After nineteen hours of travel, a stop in Singapore, and an estimation that I had peed in at least 5 time zones in a 24 hour span (certainly a personal best), I was in a daze as I stepped out of the Hanoi airport to catch the no. 86 bus into central Hanoi.
I often find that people’s descriptions of places, especially first impressions, are rooted in hyperbole. Except Anthony Bourdain, he f*cking nailed it. The smell of grilled pork in the distance mixed with the pungency of motorbike fumes and still somehow a tinge of fresh air. Parts Unknown was right on the money with this one, and it was only the beginning.
As the bus motored on down the highway, the “meep meep” of a scooter passing by could be heard as it got more and more regular entering the city centre. It was a rainy morning and the roads were slick but this didn’t stop families of three or four people, sometimes with the family pet onboard from motoring along on their little Honda scooter, taking corners at alarming speeds and weaving in and out of the natural flow of traffic.
Hanoi is a city that when viewed from afar seems like chaos of the highest order. Mopeds, trucks and pedestrians weaving in and out of traffic in a seemingly random set of rules. Vendors of all sorts of food, clothing and other assorted trinkets set up wherever they can find space, spooning noodle soup out of large cauldrons on the side of the road. Up close, however, the chaos begins to fade as you realise how ordered it really is.
Traffic, although seemingly random, has it’s methods and it’s, shall we say, guidelines to it. This becomes abundantly clear when you first cross a major street. Walk steady, with purpose and the traffic flows around you like water around a rock in a stream. The thing most noted is that although there is noise everywhere, very little of it seems to be aggressive in any way, just more of a simple “just letting you know I’m here” sort of way. Even on Train Street, where patrons set up stalls and break them down away from the tracks, three or four times a day when the trains role through, has an order to it that seems almost rhythmic.
Shops appear random until you notice each little street has a theme. Flower streets, shoe streets, hardware and other DIY items, clothing and streets of nothing but restaurants and places that turn into the infamous Bia Hois at night (Bia Hois are a Hanoi institution where kegs are brought out by the street and served on the cheap to anyone sitting nearby in the hastily arranged plastic kiddie furniture that dots the city streets at night).
And the food, my goodness the smells as you walk past the stalls. Morning smells of beef broth from the simmering of Pho noodle soups, afternoons and evening smells of duck, pork and fish mixed with lime, red chili’s and fresh lemongrass in assorted different combinations is enough to keep you exploring the city just by following your nose.
Vietnam is a place that has only semi-recently become a common place for travellers to visit, especially backpackers and that is evident in the people who are friendly in a still-curious sort of way. Hanoi is certainly more used to Westerners due to it’s proximity to Ha Long Bay, Vietnam’s biggest tourist destination, but it seems to have not yet become weary of constant tourism like sadly places like Thailand and Cambodia have to a larger degree.
It is safe to say that thirty-six hours is not enough time to see all there is to see in a city of seven million people however, Hanoi, you have certainly captured me and I am certain that before long I’ll be back to you again.