03.08.2010 - 15.08.2010 35 °C
Beguiling. Hanoi is absolutely beguiling. I was here nine years ago as a scruffy backpacker – both the city and I have changed, but the combination is still pure bewitchery.
Everything and everyone is out on the street. Noodle pots and tiny plastic stools appear and it’s an impromptu alfresco dining experience. Every corner a street-side café offering industrial-strength Vietnamese coffee, dripped onto condensed milk and strong as the reverence for Ho Chi Minh felt round these parts. Whole streets selling nothing but tombstones, or tin, or warehouse-big bolts of silk, or jar upon jar of herbs or animal bits or who-knows-what to be ground into medicine.
Misty Hoan Kiem Lake, young and old alike out practicing Tai Chi, families picnicking, multiple just marrieds getting their wedding photos snapped, young couples whispering under tree-shade. Evening and still too hot, dads walking around with sleeping babies, drool on their forearms. French colonial architecture. Beers and still more roadside noodles. Swish bistros, cyclos chasing customers or transporting goods when tourists can’t be found. Getting lost in the old quarter and playing paper, rock, scissors with two little brothers (cos you don’t need a common language to get your ass kicked). Pulling up a plastic stool that maybe fit one third of my backside and slurping a freshly-cracked coconut. Sadly informing my boss that no, those dead animals on the back of that motorbike, stacked 4 high, hairless and ready for someone’s dinner, were not goats but dogs.
Incense sticks and money to be burned for the ancestors in a variety of both denominations and currencies. Getting ripped off by cab drivers and smiled at by old ladies, and having hello shouted at me from countless little kids. Getting my weight read by a man who looked to own a cracked scale and not much else, and having a small group of people crowd around to read the results and actually pat me on the back at the impressive and obviously healthy number.
I fell in love with all these songbirds in cages. Hanging in shops and on apartment balconies and off power lines and overtop sidewalk barber chairs. Gorgeous amid the cacophony of traffic and vendors. Apparently there are tea shops where you bring your bird, hang it up alongside the birds of other patrons and you all sip and listen to their warbling. Magnifique! Will they let me in without a bird, do you think?
The motorbikes – millions of them – are inescapable, their honking and buzzing an aural undercurrent that accompanies you your entire trip. Crossing the road takes balletic precision and a saint’s strength of faith – you see the onrush of traffic and you just step out anyways, trusting that the bikes will move around you. Look both ways – continuously – take small steps and walk in a straight line. It works, but you need to woman up for it.
I remember being here the first time round with my girlies Erica and Ronnie. We were laughingly incredulous at the traffic – we compared crossing the road to a grotesque game of Frogger (if anyone remembers that old skool video game from the 80s), your mission was to get across the stream but at any moment you could be splattered, squashed and written off by any number of hazards. I remember how an old man in Ho Chi Minh City initiated us into the fine Vietnamese art of crossing the street. Coming up to barely my chest, he held on to my arm and walked me across the road as though I was a child, using the tactics outlined above. It’s one of my favourite memories of being a wide-eyed and grinning newbie backpacker in SE Asia. So funny to be back here as a laptop-toting real fer real grown-up on a work trip
And the food. My lord you could simply eat your way through this country (and I know none of you are surprised to hear that I did). Papery thin fresh spring rolls, noodles of every colour and description, mango shakes, banana crepes, baguettes and Laughing Cow cheese, gorgeously glutinous crab and asparagus soup, tamarind and garlic prawns, hotpots and grilled garlic fish and coconut ice cream. As per usual, some of the menus proved to be inscrutable, just what is “Bowl depository swear goby” do you think? Or “Ruffle fried squid”, or “strangled chicken polygonaceae” (they make pills for that) or my personal favourite, “salt torrefaction crab”. It’s a mystery!
Vietnam was the second country in the world to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and has made great lengths towards universal literacy and primary school enrollment. But it’s also on par with Nigeria on the corruption scale. The one party state thing seems to have somewhat shielded it, from what I could see, from the horrors of sex tourism that you see in other parts of SE Asia. Whilst booking my hotel online, I was clearly informed that non-Vietnamese men checking in with a Vietnamese woman must show a marriage certificate. That’s a far cry from Thailand’s blasé “joiner fee”! (The charge levied on your room if you bring back a sex worker or freelance girlfriend for the night or a few hours thereof).
It’s been really interesting for me to compare Vietnam’s capital to Thailand’s. I love Bangkok, I do. But it has a certain grasping, try-hard aspect to it that I can find grating some days. It’s like it’s working very hard to convince you it’s a sophisticated and glamorous global city. And it is. But does it have to expend so much damn effort to prove it? Hanoi doesn’t seem to have that. It’s effortlessly cool. Like the kid in the back of your English class, it’s so cool it doesn’t need to try. Bumping right up against the traditional Chinese medicine shops and noodle stalls are these fashionable young designers with Western-Eastern hybrids hanging in the window, and trendy hair salons turning out kids who look like they could be on Asian MTV.
Hanoi, bewitch me. Whirl around me with your ghosts and your tragic hipsters, too. Reveal to me your crumbling arches, your red-painted pagodas, your cracked plastic chairs and cheap flip-flops. Get me drunk on caffeine, sugary milk and melting ice cubes and whisper to me your myths of magical turtles and fairy-seducing dragon lords. Drape me in raw silk and a fine film of dirt and sweat and let me laze away with you in your steaming afternoons. Beguile me.