Nothing we’ve done, nowhere we’ve seen, has prepared us for the streets of Hanoi.
Our hotel was in the Old Quarter, a district of narrow streets and turn-of-the-century French architecture, absolutely jammed with people and motorcycles. Our bus was too big to navigate the few blocks to the hotel, so our luggage was crammed into a tuk-tuk and we followed Shane on foot like a clutch of frightened ducklings.
When you step into Hanoi for the first time, every sense is assailed with too much information. You smell hot pavement, the savory sent of grilled meat, a bakery, garbage, incense, exhaust fumes, hot oil spattering the sidewalk, something burning — alert! Alert! Something’s on fire! — an olfactory smorgasbord that changes, attracts, repels, and triggers panic signals with every step. People are hailing you. “Madame, madame, you buy.” “Tuk-tuk?” “Madame, only one dollar. Hello?” “Madame!” Some are hollering at each other — wait, no, they’re just speaking Vietnamese, it only seems like they’re yelling. There’s a constant rumble and roar of cars and motorbikes with no mufflers. Horns are tooting incessantly, behind you, beside you, making you jump out of your skin and jerk your head this way and that, trying to figure out which machine is about to run you over. The narrow, uneven sidewalks are nearly impassable with a clutter of signs, merchandise, parked vehicles, cooking stoves, produce, itty bitty tables and chairs, and people sitting, standing, walking, everything spilling out of the shops and restaurants, across the sidewalks and even into the street. If you dare to tear your eyes away from the ground immediately before you, for a quick glance upward, you’ll see a jumble of wires slathered across the buildings and heaped and coiled on poles leaning against the weight of so much cable, it’s a wonder it doesn’t pull the facades off.
Everyone is ignoring such conventions as driving on the right side of the road, obeying traffic signs and signals, yielding the right-of-way, or not setting up their restaurants in the middle of the sidewalk, yet the absence of carnage is a clue that there is some set of rules in operation here — you just don’t understand them yet.
Another challenge is the different norms for personal space and safety margins. A Vietnamese biker politely adjusting his trajectory to miss whacking your elbow by an inch is, to a Westerner, a brush with death. Notice there’s a path, four inches wide, wiggling between the chairs on the sidewalk. That’s wider than your foot, so what’s the problem? Do you keep bumping your head on doorframes or grasping for the nonexistent handrail next to those steep steps with the six-inch treads? You’re just too tall! And why are your feet so big?!
We make it to the hotel with many near-misses (or so it seemed to me), but no casualties. I flee to our room, exhausted and a bit overwhelmed. Asia is not an easy place.This entry was posted in Honeymoon 2013