I didn’t know much about Hanoi before visiting.
As it turned out, there’s not that much to see and do as such. Hanoi is no London, Beijing or Tokyo. Visiting Hanoi is not necessarily so much about taking in the sights, but much more about taking it in. As our driver tried to navigate through the narrow streets and one-way systems of Hanoi’s old quarter as we arrived at 8pm on a Saturday night, we quickly realised that Hanoi is alive, teeming with life, everywhere.
From the street vendors who have finished for the day and are now eating their noodles (and lord knows what else!) on the narrow pavements sat on chairs barely 30 centimetres high, inches from the humdrum and roar of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of motorbikes that claim these streets as their own, the transportation of choice for 10 year-olds, 80 year-olds, families of five and everybody else in between, speeding round at all hours. To the hordes of young people living it up in the old quarter, drinking their 20p beers, rocking out to Gaga and Maroon 5 who are blasting from the tightly-packed strip of bars, whose customers spill out onto the streets, roads closed, human traffic jams forming in the busiest parts. Then there’s the newly retired Australian couple, slightly bewildered, just trying to make sense of it all, hoping to avoid getting mown down every time they step off the crowded pavements, slightly in wonder, slightly terrified, awestruck at how different the Vietnam they grew up knowing in the 50’s and 60’s is, to the Vietnam they are in right now, in 2015. Adelaide is kind of wonderful in comparison, but kind of boring. This is Hanoi, this is 21st century Asia.
There’s some poorly maintained museums/propaganda fests. There’s some grand old colonial buildings. There’s some very nice restaurants and hotels and a couple of lakes that you wouldn’t want to swim in. But what will be our everlasting memory of Hanoi?
The vibrancy and chaos.
Somehow it works. You always find where you want to go (so long as you’re not looking for the river – private joke) and you somehow never seem to get run over, despite often feeling as though death or serious injury is a real danger, only one wrong step away. You see wacky things all over the place, whether it’s a workman propping his wooden ladder up against power cables in the middle of one of Hanoi’s busiest crossroads as the frantic traffic streams past, or two guys having an afternoon nap under a tank. To sitting in a nice, but cheap restaurant eating your dinner and then having the Prime Minister of Norway and her entourage on an official state visit come and join you for dinner, sat metres away from you. Then there’s the pop stars dressed in Tuxedos singing patriotic anthems atop the remains of downed American warplanes, shot down in a bygone age. It was mad, but weirdly wonderful.
Hanoi was kind of horrible, but kind of quirky with a charm. People were really quite nice as well, even as they were staring you down speeding towards you at 30mph, with impact seeming imminent.
Would we go back? Not in a hurry.
Are we glad we went? Oh yes we are.