I spend a lot of time writing about places I like. It’s easier. It’s much harder to defend yourself when you have nothing but complaints. If I said I liked a place, you’d probably accept that at face value. But, if I say I despise it (present tense, the feeling remains) then I have to answer the inevitable questions “why? How could you miss ___, ___, and ___,” or, “maybe you didn’t understand the city, its people, its ways… Maybe you didn’t give it time to sink in.” But, sink in I did for two weeks’ time – more than any other spot on my travels through Asia, and I don’t wish this misfortune on anyone.
Therefore, I’d like to say in advance that I apologize to all who are offended by my comments or somehow disagree with me that Hanoi is a crowded, chaotic, soulless eyesore fouling planet earth – a city with all of the maddening theatrics of modern Asian megacities but none of the cutesy charm. Hanoi festers, “I WANT TO PUNCH SOMEONE” feelings, traps pent up frustration and, quite literally, threatens you with death at every footstep.
I enjoy walking, it’s one of the most basic things we humans can do. Perhaps, of all my grievances, this is the greatest: in Hanoi, it’s impossible to walk. Then again, it’s impossible to drive either. The city is just too big a clusterfuck to go anywhere. Crosswalks, if present, are not observed and the pedestrian has absolutely no right of way. What walking does occur is more like collective group pushing. Maybe everyone’s smiling while they do it, but you can’t see through the masks they wear to keep out the thick smog. Even the sidewalks, a normal haven for walkers, are overrun by eager motorbikers. The streets of Hanoi are like Frogger level ten – the plucky music replaced by snarling horns and you have no frogs left for any mistakes.
Back in my university days when I ran out of Dining Dollars for the school cafeteria and wanted to avoid studying, I’d trundle up the road to Saigon Café. It was my favorite restaurant in town. The food was impeccable and the owner reminded me of a Vietnamese version of my Aunt Sally. I loved that place. It was the only place in town I’d splurge on an appetizer and a main course. If Vietnam was like Saigon Café…
As it turns out, all the tasty food comes from the central and southern parts of the country (hence “Saigon” Café). The north was cold Pho territory. I was a fan of the Americanized Pho I’d had in the past, but the streetside real-deal in Hanoi was dog food (as in meant for dogs, not made from them…. we’ll get to that in a minute). I’ve prepared tastier instant noodles in my microwave. And the meat…
In Vietnam, my bowl movements took a turn for the unsavory. After a chance late-night encounter with a green-looking sausage, I returned to my strict vegetarian diet (for the umpteenth time). If you saw the disemboweled carnage on display, unrefrigerated and infested, you would too! “Oh, and, by the way, we eat dogs and cats.” Virtually every Vietnamese I met told me this in the first five minutes of conversation, like an icebreaker. Several markets specialize in this kind of meat and eating out around town, well, you never know.
In Hanoi I took to self-catering, relying on my old travel companions Peanut Butter and Jelly. Yet, it was a chore going to the supermarket, getting my food shoved in bags and thrust back at me with incorrect change and a stern frown. “Here, I give you piece of candy instead.” No, I want my change!
In every other Asian country I’d visited, I instantly learned to say “hello” and “thank you.” In Hanoi, I never learned those words – nobody used them. By a ratio of ten to one, more people honked at than ever spoke to me. I’m being bitchy I know, but that’s how this city makes you feel.
I got stuck in Hanoi; stuck in streets sludge and stuck in a conundrum. Due to varying passport issues (a lack of empty pages) and Visa problems (the Indian Embassy in Hanoi balking at my request to just paste their visa over the one for Laos), I was to stay in Hanoi for two weeks. The maddening part was that, had the comrade at the border used one of my half-used pages to plop the entry stamp for Vietnam, this problem could have been solved in one of Asia’s friendlier capitals. But no, he used a brand new page, effectively incarcerating me in Hanoi. Hanoi for the holidays. The two weeks in every year that it’s best to be in a Western, Christian country.
Christmas came and went rather unspectacularly. Yet, Hanoi was the perfectly insane setting for New Years. This was the city’s first year embracing a full-on celebration of the Western Calendar’s brightest day, inviting international Djs to turn the streets around the Opera House into a flashy dance party. Everything was unruly and exciting until the clock rang midnight. We screamed, clapped, and then the Vietnamese ran home in observance of the midnight curfew.
Or, maybe they wanted to get a few hours of shuteye before their sunrise exercise class. By 6:00am the next morning, the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of downtown were a frenzy of floppy hands and glittery track suits. The lake was line-to-line jazzercise classes a la Richard Simmons with a boombox. Those too cool for aerobics plunked a birdy back and forth playing badminton without a net (badminton being the favorite sport of the Vietnamese!).
Hanoi’s main attraction was its unpredictable hysteria – hysteria being both hysterical and frightening. For example, the town’s two main sights were the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Ho Chi Minh Museum. One was a capsule holding the body of the great leader swimming in formaldehyde, while the other housed a circus of many acts (a large scale model of fruit, a space room dedicated to the challenger explosion, Picasso replicas, Ho Chi Minh’s fan and hat, and a giant, bronze statue of the leader just waiting for group photos). Trying to make sense of these things was far too tiring. It was best to accept it as part of the greater hysteria, or at least that’s what my hotel receptionist Viet told me (his brother’s name was, quite seriously, Nam).
The worst thing of it all was that, by the end, I kind of came to terms with Hanoi. Despite it all, the organization of the disorder fascinated me. Crossing the streets emboldened me. The messy, busy clutter slipped into the background and became part of the landscape, for better or worse. Maybe I don’t hate Hanoi… but it hurts me to say that. When, like a chameleon, I picked up on the rhythm of life and slipped into the mix, it thrilled me in a sinister way.