heartfelt hanoi

i’m falling a little in love with hanoi, but i can’t help it. after all, it’s hard not to be won over by a city that’s so unapologetically insane. with its giant mash-up of chinese, french and american influences, it’d be easy to write it off as derivative, yet somehow it is still wholly unique unto itself.

first of all, i didn’t think it was even possible to have crazier traffic than beijing, but somehow they’ve managed that feat impressively. scooters outnumber cars about 10 to 1 and the few traffic lights which exist are really just a big waste of electricity. here, drivers slow down for nothing and no one – and they sure as hell don’t stop. crossing the street without wetting your pants takes pure nerve, and provides an adrenaline rush which equals any daredevil stunt. we’ve already witnessed accidents and innumerable near misses, and it’s small comfort that if you *do* get hit, at least it will likely be a motorbike, and will probably hurt less than being hit by a car. actually hiring a motorbike (as we’ve done in other cities) would fall under the category of “adventure sport”, and as such, is specifically precluded under the terms and conditions of our travel insurance. walking around is excitement enough.

and you have to walk *in* the street because the primary function of the sidewalks is as car park for all the millions of motorbikes. the pavement which is *not* overrun by bikes is instead comandeered by sidewalk cafes. not sidewalk cafes in the western sense, mind you, but eateries where all chopping, cooking, boiling and grilling is done only inches off the sidewalk while crouched over tiny fires, and the seating consists of miniscule plastic stools. noodle soups, skewered meats, corn on the cob (asians *love* corn on the cob, it’s everywhere!), steamed rice, roasted banana leaf parcels – all prepared and consumed just inches off the pavement and only feet from the zooming scooters and fetid gutters.

which is really only disturbing when you get back after a day of walking and find your feet completely blackened. as a bit of a foot snob, i’ve taken great pains to keep my toesies clean and tidy, my heels smooth. but hanoi has presented a mighty struggle, and i’ve resorted to using an old toothbrush to scrub them. the streets are really gross.

but so much about hanoi is enormously appealing. the shops full of exquisite silk dresses and handbags, beautiful laquerware and wood carvings. the unfailingly delicious food and genuinely friendly people. the city which is still laid out by speciality: tinworks and hardware, banners and ceremonial needs, clothing and shoes. the vestiges of french architecture found cheek-by-j0wl with ancient community temples and concrete communist party monstrosities. croque monsieur sandwiches, curries and stir-fries. hecklers shouting “madame!” and then plying their services in u.s. dollars. women wearing traditional straw field hats balancing huge baskets of fruit while listening to an mp3 player. hanoi is all these things and more – a city of contrasts and culture clashes and chaos.

and it’s wonderful.

(photos to follow soon – internet in vietnam is again limited and censored by the regime, so uploading is a p.i.t.a….)

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