Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hanoi at Six Months

I flew into Hanoi exactly six months ago today, and with the exception of a short trip to Ninh Binh, I haven't left. I still remember my sense of disorientation upon arrival – the traffic coming from all directions, the hustling touts of the Old Quarter, the sheer busyness of the place – but the Hanoi I live in today bears little similarity to the Hanoi I first saw. Actually, the city has changed little, but as I've grown to know the city, my sense of it has changed a great deal. And so, I'd like to take advantage of this semianniversary, if you will, to take stock, and describe Hanoi as I see it today.

Life in Hanoi is not for those who are set in their ways. The city forces people – especially Westerners, I believe – to adapt, and adapt quickly. Hanoi comes at you with at least as much vigor as New York, though the stress it engenders is of a different kind. Where New York is the quintessence of urbanity, Hanoi maintains the feel of a village that just happens to have six million inhabitants. This fucks with your sense of timing. One moment, there's a horrendous cacophany of horns and fumes, and some kid on a motorbike is screaming past you like a kamakaze. The next moment you're waiting for a conical-hatted woman to slowly make her way down the street with her baskets of fruits. It's difficult to completely give in to either movement or stasis. The only recourse is to constantly surrender and give in to the pace the street demands.

Hanoi's landscape evokes a constant sense of its history, but the country by no means lives in its past. The government has declared its goal for Vietnam to be "fully developed" by 2020. This term becomes easy to understand when you spend days among Hanoi's crumbling facades, cracked streets, and antiquated infrastructure. Impressions vary; a visitor from the developed world is apt to see lack, while a Hanoian who experienced the privations of war might see plenty. But history and progress are kept in balance – this is evident not only in the contrast between crumbling French villas and skyscraper cranes, but in the way that tradition blends with the exhuberant energy of youth. 70% of Vietnam's population is under 30 years old; they live among these crumbling plaster walls that have clearly seen better days, but they infuse the place with an energy that is palpable.

More than any country I've ever been in, language is the lever that pries open the box. Among the foreigners I know here, the difference in experience between those who speak Vietnamese (or at least attempt to) and those who don't, is night and day. My six hours a week of classes are clearly paying dividends. I'm fully able to get my needs met, and even small-talk to some degree. Today, I found myself fairly effortlessly conversing with some neighbors I hadn't seen for a little while. Vietnamese remains the most challenging language I've ever studied, but by no means is it impenetrable. After all, ninety million Vietnamese speak it. I sometimes have to remind myself: it is humanly possible.

It's important to come to Vietnam with as few personal agendas as possible. Expectations are disappointments in training. People hoping to find in Vietnam an antidote to Western consumerism will be disappointed by its capitalist fervor; people hoping to enjoy upper-middle-class comforts will be frustrated by Vietnam's lack of amenities. I would invite visitors to make every effort to see Hanoi as it is: not as a romantic vestige of colonial France, nor as a sequence of twentieth century wars, nor as an Asian economic dragon. Hanoi is all of these things rolled together; it is the melange that gives the city its flavor. It's a hell of a ride.


  1. A photograph of cameras. Heh.
    And the lake. I love all the lakes.

    We gotta talk.

  2. Very good observations. Who says life isn't interesting?

  3. Well said! You've taken pictures of some of my favorite places in Hanoi. Brings back great memories of my very short, very fabulous trip!

    I hope your next 6 months are as great (or better) as your first 6 months have been. :-)

  4. Beautifully put - the only thing I'd disagree with is that I find this place (and this is going to sound crazy - I know) strangely serene.

    It's like all those peeping horns are just surface noise - the essential essence of Hanoi is somewhere beneath them all.

  5. Another good post. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I hope all of this blog will becomes a book. Your perceptions and musings are rich, generous, wise, kind and beautifully written. It really makes me want to get there some day!

  7. We just moved here for the first 2 months of a 2 year adventure living in Hanoi. Pete Calanni mentioned you were a friend of his and recommended I check out your blog. I agree that communication is the key to really knowing the city and its people. We only know a few words but when my 3 year old daughter drops a, "hello, thank you and good bye," in Vietnamese, people's faces light up at the attempt. I think we'll have to start taking regular lessons also. Many guide books tend to be written for Southern Vietnam. I don't need any additional help being misunderstood :)Thanks for your insights.

  8. Kiesha - A friend of Pete's is a friend of mine. You want to contact me at my regular e-mail? It'd be fun to get together and share notes about life in Hanoi! :-)

    Hope to hear from you,