Hanoi greeted us with cigarette smoke, rain, chaotic motorbikes threatening dismemberment, and the sweet fermented scent of beer drifting through the streets. We had made it to Vietnam.
Hanoi is the throbbing epicenter of the north, chaotic to say the least. Many find it overwhelming, but no one would deny that this city makes you feel alive. Even if that’s because crossing the street is often an adrenaline pumping affair of blind faith.
Want to cross?
To wait for a clearing in traffic would be condemning yourself to standing in place for potentially, the entire day. Rather, to traverse the city you learn quickly you must step slowly, though not too slowly into the street and watch as motorbikes swerve gracefully around you. And then, you’re on the other side. Ideally, unscathed. In a day we’ve gotten good enough at it. And it can even be fun, in the way any adrenaline inducing activity tends to be.
Hanoi is also infamously difficult to navigate. When we ventured to the Temple of Literature (dating back to 1070) we were told it would take fifteen minutes, assuming we didn’t lost. The map suggested it would be easy enough. But within a few minutes we were turned around. We would eventually find our way, a theme to be followed without exception for the remainder of the day. The streets are not grid, but splintered geometric shapes, changing names at random. It was strange, to walk down streets we knew without being sure where we were.
The remainder of the day we wandered to find food (pho, Banh mi, bun cha, spring rolls, Vietnamese iced coffee) and generally explore the colonial old quarter and picking up vintage communist propaganda posters from the war.
A brief introduction to Vietnam, our very short time in Hanoi was far less hectic than we had imagined. Certainly the city can overload your brain, or make you long for a bit of silence, but nothing as crazy as the reports we had heard (which is generally the case). Then again, New York feels like home and I thrive in the pulsating beat of a big city. So Hanoi felt comfortable, even if navigating the street food scene was not as effortless as we had anticipated. Shops tended to not exist, or were closed at random, but we found a few good places, even of it took an hour or two longer than we had initially thought.
Hanoi was great for a day, but I could see how one might tire of it after awhile. I loved it. And while another few days would be welcome we leave for Halong Bay tomorrow morning, something I’ve been looking forward to since the day I knew I would be in southeast Asia.