Impressions of Hanoi

My trip to Vietnam actually began in a most quintessentially Australian manner. It was 3am, and the alarm had ended the three hours of sleep I’d had since I’d finished packing. A few more minutes of sleep were tempting… but at 4am I was facing 21 hours of transport before Hanoi, and the temptation of a last shower was greater. The resident huntsman of our house had been growing impressively these last few weeks, feeding on the web-spinning spiders which had in turn been growing fat on the seemingly magical ability of our house to produce flies in the warmer months. In any case, the huntsman had also decided to visit the shower at 3am, so I shooed him up the wall before hopping in myself.

The fan fought valiantly, but in vain. The steam condensed on the walls of the shower, and reached inexorably upwards to the roof, where the huntsman hung tenuously, his grip failing…

Apparently my scream had Bella the kelpie sitting bolt upright in the next room.

Once given some (enthusiastic) encouragement the huntsman left the shower, and was shooed out into the corridor, to continue his invertebrate eating ways.

We were dropped at the bus stop by the Bella and her human, Malte, who was there spotted by a friend of his. She was duly impressed that he’d been willing to drive down his housemates at 3:30am! Surprisingly, in spite of my arachnid-charged consciousness, I did manage to fall asleep on the bus. Flight, Bangkok, flight, Hanoi, and then a taxi through the city.

And so we were given our first impressions of Hanoi, where we were to live for the next two weeks.

Hanoi is alive. The urban district has 2.6 million people, and – as far as I can tell – all of them own motorbikes. Which they load with goods. And drive them in constant circles around the cramped historic quarter of the city. These residents, packed into 20,000 people/km2 in the highest density areas, wake before the loud speakers of the dawn, and pack up their street stalls long after dark. This is a city of perpetual movement, and the entire city seems to be constantly being built, deconstructed and reconstructed, as women in conical hats smash apart concrete for scrap metal, streets of metal working send cascades of sparks into the traffic, and the infamously mad electrical wires of south eastern Asia are being worked and reworked into submission. Life happens on the streets here, from toddlers (and sometimes adults) defecating in the gutters to wedding receptions in pop-up venues. The traffic forces itself onto pavement, and the stalls force themselves onto the street, and pedestrians can do nothing more than move slowly and predictably through the press, relying on the motorists to part around them.

Hanoi is delicious. Street stalls choke the pavement, spilling across all available space until police are sighted, when the child-sized plastic furniture, patrons and half-finished meals are magically packed into smaller legal spaces for a short time. The French legacy is evident in the dominance of coffee in the otherwise tea-oriented region of Asia, and the ubiquity of baguettes. Markets are laden with bright and aromatic bounty from the country, and chickens not far removed from their archaeopteryx ancestry prowl freely through the litter. This is not a sanitised city, in any sense. Food scraps and rubbish are thrown freely into the gutters, from which they are salvaged by women wearing face masks. While some chickens enjoy freedom, others are trussed up by their legs, and dogs are confined to cages, their eyes red from the heavy smog.

So was our experience of Hanoi, while my partner taught English at a local kindergarten. We visited Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay in the middle of this, and it was nice to return to our less touristy corner of Vietnam for a time. But that time was all too short, for we were bound north, to the mountains of Sapa.

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