Some places are defined by the particular sense they draw out in you.
Sometimes it’s the smell of a place that tells you you’re home or makes you fall in love with someplace new, like the way my subway stop when I lived on Lorimer St. in Brooklyn always smelled of fresh bread. Sometimes it’s the way it sounds, like the way New York City’s horns, sirens, trains, street music and stoop chatter are unmistakably New York. Or the way it feels, like the way my skin is always warm and wet and the air I breathe thick every time I step off a plane in San Antonio.
With Hanoi, though, it’s entirely visual.
It’s a full-on assault on your eyes and the urgency in that mass of movement and color has seeped into its residents, who all seem to me to be more in the mood for life than any large city population I’ve tried to stereotype in a long time. They’re chopping vegetables, drinking beer at 10am, carrying giant trays of steaming pho and rice through the street as if it was a restaurant, laughing, flirting, strolling, cutting fresh flowers, scooting around on motorbikes by the millions (literally), picnicking on the sidewalk, selling fruit from bamboo baskets and eating food that’s the color of legos.
I arrived in Hanoi at 2:35 p.m. on a Wednesday after not having slept for approximately 27 hours.
It took three airlines, three airports and an absurd eight-hour stint in a small room in the Delhi airport to cheaply make what is otherwise an easy six-hour trip from Kathmandu. I had the name of a hotel written down on a scrap of paper in my pocket, emailed to me by Michael who had arrived in Hanoi the day prior. A thirty minute cab ride later I was in the city’s Old Quarter, showered, wrapped in a towel and laying above the sheets on a hotel bed, wondering if I had the will power to stay awake until a more reasonable bed time. It was the first time since leaving New York that I felt clean.
The questions you begin asking yourself in India and Nepal about whether or not a hotel room is acceptable for you to sleep in begin to seem completely reasonable after traveling there for a couple of months. It isn’t until after you’ve left that you realize how altered your worldview has become. The question isn’t “is the bathroom clean?” or “are there bugs in the bathroom?” but, rather, “how big are the bugs in the bathroom?” Other classics include, “is there blood on the sheets?”, “does the water run?” and “how much does it resemble a prison cell?” So while laying in bed during my first hour in Vietnam, regarding my surroundings, I concluded that I had arrived in paradise. The room was immaculate, there were towels and toilet paper and even soap in the bathroom, I had yet to see any insects or rodents and the furniture was freshly lacquered and shiny.
It was during this revelation that Michael, who I hadn’t seen since Nepal, burst into the room with a look on his face that I now recognize as the standard expression of any foreigner who has just successfully crossed a street in Hanoi.
Motorbikes were introduced to the city about twenty years ago and since then have exploded onto the culture. The streets are flooded with them in an almost indescribable way – they’re absolutely everywhere, tens of thousands of them passing you by, carrying businessmen, market goods, families of five… And they don’t stop. There aren’t cross walks or traffic lights and the stream of motorbikes, cars and buses doesn’t let up. Ever. In order to cross the street, you have to step out into the river of bikes like it’s a video game and weave through the mess. When I was first expected to do this – about five minutes after Michael came into our room and announced that he wouldn’t be letting me sleep – I stood on one side for several minutes watching locals before I was willing to cross. It seemed impossible to me. The trick, I discovered, is consistency – if you stop or back up, you’re dead. If you keep going, slowly and methodically toward the other side, they’ll go around you. It unnerved me each and every time, even after three days in the city.
As a general rule, when I’m really tired I am also a raging asshole. I want to sleep and nothing seems as important to me as the pursuit of that goal. But on the streets of Hanoi I don’t think a person can help but to start vibrating with it. On that first night, tired as I was from what was creeping into 36 hours without sleep, we stayed out. Hanoi’s hunger was infectious. Its residents are hungry for everything…for food (they’re eating constantly), for fashion, for dialogue, for coffee…and for sex. The streets are dripping with it. Hanoi is a straight man’s paradise with slender, perfumed, groomed and straight-haired Vietnamese women strutting around in the shortest skirts and highest heels I’ve seen in two months. They’re giggling, flirting, flaunting and Michael became completely useless for any kind of conversation while walking the streets.
After 36 hours in the tangle that is Hanoi, we boarded a bus for the coast.