Hanoi is a beast of a place. Like a machine it hums under the surface even when you think it should be sleeping. There are thousands upon thousands of moving parts, lives that all overlap and weave around each other. The roads are the veins of a heart-attack victim sliced open on an autopsy table, thick with congestion. Noises previously unheard permeate into my skull through ears thoroughly beaten by the sheer force of them. An innumerable number of motorcycles, chiming their own little chaotic melody to the heavens, haunt us as we walk down the street. We jump without meaning to, cross roads like we don’t care if we’ll be hit, and try to find some semblance of serenity.
Here, the sky seems lower than the countryside, and in the morning the fog and smog hang all around our eyes like a veil, shielding the city from view. Like all cities, this weighs on us and we resolve not to stay. But at the end of our trip we have only so many days left together, and so Hanoi becomes the backdrop of our last Vietnam adventures.
Mostly, we wander and people watch. These two activities have become the ultimate time-filler. For us there is no end to the entertainment gathered from sitting in cafes, on park benches, or even walking around, and seeing just how different people are everywhere. We invent stories for their lives, and in the moment between spotting them on the horizon and having them pass us, become attached to that little reality of their existence. Narratives become more outlandish the more we stick to our game, and soon these ordinary people are moulded into extraordinary lives. Perhaps it is easier to feel like you have power in a city in which everyone seems anonymous.
Hanoi’s buildings are an interesting mix of modern and antique. The modern ones are like lego blocks on the horizon. Too high and smooth without windows to break their impregnable faces. They might be intended as silent sentinels but to me look more like prison guards. Cold, hard and towering above us as though any minute they might think to crush us into nothing. But the antique buildings, they are a world apart. In Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where we make for ourselves a temporary home, most of the buildings fit into the latter group. They are unapologetically falling to pieces, but oh what grace. With concrete crumbling off colonial facades they are artworks beginning to crack under the test of time. Shuttered windows, arched entrances, beautiful columns and decorative cornices. Yet everywhere there is a sense of poverty wigging through the gaps. Roofs are tin or corrugated iron monstrosities that flap when the wind is up. On balconies built perhaps for their views, laundry is hung in unintentional sculptures of lines and pegs. Sheets flap off the sides, threatening to entangle themselves on the power lines that run between and around houses like so many threads of a spiderweb. Looking up from the street the sky looks like geometric art made reality as the lines cross the blue in a thousand different shapes. That, coupled with the oxygen deficiency of smog, makes the whole city of Hanoi feel like one crazy fever dream that we’re just waiting to wake up from. We hold out for the light at the end of the horizon, streaming in from our partially opened eyelids. When we finally pry them open, this is what we see.
We capture those little moments of serenity with more ease after we’ve grown comfortable inside our Old Quarter territory. Despite the busyness we find it possible to seek out happy places. Benches beside the Hoàn Kiếm Lake where we sit and watch the world spin, sidewalk exploration in the earlier hours of the morning, backstreets away from the road where we pretend to know where we’re going. Pieces of history lay scattered around the streets here like discarded ideas. There’s an ancient gateways leading to the monolithic freeway, and walking through it is like momentarily disappearing into another time stream. Such is the nature of Hanoi.
Tiny cafes and coffee houses populate every alley and side street. There seems to be no end to them, but their generic nature gives way to subtle differences as the days stack up. We snack constantly, wandering the streets looking for all the best Hanoi has to offer. Little stalls sell deep fried everything, an Asian staple, but Hanoi delivers so much more than that. There’s the delicious Bánh mì, stuffed to bursting and grilled on a busy street corner. Think French baguette crossed with Vietnamese traditional meat cold cuts with grilled meat and salad trimmings. When the morning chill cuts our tropical skin, steaming pots of Phở, soup filled with glass noodles and the ever present (but oddly scrumptious) mystery meat, call to us. On our daily walkabout there’s steam buns, rice paper rolls, Vietnamese savoury pancakes, and of course doughnuts to be had at every turn. Let it never be said that we went hungry in Hanoi.
Our time slowly comes to an end, grinding to a stop as cars might when we (ignoring them with as much confidence as we can muster) step out onto the roads to make our crossing. Days that at first seemed so long fly by into the distance, and the noise of the place swallows everything. Soon we have but one day left in a city we’re still not sure we really love, or hate. Finally it seems, we know what to do. One more lap around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, one more bowl of noodles in our favourite cafe, one more broken promise for no more doughnuts, one more death-defying street crossing and then we’re on our way, in a taxi and airport bound. Until next time.
This post originally appeared on BarefootBeachBlonde.com, the pre-evolved version of Maps And Mandalas. I’ve republished it here with its original date because I love it that much.