A Vietnamese Paris with a Touch of Hectic

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam

I’d wondered if I’d like Hanoi. I’d heard plenty of praises sung by the backpacker crowd; many regarded it as very quote-on-quote cool and as somewhere they could even see themselves teaching English for a year or two. “Quaint” was an adjective thrown around a few times. I imagined it had to be a pretty hip spot for so many young Westerners to not only enjoy visiting, but actually want to live here. But then again it was another big Southeast Asian city; the clusterfucks of Bangkok and Phnom Penh loomed in the back of my mind. 

It turns out that Hanoi is similar to most cities in the best ways: the rush of zoned-in pedestrians, the overlapping, diverse neighborhoods, the fashion-forward shopping scene, the endless array of street food, and the always-pumping nightlife. But it has another edge to it, the one that emits that special quaintness that so many tourists find desirable: the strangely romantic contrast of flashy and modern glasswork beside crumbling, pastel-painted, should-be-condemned architecture on every block. Trees sprout from most sidewalks, and train tracks twist through city center, cutting a rusty river through the backyards of houses and apartment complexes on either side. The French architecture is delicate and falling apart; curled metal grates chip paint, wooden shutters are missing sections, and wide balconies have cracked glass windows. But they still give off just a hint of old Paris, even if all the signs are written in Vietnamese characters.

A pulsing energy radiates from the dirty concrete; it’s one that quickens my pace as I weave through the crowds, street chickens (seriously it’s a thing), plastic furniture, playing children, and parked motorbikes that compete for space on the sidewalks. It’s an extreme dose of that good ol’ center-of-the-world city vibe. However, here in Hanoi the sense of purpose is replaced with a desire for survival. It takes all your energy just to focus on NOT knocking other people over as you walk. And crossing the street is a real-life game of Frogger. 

I’ve never seen anything like it. The avenues are packed from edge-to-edge with motorbikes of all shapes and sizes. When you prepare to cross, you check both ways for cars, and if there are only motorbikes toward you, you just step out into traffic. That’s right. You don’t stop, you don’t look at them. You just stay straight and steady and cross the street. The bikes will slow down and adjust for you. Honestly, though, I can’t get the hang of it and have panic attacks every time. I just don’t have that level of trust in other humans, in their ability to break. Often, the only way I make it across without stopping suddenly and almost causing a traffic jam is by closing my eyes and just going, as strange as that sounds. But others just laugh at me and tell me I’ll never survive Saigon, which is supposed to be twice as hectic.