Monday, May 11, 2009

My First Two Hours in Hanoi

After the journey I've had today, which included getting soaked in a downpour, stuck in a Bangkok traffic jam, fined for my extra bag at the departure gate, and having the airport screeners take my toothpaste (the fuckers), I'm braced for hassles. With trepidation, I get off the plane in Hanoi. It's 8:30 PM and the sky is already dark.

While it has none of the technicolor glitz of Hong Kong or Bangkok, Hanoi's Noi Bai Airport looks refreshingly normal, and the officials, in their smart green khakis and bright red epaulets, move me efficiently through immigration and customs.

A man outside the baggage claim is holding a sign with my name on it. We shake hands, and he leads me to a Toyota SUV. My driver pulls out...and that's when the beeping begins. The guy just can't lay off his bloody horn. Short, flatulent bursts whenever we near another vehicle, or when someone nears us, but also, as if afflicted by an automotive Tourettes Syndrome, he beeps at random moments, when nobody else is around.

Outside the airport, the buildings are few and far between, but they become thicker as we approach Hanoi. Faded two- and three-story modernist structures with painted Vietnamese lettering, a few open food joints, some dark display windows with Caucasian mannequins staring blankly at the Asian night. 

We roll on further, and the motorcycles start to join us, farting gnats darting between the cars, jockeying for position. Everyone's on their horns now, including my driver, who's really gotten into it. I shoot him a glance, half-expecting to see Gomez Addams deliriously honking away, but he's cool as a meadow, driving with one hand, thumb resting on the horn. 

I can barely look at the buildings anymore; the traffic has become the show. We come to our first Hanoi intersection, and a hundred motorcyles, cars, and trucks randomly shuffle together, and spit out in forty directions. Wheee!!!! Beeping and veering and jostling, and everything's too close for comfort. I smile to keep from screaming my head off.

He veers us off the main drag and we enter Hanoi's Old Quarter. We're in an impossibly narrow passageway, choked with merchants and pedestrians. At a bend in the lane, we park before a modern-looking hotel. Two young guys come out to take my luggage, I thank my driver, and approach the hotel desk. 

The kid behind the counter has a kind smile. "Ten days?" he asks. I answer, "I suppose so." I'm led up a narrow staircase to a seventh-floor walk-up. I leave my lungs on the fourth floor, and by the time I reach my room, I'm crawling. The room's clean, though, with a TV, refrigerator, computer, and Chinese armoire, and the bathroom is immaculate. I don't even mind the stairs, this will do just fine.

I take a moment to catch my breath, and then head downstairs in search of food. I ask the kid behind the desk where I can get a good bowl of pho, and he points to a cubby-hole a few doors down. "Good?" I ask. "Very good," he replies. The kid's not kidding. I sidle up to the end of a metal bench and a woman hands me a bowl of steaming goodness. Oh man, this broth is rich. I give it a dash of chili sauce, toss in some pickled garlic (making sure to slosh in some of the vinegar), give it a stir and begin to whimper like I'm making love. Hassle me all you want, Vietnam, if you're going to feed me like this, I will gladly be your bitch.

The young man sitting next to me starts to talk with me in broken English. He gives me a card and takes down my e-mail and buys me a cup of iced tea ("If you want to be Vietnamese, drink tea"). When it comes time to pay for my soup, I accidentally hand over ten times the price; the soup vendor politely points out my error and gives me the correct change. I'd been warned ahead of time that everyone would try to overcharge me, that I'd be constantly fighting over money. These experiences will undoubtedly come, but I'm thankful that my first interactions are kind. 

Fortified, I decide to check out the neighborhood. Things for sale everywhere. Merchants sitting in open storefronts, sandwiches on corner food carts, plastic-tarped clothing stalls, and skewered chicken feet on portable charcoal grills. Vietnamese and foreigners on low plastic chairs at street-corner Bia Hoi (beer) joints. Nearly everyone is smoking. I decide that my mission is to find Hoan Kiem Lake and have a celebratory cigar. 

The street action is incessant, like being inside the buzzing element of an incandescent bulb.  I can't go ten feet without being accosted by someone. "Hello, cyclo?" "Taxi?" "You want massage?" One cyclo driver is so certain I need to get laid he accompanies me the whole length of the street. I'm trying to walk with a purpose, but I have no idea where I am, and a few right and left turns leave me exactly where I started. Deep breath. Try a different alley. In theory, I'm about a block from the lake, but it takes me half an hour to find it.

I sit on a park bench, and before I can reach for my cigar two giggling teenage girls want to have their photos taken with me. Sure, why not. The girls take turns snuggling up to me - not shy about physical contact, these kids - and snapping pictures on their cell phones. We attempt to talk but the language barrier is unbearable. I appreciate the cuteness of the moment, but I'd really like to relax and have my cigar, so I get up and resolve to walk around the lake. In ten steps I realize they're willing to accompany me, so I decide it'd be better if I head back to my hotel. The girls and I giggle our goodbyes, and I start to walk back home.

Within seconds another man is on me, convinced I need a massage. I must be covered with shit because the flies keep landing on me. No thank you, nope, no...then a motorcycle driver slows down next to me, his passenger a young Vietnamese woman with heavy make-up. I make the mistake of meeting her eyes, and she gets off her bike "No sister, really, no thanks," I smile before she can get a word out her mouth, and put my homeward journey into hyper-gear. 

So much has been going on I've hardly even noticed the buildings. I spot a lovely, low stucco house with a carved dragon on its gable. A relic of Hanoi's past. I pause to look at it and two cyclo drivers converge on me at once. But I can't get my eyes off the carving; it's exquisite. And that's when the drivers become background noise. I smile, I'm not rude, and I'm not at all upset. And I realize that to survive here, I'm going to have to learn many things.


  1. Very funny images, very vivid throughout, very fun read. Keep it up. =======Ricardo.

  2. had me in stitches...then i heard the buzzing and felt the amped up jittery-ness of it all...

    when do you start teaching?

  3. I've never been aware of those things in my country, but it's the distinction of it.Crowded, busy, everyone has their own thing, their own "???" and that's Vietnam, beautiful but gross

  4. I enjoy reading your posts aloud to my Vietnamese wife and her sister in the late evenings when all is quiet and our imaginations are in gear. It is easy for each of us to visualize the scenarios you describe as I try to inflect the proper punctuation and emphasis I think you intended. Often we have to stop briefly and laugh together because we understand the reality of what you shared, having gone through similar situations ourselves. I pretty much avoid the "Tourist Traps" in Vietnam and much rather enjoy life as close to native Vietnamese life as I can.