Sunday, May 24, 2009

Correcting the Record on Hanoi

I have found a place to live and tonight is my last night of hotel life in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Before turning the page on a new chapter of my life here, I have something I need to get off my chest. I fear I have given an inaccurate impression of my newly-adopted city. I'm afraid I've painted Hanoi as an Asian Gomorrah, filled with street touts, whore-pimping moto-drivers, and hucksters on every corner. I've found Hanoi to be nothing like that. Even the Old Quarter, the city's lunatic center, has none of Bangkok's air of sin, and its street hassles don't hold a candle to India. So on my last night as a tourist, before becoming a proper resident of Hanoi, I would like to set the record straight.

Hanoi is an intimate city, a city of neighborhoods, a patchwork of small municipalities crisscrossed by a few main thoroughfares. And each of these neighborhoods is a village, abuzz with markets, eateries, families that have known each other for generations, and of course, motorbikes squirting up and down the lanes. The city is actually quite small; you can cross most of Hanoi by car in less than 20 minutes. You inevitably get lost in Hanoi's alleyways, but the town's modest size ensures you soon emerge onto a road you recognize. It doesn't take long for initial confusion to give way to a sense of familiarity. 

Hanoi's architecture, when you can get a good view of it, is often spectacular, replete with history. It's worth stopping on street corners and looking around. French colonial villas with wrought-iron verandas trellised with flowers and plants, narrow multi-story houses with shingled roofs and stone dragons, and 1960s modernist structures all exist side-by-side. Their textured walls - layers of faded plaster, stenciled lettering, and grime - have a Rauschenberg beauty. What the Japanese call wabi sabi - the beauty that things acquire with age - is abundant in Hanoi.

The thing that breathes calm into Hanoi is its lakes. Lakes are everywhere, some covering only a couple of city blocks, others approaching serious bodies of water, with small buildings on the distant shore. And Hanoi has trees; for all its alleys and traffic it's a surprisingly verdant place. Drinking a demitasse of espresso and sweetened condensed milk in an old-world cafe beside a tree-fringed lake, is one of the city's great pleasures. 

The traffic is indeed crazy, filled with the constant bleating of tiny scooters, and drivers who cut you off. But bear in mind that, at around 100cc, these bikes just don't go that fast. Also regulating the traffic are old men on bicycles, conical-hatted women with yokes perched on their shoulders, and pedestrians walking slowly across the street, allowing the traffic to part around them. The atmosphere ranges from comical to annoying, but rarely is it threatening. And it's a paradox of Hanoi that the slower you move, the easier you get around. 

On the whole, I've found Hanoians to be hospitable and friendly. In two weeks I've only been ripped off once - it was a pretty sophisticated scheme in which a taxi driver had some kind of clicker that allowed him to accelerate his meter; I didn't pick up on it till we'd gone too far, and didn't have the stomach for a fight. But countering this singular experience have been the many times Hanoians have gone out of their way to help me, by showing me how to eat an unfamiliar dish, turning me up the right alley, charging me a fair local price and counting the money right into my hand. 

I believe this paints a fairer portrait of the city, as I've experienced it thus far. The first stages of expatriation are always jarring. You pull the phonograph needle off your old life in mid-song, and suddenly you're in a whole new world. No matter how exciting the new place may be, there are times when loneliness sets in. But the solution is always to step outside, and "develop interest in life as you see it" (Miller). For the person willing to accept the city on its terms, I've found that Hanoi returns the favor.


  1. great post Hal.

    No, I did not get the impression that Hanoi is a cesspool. It's a differnet world and culture than I have ever experienced first hand. You are doing a great job describing it through your eyes.

    I really enjoy reading about your adventure! and hey, sex sells! :)

  2. i agree with craig. you have given us a lively rendition of what is before you and i am enjoying it immensely. firenze was a town that could be both maddening and lovely, sometimes all at once. loneliness was always there at the edges of my walks home from the institute at 10:30pm or on sundays when everyone with a family was with theirs but it was solely a matter of leaving my flat and going out into the world. it always soothed me and it always brought opportunity.

    so, i wanna hear about your students

  3. Thank you for your portrait of Ha Noi. I have returned to Viet Nam nearly 30 times since 1990, but have not gone farther north than Da Nang. You have given me a taste of the Capital that I now desire to experience for myself. Thank you for canvassing the imagery so well.