First Impressions of Hanoi, Vietnam, a Second Time

Street scene in Hanoi, Vietnam

The gentle art of crossing the street came back so quickly. It’d been years, seven years, but it felt like yesterday.

Waiting for a fleeting sliver of space, waiting for that moving window of opportunity between the cars and the buses, the bicycles and the swarming beehive of motorbikes, looking right and looking left, looking left and looking right once more, you step into the street like you’ve been there before. You are confident and your motion is fluid. When you see it you go for it and you don’t turn back. You keep going forward, head swiveling side to side with every confident step, no hesitation, no herky-jerky movements, just keep going as the hive swirls around you, horns honking to announce arrival.

There’s an unspoken order to crossing the streets in Vietnam, when there appears as if there’s nowhere to cross. Nobody will stop for you, but everybody will let you cross, don’t worry, you probably won’t die.

It’d been seven years since I first picked up a Vietnam visa and headed here, but it all looked so familiar. Pedestrian sidewalks as parking lots, with valet services for sidewalk parking at some. Lives unfolded on those sidewalks: prepping and washing, eating and drinking, playing and sleeping. Most things on the sidewalks, really, except walking, because here you mostly walk in the street.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Along those streets of Hanoi, the scuffed, weathered monuments of French colonial architecture, paint chipped as with a drunken giant’s purposeful chisel, faded louvers elegant in their old age, facades pocked with laundry drying on clothes lines, wads of electrical wires here and there like balls of yarn for a tiger.

Women dressed in two-piece daysuits squat like preying mantises, wiry and wily, bubbling pots of pork broth and baskets of vermicelli and bushels of happy Vietnamese greens splayed around them like a streetside buffet. Pop-up dining rooms with folding metal tables, and “child-sized” blue and yellow and red plastic stools for chairs (easy to move when business slows and when policemen show).

Related: Eating Hanoi’s One-Dish Pony

Along those streets, packs of old men dressed in uniforms of formal shoes, slacks, and button-up collars — for many of them, some version of the same ensemble worn every day since the 70s — crowded and hunched around checkerboards and small glasses of coffee or beer. Butchers gutting, skinning, chopping, and mincing fish, eels, chickens, frogs, and pigs.

Shoe shiners, squatting, always squatting, eyeballing your tattered old sneakers as you walk by, the ones you packed specifically because they’re in tatters, sometimes flagging you down to offer your sneaks a lifeline, but often just casting concerned looks in your shoes’ direction, silently noting the flaws that need fixing.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam shoe shop

Hanoi, Vietnam motorbikes at night

And when I cross the street again, confidently, walking forwards never backwards, head swiveling like a metronome, parting with a wave of The Force the blitzkrieg of motorbikes and bicycles, of buses and cars, I’m reminded of the time a motorbike cruised by with a 50-inch 3D flat-screen television strapped to its back rack; and two stacks of five cages, each packed with chickens and roosters, some dead, some about to be; a wide pegboard cluttered with bags of goldfish; three freshly killed, over-fattened hogs; full-sized mirrors and oversized window panels; tiered wedding cakes and elaborate wedding floral arrangements; bulging bushels of apples, pineapples, coconuts, [insert Vietnamese fruit]; and I wonder whether anyone in Vietnam has ever strapped a motorbike to the back rack of their motorbike. I’m sure they have.

Seven years later it all came back so quickly, and for a moment, passage of time was nothing but fictional fantasy.

For more on Hanoi, next read “A Story About Hanoi,” a beautiful narrative about moving to and living in the city, written by Lauren Quinn for Vela.

Go here for info on a Vietnam Visa for U.S. Citizens.

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