After moving to Hanoi a month ago, I haven’t had much time to stop and reflect. The job that helped me get here (a teaching stint in the public schools) took up most of my time, and with the added worries of figuring out transportation, finding a place to live, and sorting out visas, bank accounts, and all the other accouterments of uprooting a life, it’s taken me until now to find a space to breath, think, and sort through my first impressions of Hanoi.
The first taxi ride from the airport to our hotel in the Old Quarter left me wide-eyed and breathless. “What am I doing?” I asked laughing, nerves jangling, as our taxi weaved between motorbikes, women carrying fruit on their shoulders, cyclos, and one very brave and very fat dog who was nearly obliviated by our front wheels.
The streets of Hanoi are full. People live their lives perched in their front rooms with the doors and windows open wide or on little stools crowded together on the pavement, inches from the motorbikes whizzing by at the edge of the curb. Hanoi is NOT a walking city. You’re evening stroll will be a maze as you attempt to tread the sidewalk, only to be displaced by cafes that have spilled out onto the pavement, shoe shine men who have set up shop on in front of the cafes, and congregations of xe oms on the corner calling, “Motorbike! Hello! Hello!” as you pass.
Your stroll will force you into the road where women selling fried sweets will wave their goods in your face as you try to avoid the motorbikes nearly driving up onto the curb as they try to avoid the taxis on the road.
There are few respites from the madness. Unlike other large cities I’ve visited in Europe and North America, Hanoi is not known for the its nature and parks (although I am excited to explore the nature just outside the city). Hanoi has few public pools, its lakes are surrounded on all sides by office buildings and apartments, its parks are not the grassy, Frisbee-throwing parks that I’m used to. Life here takes place nose-to-nose with the madness, not tucked away and sheltered in some constructed green, pseudo-nature in the center of the city.
But despite the lack of peaceful areas for reflection, it’s not all chaos.
After you’ve walked for a few days you begin to notice the madness is controlled by strict rules. You can cross the hectic road, if you walk slowly and steadily. The aggressive hawkers will move on if you’re firm. The xe oms are a great means of transport if you know how to bargain. And there is a reason everyone squishes into the tiny seats at the cafes and street stands. The coffee, soups, and dumplings at the little street side vendors are incredible, and there is no reason to come to Hanoi if you plan on ignoring these gems. Besides, why would you want to eat inside a regular restaurant when life here takes place in the streets?
Occasionally in my first few weeks, I’d forget what the streets felt like. I’d spend a few of my morning hours in the hotel, watching English shows on STAR TV with the air conditioning on, and Hanoi would seem very far away. But then I’d step outside the front door for lunch, and the wet heat would instantly glue my shirt to my back, beeps and honks would reverberate in my ears, and the smells of barbecued pork and fried honey bread would waft my way and I’d find myself back in this city which pumps life through its winding alleys and one-ways from the early hours of the morning until well after dark.
But Hanoi sleeps sometimes and, boy, does it sleep.
When the rain hits, opaque, drenching, hot humid rain slamming against the streets; the world goes silent. The beeping and talking and shouting stops; all you can hear is the wet drumming against the roofs and tarps.
And at night, after about eleven, the ladies exercising the in the park, the clusters of xe oms on the corners, and the bright red and yellow lights of the street food restaurants suddenly disappear, and like a huge exhausted kitten, the city suddenly sleeps.
My first impressions of Hanoi are excited, nervous, and constantly amazed, and I cannot wait to see what I’ll learn this year in this breath-taking, inside-out city.