Welcome to my place of dreams – Vietnam. I promised myself I would visit this country before I turned the doddering old age of 30 and now – a few months before I cross the threshold to my thirties, I have arrived in Hanoi. My boyfriend, Jeff, and I are staying in a hotel on Hang Bong Street – or is it Hang Gai? The street names change quickly and without warning in Vietnam. We are somewhere west of Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter, staying at the Phoenix Hotel. Our room is simple with wooden furniture and a large, bay window that overlooks the organized chaos that is Hanoi below.
Walking in Hanoi requires strategy. These sidewalks are not conducive to the eyes-glued-to-phone walking seen back home on the wide avenues of New York City. Here, the sidewalks are home to street vendors, impromptu shops and makeshift motorbike parking. A wrong step and you’ll be falling in snowball like effect, gathering plastic furniture, street pho and trash as you go. Waking in Hanoi requires tact and maneuvering, it takes some getting used to.
There is little by way of traffic lights in Hanoi. The streets play out like the finale of Fantasia – a brilliant bustle of color and chaos. You step off the curb and ease into traffic slowly as though sliding into cold water for the first time. You don’t stop. Every fiber in your body will revolt against walking into traffic. Every nerve will tell you to stop and hesitate. Crossing a street in Hanoi requires a manual override of logic. You walk into the street, focus your eyes on the opposite curb and move steadily across.
As you walk, the tsunami of Hanoian life – an unending flow of motos, cyclos, cars, bikes and double pannier carrying vendors – simply moves around you. They don’t falter, neither do you. You move as though you’re crossing a stream, trusting that the water will just flow around you and not take you down with it. I fall in love with Hanoi quickly. Partly because I already loved Vietnam before I arrived. Partly because it’s impossible not to. Those conical hats work the same magic on me that the tight-skirted women of the night in Bangkok work on businessmen passing through. I’m powerless to resist, enamored with the sheer thrill of being in their presence. I don’t care if Hanoi is dirty, busy, crowded or in disarray – it’s a break from routine, it’s so irresistibly different. I get into bed with Vietnam immediately.
In the morning, street vendors serve steaming bowls of noodles to locals hunched down on laughably small plastic chairs. The conical hat wearing women carry piles of fresh herbs and fruits on double panniers balanced just so over their slender shoulders and arms. The constant symphony of the city – the honking of motorbikes and cars – strays far from the “Get the fuck out of my way!” implication back in New York, instead of saying simply, “Hello, I’m here.”
The street food in Hanoi is a treasure trove; the best meals are found at one-dish, hole-in-the-wall joints with bathrooms that would send a germaphobe into crisis mode. The coffee – Jesus, the coffee – is enough to haunt you, to ruin every subsequent cup of coffee you have from now until the day you return. The egg coffee has me shaking with withdrawal like some heroin addict jonesing for their next fix.
The Vietnamese people are kind, intrigued and somehow more sophisticated in attitude than their South East Asian counterparts. A pride permeates the Vietnamese culture. There are no stray animals, no homeless souls begging in the streets – everyone is working, earning, cooking, driving, serving, hustling to live. You see it from the moment the city whirs to life in the morning. Vendors hit the streets, shops fly open, cafes start brewing and Hanoi is open for business.
I want to go back. I’m already plotting the ways I can return to Vietnam. I’m nostalgic for Vietnam before my plane even takes off. I want to peel back more layers of the country. I want to see Ho Chi Minh, travel to Hue, Ha Long Bay, Sapa. I want to take my time with Vietnam the way I haven’t needed or even wanted to with other destinations. I don’t want Vietnam to be a quickie – a fast romp in the sheets then a dash out the door. No, I want Vietnam to love me back, to drop its guard and show me all sides of its culture. Is Ho Chi Minh as wonderful as Hanoi? Is the food better in the south than the north? What is Sapa like?
I’ll be back Vietnam, I promise.
Have you been to Vietnam? Share your experiences in the comments section below!