As I wrote in My First Two Hours in Hanoi, my first impression of Hanoi was that it was "like being inside the buzzing element of an incandescent bulb." Like most visitors, I was initially based in Hanoi's Old Quarter, where the energy is non-stop. I found life among the vendors, street touts, backpackers and motorbikes exhilirating...and exhausting. As soon as I found my first apartment, my sense of the city began to change. Judging Hanoi by the Old Quarter is like judging New York City by Times Square. It's an important component, but by no means representative of the city as a whole. As I wrote in Correcting the Record on Hanoi, "Hanoi is an intimate city, a city of neighborhoods." The visitor who doesn't leave the Old Quarter entirely misses the point. It is this intimacy, this sense of the "neighborhood as village," which gives Hanoi much of its flavor and charm. Development and Change
Whether you see Hanoi as poor or rich, as developing or decrepit, depends on where you come from. Flying in from Europe or the U.S. one is apt to notice the crumbling facades, the broken sidewalks, the tangled skeins of electrical wires knotted around weathered wooden poles, and conclude that Hanoi is underdeveloped. In the year I've been here, however, I've seen the Vincom Towers open for business, the city's western edge push outward, more and more luxury cars appear on the roads. New construction projects are coming on line every day, and the government plans to double the existing amount of hotel and office space over the next five years. When you remember the poverty and devastation this country faced at the end of the 1980s (vestiges of war and government mismanagement), it's easy to see that Hanoi has taken great strides. Judged by its history, Hanoi doesn't represent underdevelopment. It represents modernization on steroids. Expat Life
There are many ways to live the expat life in Hanoi. Some foreigners nibble around at the edges. I've chosen to jump into the center of the pie. Take language, for example. A year ago I spoke no Vietnamese. After 10 months of language lessons, daily contact with salespeople and neighbors, and mingling among the majority-Vietnamese social circles I travel in, I'd place my language ability at a pre-intermediate level. I believe this has opened the door to understanding Vietnam in a way that many foreigners, even those who have lived here longer, cannot. As a prototypically high-context culture, Vietnamese social relationships rely on a strong nexus of shared assumptions and unspoken "in-group" understandings. But while Vietnamese share a strong sense of common identity, by no means have I found them to be unwelcoming, xenophobic or chauvinist. What I have found is a strong sense of well-deserved cultural pride. I call it self-respect. What this means, to the foreigner, is that to enter Vietnamese social circles, you need to do it on their terms. A basic knowledge of the country's language and history, and an appreciation for the cuisine, open the door. All you need to do is show a little interest, and respect. If you're not ready to do that, then why the hell are you here? Annoyance and Acceptance
To be sure, no place is perfect, and Hanoi at its worst could test the patience of a Buddha. Traffic, smoking, pollution, and unhappy Westerners all rank high on my list of annoyances. But beneath it all, Hanoi today feels to me like a calm city. There's little I enjoy more than strolling past a modern architectural ruin – a crumbling Vietnamese Imperial gate, or some decaying monument to French colonialism – or alongside a neighborhood lake. The city comes to life in vignettes: a conical hatted woman setting up to cook bún riêu on the street, two old men playing chess in an outdoor cafe, children kicking a beat-up soccer ball down the street. These intimate moments, set against the backdrop of a city that breathes history, are what come to mind when I think of Hanoi today.