‘Welcome to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam!’ the sign screamed at me. I’d left England two days before and had only just arrived in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. It was past 10pm but the temperature remained stubbornly above 30 degrees.
As can be expected from wearing the same clothes for two days – not washing and sweating out a pre-departure hangover – I smelled appalling and looked questionable. In the close confines of the small airport my fellow, more civilized looking, passengers afforded me plenty of room. There had been a problem with my visa at Heathrow and my stomach was again in knots. The official document had been printed on an A4 sheet but the very edge had been cut off. The missing two millimeters apparently showed what year the visa was set to expire.
I nervously approached the visa desk – in much the same way I would a bomb – and handed over my documents.
‘Excuse me I have a small pro…’. The man took my passport and visa and walked away. Right. OK then. The visa desk was actually a fully glass paned room. Documents were deposited at one end and retrieved from the other. Inside was a conveyer belt of activity. One person opened the passport to the correct page and passed it down. The next typed on his computer. The next attached a visa, and so on, and so on. Behind them sat three ‘supervisors’ who never left their armchairs. I walked to the other side and joined a group of people milling around like unsupervised cattle .‘I guess this is socialism at work?’ a man, who was a lot larger than necessary, mocked much too loudly behind me. I cringed and took a step away.
My heart was thundering now as I watched my passport make its agonizingly slow route down the belt. But to my surprise, everything went seamlessly and I was soon finished. I left the loud-mouth standing at the window red faced, screeching at the man behind the desk – who had the most wonderfully impassive ‘Go f^% yourself’ look on his face.
The next few days were bewildering. A chaotic city like Hanoi is hard to get to grips with as a tourist; but I also had to start work. I’m an English teacher, and within two days of arriving I was introduced to my first students. Teaching eighteen manic 10 year olds while your head still feels like it’s in three separate time zones is, well, just about as bad as it sounds. First impressions are not always correct – which in this case was excellent because I genuinely assumed they originated from the testicles of the anti-Christ. In fairness it probably had more to do with my blurry, tired mind than them. What they must have thought of this mumbling, stuttering excuse for a human being is anyone’s guess. Even within that first lesson it soon became apparent that they were in fact just extremely energetic, friendly young children – who, as far as I know, are no relation to the Dark Lord.
It was a testing time. My usual excellent sense of direction seemed to have been deposited somewhere on the flight over – possibly after that spicy beef dish. More times than I care to say I was left by the side of the street, clutching a crumpled map and squinting at road signs. Phan Dinh Phung; Nguyen Tri Phuong; Tran Nhat Duat. Sigh. Where f*^& am I? All while my body did its best to systematically drown itself in sweat.
The search for a place to live was also littered with sick laughs. An email from a prospective landlord told me: ‘The house is number 26C on NGO 35 which is at the end of NGO 210 on Tran Khat Chan street’; try putting that bad boy into Google maps. NGO I latter discovered is a small lane of such; but I never did find this house and to this day doubt its existence.
My first rush hour experience was genuinely horrifying. As a western pedestrian we are conditioned to believe the pavement is our right – our sanctuary. Whatever carnage is unfolding on the road; you’re safe here. Past 5pm in Hanoi the rules change. I did not receive the memo. I glanced up to see motorbikes charging towards me. I froze – should I run away? Could I actually out-run a motorbike? In terms of a visual image; I believe the wilder beast stampede in the Lion King – when Mufasa dies – probably describes it best. I’m certain I saw some of the drivers snarling and foaming at the mouth as they pointed their hellish chariots in my direction. Every pre-natal instinct screamed at me to get on the floor. Curl into a ball! But I stood frozen as the they rocketed past me. The wave soon passed and I staggered into a café where I was greeted by an elderly women who gave me a toothless chuckle and ushered me into a seat. A beer was hastily placed in front of me without me even asking.
It was a week until I felt settled in the city; and then completely fell in love with it. The old quarter is one of the most thrilling places I have ever experienced. Not simply a place to visit; it’s a completely fascinating sensory assault. The area is, of course, absolute insanity – complete bedlam and not for the faint-hearted. The narrow suffocating streets are filled with an incredible abundance of activity. Humans, animals; motorbikes, cars, everything has its own path and yet everything seems to merge into one cascading river of thunderous movement. Hold your breath; jump in, and let yourself be swept along. It’s glorious fun.
The items for sale are simply staggering. Need a ten foot Buddha? No, but thank you for asking. I was stopped by a young man yesterday who proposed an excellent deal on a pack of ten microscopes. I don’t need ten microscopes, few people do; but was sure to make a mental just in case. Charmingly, the street names in the old quarter carry the items that are, or often, used to be sold there. Hang Non – Hats. Cham Cam – String instruments. My favorite: Hang Ruoi – Clam Worms and the wonderfully morbid; Lo Su – Coffins. Many of the streets have changed, but it’s still common to find yourself on a road where every shop sells exactly the same thing. Tinned paint street is worth skipping.
Smells swerve chaotically from raw meat, to spices, to sewage; to seafood; to feces (uncertain what); to incense. And anything you could possibly imagine in-between. The Old Quarter leaves you panting for breath in the most exhilarating of ways. The many lakes, beautiful temples and elegant French Colonial houses provide a welcome respite from the madness.
The people are almost exclusively warm, friendly and incredibly accommodating. People have ran after me because I have paid them far too much. Helped on the bus numerous times when I start to look at my map a little to frantically. I have befriended an elderly women who sells vegetables on the street. She refuses to give me what I buy unless I can say it in Vietnamese. My attempts are always received with a high pitched giggle. A few weeks ago I walked past a government building with a soldier standing outside in a guard box. He was young and clean cut; an AK-47 casually slung over his chest. When he saw me he beamed and waved frantically from his compartment – an image that was surreal as it was heart-warming. The Vietnamese smiles are as wide as their country is narrow.
As the sign in the airport announced in the most boisterous of ways; Vietnam is a Socialist country. I’d love to explain it a little more but the few banners, posters and flags aside it’s difficult to pick out exactly what socialism is here. The Vietnamese sometimes appear poor but rarely destitute. People are making money everywhere you look; maybe not huge amounts but the Dong is certainly flowing freely.
It is of course careful to avoid the images of capitalism, you rarely see a coca cola sign – and considering the contentious issue the first Burger King opening became – I think it’s a fair to say it will probably be a while before we see the golden arch rising above Hanoi’s skyline. Though you do see an abundance of authorized Apple Product sellers in the City. And by authorized I mean they have painted a picture of an apple onto a board and written the desired words underneath. A few have even spelt it correctly. The lines are constantly being blurred to the point of almost no distinction.
It’s difficult to see it going in any other direction; the brakes are on but it’s certainly picking up speed down-hill. Good or bad; it’s not for me to decide. The Vietnamese will follow their own path. In which ever direction they travel it can only be hoped that they can retain their tradition and history. To those who cry foul when developing countries choose to become more westernized; take a long look at yourself – and at your life – before you rebuke those who dare to wish for something different. The world isn’t perfect. Get over it.
Hanoi is certainly not without its negatives. The traffic as already mentioned is horrendous. Subsequently the pollution is thick and grim. That unnatural tickle in your throat can be only one thing. There are also of course scams and inflated prices for foreigners but you quickly understand the tricks of the trade. If anything these are just part of this crazy city’s charm.
The city is a dizzying concoction of the absolute absurd, the truly wonderful and the utterly awful. Together it makes up an unforgettable, electric experience. Hanoi plays by its own rules. We are a speck of insignificance to this raging beast. We’re merely along for the ride. The creature writhes as its own pace. So jump on – and hold on for dear life.