Imagine a city that blends the modern with the medieval at every turn. Lonely Planet accurately describes it as a city of “Parisian grace and Asian pace.” The heady smell of incense intertwines with the cloying fumes from motorbikes. The incessant honking and hum of engines blends in with the gentle chimes of bikes. A woman walks by with a rice hat, balancing her wares on a bamboo pole over one shoulder as she gracefully crosses the street, the teeming swarm of bikes and mopeds parting as she crosses. In Hanoi, history meets modernity. You have the mystery of the Far East and the complexity of twenty-first century Asia, marrying together in a city filled with wonder. The streets overflow with traffic; heaving and overflowing in a senseless disregard for any form of order, all against a perfectly symmetrical landscape of architecture.
Hanoi is a city that has lived. The culture gives a feeling of tenacity, the people here persevering over countless invaders. They have built and rebuilt their buildings, forged their own identity and held onto their own beliefs despite the desperate attempts other countries have made to take them. There is a nod to the French in the architecture and a hint of Mongolian in the language. It is a city that has not forgotten, but embraces their identity.
Rather than point fingers in blame, they celebrate their history and ancestry. The message in the city is peace. Richly steeped in heritage and acknowledging the horrors that they’ve endured with a tenacity that illustrates the determination of the human spirit, Hanoi is a beautiful balance of new and old.
I had been too tired to appreciate the city until our first day. Awaking in our guest house room at dawn, the air was punctuated by a loud and mechanical megaphone, announcing something repeatedly in a language that was still so foreign to my ears. It played the same insistent warning and I quietly crept from the bed to peer from our balcony at the old quarter below.
The city stretches out, busy even at dawn as vendors hurry to markets and peddlers gather their wares. We head downstairs and eat a western breakfast and make our way out into the city.
Everything that you can read about the traffic in Hanoi is absolutely true. You don’t really understand what they’re talking about until you’re faced with the streets. They are infested with bikes and mopeds and cars. People don’t honk to let you know you are in the way; they honk to inform you they have no intention of stopping or slowing. The noise is incessant. A haze hangs over the city, making it look grey and overcast despite the oppressive heat. I give up on trying to figure out how hot it is, because everything is in Celsius. The temperature, like the exchange rate, become two things my brain will not convert for the entirety of this trip.
On every corner are people wanting to sell you something. Be it a ride or a photo opportunity or a fan… (so many little paper fans) people identify us immediately as western and they zero in to attempt to close a sale. Without any idea where to head to after leaving the hotel, we decide to check out the Old Quarter. Motorbike taxis (xi om) can be found on virtually every corner in Vietnam. They are usually more than willing to offer anyone a ride, even if it’s just half a block down the road — for a minimal fee of course. Also, motorbikes are used for almost all transportation in Hanoi. From a family of four to a furniture delivery, they manage to find a way to fit it all on their bikes. Its not unusual to see drivers eating or sleeping on their bikes, either.
Its only a few blocks away from our guest house, so we walk. Most of the things in Hanoi are close together and, similar to US East Coast cities, you can get almost everywhere on foot provided you don’t mind. The Old Quarter is beautiful, with shops surrounding Hoan Kiem lake. Hoan Kiem actually translates to “Lake of the Returned Sword” and it serves as an iconic focal point of the city as well as a social hub. At the center of the lake is the beautiful Ngoc Son (Jade Mountain) temple, which can be reached by crossing a red bridge standing out in bright contrast to the grey of the sky and the green of the overhanging trees. One of the most recognizable images is that of the Turtle Pagoda, which is linked to the legends of the lake itself. Shops crowd in tightly, one packed on top of the other. Some of the names are immediately recognizable: Gucci, Aldo, Burberry. Sadly, even with the exchange rate I can’t afford these brands.
The lake is transformed at night, with the twinkle of lights sparkling off the dark waters. All of the benches around the lake become date-night destinations and happy couples cuddle and watch the lights over the lake. Every tree houses some form of lantern or tiny twinkling light, and the pagoda is lit in shifting colors. Honestly, I was expecting fireworks or a water parade to start up at any moment. It was like Epcot Center, only a foreign country.
We weave our way through a night market, where every kiosk hosts a pile of product and everyone has a deal to be made. We keep our bags close and attempt to make sure we stay close to each other, as the people press in on all sides. There’s the smell of sweat co-mingled with the smell of roasting meat. Around every turn is another bargain, so much that it almost becomes overwhelming.
We soak up the city, the chaos and ceaseless honking woven in with the mystery and tranquility of the lake. I find myself drifting in my own thoughts as we find our way back to our guest house, confused at how I could be so attracted to a city that made me feel so much like an outsider. Hanoi held me at arm’s length that first day, and I curled up in bed to fall asleep within minutes despite still feeling so separate from my surroundings.