Location: Hanoi, Vietnam, May 14th - 19th
In Hanoi – there are similar vibes to New York. It was such a welcome and familiar feeling after Siem Reap. Upon arrival, I walked through a park that surrounded a lake and so many small moments reminded me of home. Teens giggling and holding hands, older couples waltzing to Rod Stewart classics thanks to a '90s boom box. I even took a seat to watch a closed eye, beanie wearing musician (who had also lit two candles for ambience) strum his sitar and children were placing small bills into his case. Certainly, Hanoi is not New York and is very clearly in a foreign country that is still developing, but there was something wonderful about it. I think after Siem Reap’s manufactured Pub Street it was refreshing to be placed in the middle of "real" life again.
BIKES RULE, DUDE
Here in Hanoi, everyone is moving fast. As my food tour guide said --- if New York is the city that never sleeps, Hanoi is the city that never stops. And that would be correct.
Motorbikes, like most of SEA, are everywhere. If everyone had a car, you’d be sitting in traffic all day. Pricey fuel is also more efficient with one. Hai, an awesome 26 year old with a diamond stud and habit for Marlboros, was my guide for a day. He told me that it is only when one is an older adult that people can usually afford to buy cars, if at all because they are so heavily taxed. And, at that time they (the car buying adult) is so used to a motorbike, usually their children assert control over the car.
Here, there are also no regulations about the number of people or children on a motorbike. Everyone should wear a helmet, but police rarely stop you and if they do, the fine for not wearing a helmet is only a few dollars. So, you are free to get your three kids on board and load up all of your goods. It is insane how much stuff people can place on their bike. I saw oversized mirrors roll by, four kegs of beer, industrial lightbulbs, at least 12 large boxes, and a handful of crates holding chickens - each loaded up onto individual bikes that more often than not, had a few people sitting there too. I even saw small dogs who knew their boundaries, not to mention balance, sitting beneath their owner's feet on a bike.
HOW DID THE CHICKEN (ME) CROSS THE ROAD
The idea to cross the street in any Vietnamese City seems to be one that is not taken lightly. I never saw anyone with headphones in – quite unlike the USA. Headphones with music you see, dull your senses. You can’t jam to Beyonce and guarantee that you won’t be hit by moving traffic. Street lights and signs are more of a sugguestion here, so it is up to you to ensure that you, well, live.
Step 1: Desire to cross road
Step 2: See if there is anyone else with the same need that you can quietly shadow
Step 3: If you are unable to ghost someone, you need to identify a small opening in traffic. You need about a four foot gap that can allow you to step in front of a car or motorbike, which would give them enough time to see you
Step 4: Begin to walk, slowly, with your hand out in front of you as if you are one of the Supremes singing Stop, In The Name of Love.
Step 5: Keep a steady pace. Don’t stop, don’t run. Keep at your pace and people will simply “ move around you.” It is a phenomenon. But, this does means you will feel the heat of the pipes on the motorbikes as they nearly graze your arm. Again, do not break into a run. If you change your pace, you likely will be hit.
One note: City busses do not veer course. They will hit you. Find gaps between motorbikes or cars. I learned this the hard way and ran in the street. It was a close call.
Everything is happening in the streets in this town. People are social and it is insanely hot, so life exists primarily outdoors. Some people also appear to live in the back of their stores so for a bit of separation, it is best to sit outside. If you are looking for lunch, a beer, a haircut, a cobbler to fix your sandal or better yet, a new pair of sandals- all of that can be found, you guessed it … in the street.
It is a shock really when you first arrive. You're hungry, you're thirsty, you start a stroll, looking for a restaurant. They exist, yes.... but not really. Not like New York where there are a million options to sit and saddle up to the bar on every corner. Here, there a million options... at your feet - on low stools and tables that are about 1 foot off the ground.
SHOPPING IN HANOI, WHEN YOU REALIZE VIETNAM MAKES EVERYTHING
Streets, as life would have it, are also organized in a similar fashion to your local Bed, Bath & Beyond. A street, more often than not, holds a collection of vendors and stores that are all selling the same thing. Even when I was on a food tour and asked my guide where we were she told me "Bun Cha Street... Lemon Tea Street... Dessert Street." So, need a metal pole, no problem, that street exists. Same with various sizes of lightbulbs. Need one of those shelves that go around and above your toilet? Lots of stores on a single street selling that too. "North Face" pullovers with askew labels, mirrors, tubes for the pool and Disney towels, a collection of art vendors or jade bracelets sized for seven year old you ... these streets exist. Vietnam actually does make everything.
OLD MEETS NEW
Where things aren’t in the streets in Hanoi is in the newer areas. I stayed in the Old Quarter which felt like the Lower East Side had been given a dash of French architecture (lots of this in Hanoi, given the French rule from 1887 - 1954.
There are other areas where you can find luxury shopping including Cartier, Hermes and Gucci. Hai, my guide, spoke at length about how Hanoi, the capitol of Vietnam and a city founded in 1010 was very proud of its history and culturally was slower to adopt Western brands or overt signs of modernization. There is no McDonalds here yet. The younger generations are taking on Western thinking, Hai explained, but at a rate and in a manner that is respectful to the family. He will still hide his tattoos and his smoking at home. He also noted that most people here save their money to buy a home, which is different than in Saigon where flash is valued and Western brands tend to move in first, before Hanoi.
I really enjoyed my time here. It felt familiar in terms of the energy and the social nature of the people. I was in awe of the reverence for “Father” Ho Chi Minh and what was told to me of his rule and his behavior. He lived simply and in a manner that seemed to embody the idealism from which Communism was born but rarely has been seen in execution. You actually can see Ho Chi Minh’s residences as well as his preserved body (!) in the political area of town. People line up to pay their respects daily. There are temples dedicated to Confucious, a value placed on education, and overall a delicate blend of old tradition meets modern thinking. I liked it and would quickly go back.