi, developed through watching Indochine and Scent of Green Papaya too many times, were quickly shattered: far from a romantic, exotic city of quiet inner gardens and graceful architecture, Hanoi comes at you with the full force of a bustling marketplace where everything is for sale and everyone is selling something – a service, a meal, a scarf, a paper clip. This first overwhelming impression of Hanoi may have something to do with the fact that we were staying in the Old Quarter, a neighborhood incredibly tightly packed with backpacker hostels and hotels, street merchants, food vendors, shops and, of course, motorcycles.
Three things shocked me the most about the city, although, in hindsight, this may also be a result of my inexperience with Asian cities in general:
- The traffic – It’s impossible to describe exactly what the traffic on the streets of Hanoi looks like, but imagine an anaconda of motorycles (up to four riders on each) bikes, cycles and the occasional car, so close together that drivers could high-five each other on both sides, at all times of the day except peak hours, when they would be too tightly packed to extend their elbows. Like bikes in Amsterdam, motorcycles litter ever empty square inch of sidewalk, every causeway, every shopfront, often forcing us, mere pedestrians, to use the streets and walk alongside the traffic. I won’t even begin to explain the noise – take New York’s Time Square and add a million or so blaring motorcycle horns and you’ll get the picture…
- The industriousness – Wherever a square inch of sidewalk was miraculously free of merchandise or parked scooters, an old lady will take out a diminutive charcoal stove and she will cook up a storm: grilled meats, grilled corn, cold noodles and many other unidentifiable fare – out in the open, footsteps away from the traffic. On kindergarten-sized plastic chairs, workers and backpackers alike enjoy the bliss of pho ga and other noodle dishes, rightfully oblivious to the noises and smells that the city emanates. If not cooking or serving (often both at the same time, under the gaze of their husbands who lounge, throwing back strong vietnamese coffee and taking tokes of tobacco from giant bamboo bongs) women roam the streets wearing traditional conical hats and carrying poles with baskets heavy with fruit, vegetables or fried balls of sweet dough. And, perhaps most shockingly, at the end of the day, which in Hanoi comes early as everyone is hard-core morning people, the wares, the garbage, the screaming babies and errant dogs, the stalls, the charcoal, the styrofoam cups – they all vanish. All of a sudden, you come out of a restaurant after dinner and find yourself in another city, swept clean of human debris where all the chaos and madness seem like a pipe dream – until around 5:00 AM next morning.
- The crowds – Vietnam, unlike neighboring Cambodia who just recently managed to surpass its pre-Pol Pot population numbers, has had a policy of encouraging family growth and succeeded tremendously, at its own peril. Over 90 million people are squeezed together in this sliver of a country and 8 million of them in Hanoi, slightly more than a hamlet by Asian standards but maddeningly tight by our spoiled low-density Bay Area ones. Privacy is a meaningless word, as people live, cook, study, sell food and raise their children on the tight streets of the Old Quarters.
According to a yet unverified source the education system is so overwhelmed that a system of shifts had to be put in place to deal with the great numbers of young pupils. At peak hour when the schools let out rivers of children run into traffic deftly identifying and climbing on a parent’s motorbike. Said parent will most often do grocery shopping from the bike barely stopping.
We experienced this first hand – bumbling giants towering over a sea of small heads bobbing and weaving between our legs towards their parents, patiently waiting on motorbikes. It was a sight to behold…