Hanoi

2018

7 min read by Dmitri and Betty. Published in Essays & Stories.
Under a tree, at the Hoàn Kiếm Lake.

Hanoi’s architecture, transport, and people comprise an experience that embodies the ridiculous construction sprouts of northern China, the population density of Tokyo, entrepreneurial spirit of New York, and living standards of Southeast Asia.

Much of the action happens on the street. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks, talks, sales, smokes, commutes. All this commotion forms into a complex and coarse visual poetry that locals know well to appreciate.

Crossing such roads on-foot feels like wading a river of large metal objects as they intelligently attempt to avoid colliding with you. A similar experience to being tossed by people in the mosh pit at a rock concert.

On the street, I saw a white girl with a crooked smile, and wide, wondering eyes full of confusion. At that moment, she was the living embodiment of the tourist’s experience: culture shock. Or, a heat stroke.

Hanoi is dense, busy, loud, with roads full of ludicrous, helmet-less riders. Aside from hundreds of motorbikes passing by every given minute, some will occasionally run a red light or perform aggressive weaving through a perpendicular stream of Vespas and Hondas. Crossing such roads on-foot feels like wading a river of hefty bipedal objects as they surround the walker on all sides while in motion. A similar feeling to being tossed around in the mosh pit at a rock concert.

This photo was taken at an incredibly busy “hole in a wall,” which only served phở. There are no individual tables. Get in, get out. The food is delicious.

I’ve been explained by my Vietnamese-American friend, Lewis, that food is an inescapable topic of conversation in Vietnam. In Hanoi, his sentiment rings with the endless selection of French bread, fresh vegetables, and smoked meat in almost every dish, making for a healthy, flavourful balance.

The boy in the foreground is my bartender, I am his customer.

Hanoi is full of action. All up-front, all on the streets. The city is in a state of a constant conjugation as all pour out onto the roads, sidewalks, and doorsteps every morning.

Driving, walking, building, patrolling, eating, dining, tea drinking, beer drinking, smoking, waiting, watching, talking, meeting, sleeping.

Eventually, I got desensitized to the fast, erratic street life and started to see through the veil of the Hanoi frenzy. Quiet side streets, where people calmly enjoy their gardens. A thoughtful, stare of the drivers as they navigate the road chaos. Vendors, waiting for customers or diligently preparing the meals for the patrons. Men getting their hair cut, without exchanging any words with the barber.

Our societies vary wildly. Many such differences are expected, like language, others are strange and peculiar. Be it the curious prominence of a mouse-deer in Malaysia, an odd predominance of the colour yellow in Singapore, or the abundance of Russian artefacts in Hanoi.

English is rarely spoken here, if at all. Most of it is transactional sentences made by sellers, hotel staff, and tour guides. I’ve been asked if I speak French on a number of occasions, instead.

One day I’ve got to have a brief conversation in Russian with the guesthouse owner. As I explored the city further, the familiar Cyrillic letters and the cultural symbols form my former homeland revealed themselves randomly. Could the relationship with Russia have retained its importance all the way since the Vietnam War?

A bottle of sunflower seed oil from Russia. I remember those from when I was a kid growing up in Moscow.
Styrofoam model of Sobor Vasiliya Blazhennogo, a prominent Russian church that stands in the middle of Red Square.

Clearly, Russian relics are not the only things worthy of intrigue. The city of Hanoi resembles a fast-paced TV series with new twists on the story every other episode with something for every newcomer to notice.

Four years ago,

Hanoi 2013.

My wife and I spent three months travelling around Vietnam — north to south. A few things seem to have changed since. The country today has more cars, a new fad of owning tiny pet dogs, and an ever-increasing rate of construction. At the core, however, it still remains to be the place with the best street food in Southeast Asia, and an insanely busy appearance of life that can still be tuned out as background noise and enjoyed at a slow, lazy pace.