This is not a city for the faint of heart. Imagine the downtown core of a typical densely populated city, then imagine that literally every single person owns and rides a scooter as a means of transportation. Everyone. Scooters are exempt from the usual rules of direction, and ignore the distinction between sidewalk and road. They are very good at somehow missing you as you hold your breath and plunge into the street. It is really just the cars that you have to watch out for, they don't really have any room to swerve should you wind up in their path.
My flight got in late to Hanoi, I drifted in and out of consciousness for much of it, so I thought at first I was having a special moment when the captain said the local temperature was fifteen degrees. I had not planned for cool weather.
I dodged the gauntlet of sketchy cab agents at the arrival gate and boarded the cab whose driver looked least interested in taking me. This seemed to work out well compared to the harrowing experience my sister had later in the evening. The ride was exhilirating. We barelled down the highway past rice paddies and industrial complexes, weaving in between heavy trucks and scooters. I was quickly impressed by the sophisticated system of communication that rules the roads here. You honk your horn at anyone you overtake or anyone who is approaching an intersection at the same time as you. You use turn signals not only to indicate a lane change but also to show that you intend to stay in the lane you are currently in. The outward appearance is of course total cacaphony and disarray, but it is a system that allows for a remarkable fluidity of movement. By North American standards we cut off countless other cars as we rode to Hanoi, passing within finger widths of eachother, but there was no outrage and no jerking erratic response, just an exchange of horn blasts and some nimble work with the gears. It is this same organic equilibrium that seems to allow torrents of traffic to flow through the single lane streets of the Old Quarter in every direction with hardly a traffic light in sight.
I checked into our hotel, downed a couple of beers from the mini-bar and slept the afternoon away, the sound of traffic on the street below peppering my dreams with car chases and marching bands. The girls, my sister and her friend, showed up after sunset, having been given the run around by the old "pass the potato" taxi scam. Ready to see the city, we ventured out into the night, the streets humming with activity.
The Hoan Kiem lake is a popular spot for couples at night. The thick smog seemed to obscure the city around it, as if this were the last bastion of calm in a buzzing morass of sidewalk bars and sputtering exhaust. There are a few tall buildings in the old city, but these were barely visible through the haze, the twinkling edges of their neon signs like strange and distant constellations.
Around the lake and back towards our neighbourhood, getting a feel for it all and practicing the essential skill of calmly crossing several lanes of non-stop traffic. Life takes place at street level here. Vegetables are sold, washed, chopped, and sold again. Hair cut. Shoes polished and repaired. Scooters disemboweled and reassembled, their nuts and bolts scattered amongst oily rags and cigarette butts on a busy corner. It is as if every merchant holds claim to the entire sidewalk in front of their business, and if they don't use it, it becomes fair game for any other entrepreneur. I get the feeling that while it seems haphazard to an outsider, it is probably quite rigidly regulated.
The guy in reception advised us that the place at the top of the street had the best pho in the area. The "place" turned out to be a cluster of tiny plastic stools and tables laid out around a portable burner and a few bins of ingredients set on overturned crates. It was fantastic. Definitely the best I've had, and laughably cheap. I got the impression that they didn't actually get many tourists on a Tuesday night. I've actually been surprised to see that the tourists tend to steer clear of the informal sidewalk kitchens in favour of sit-down cafes that serve the same thing at twice the price. It might just be the discomfort with sitting so low to the ground.
More soup for breakfast, then off to explore the city. We walked until my legs were stiff and then we walked some more. We visited a bustling market selling a lot of mass-produced junk and then found ourselves on the wrong side of a fairly steady schedule they keep here. Everything closes for lunch, much like in Spain, and we found ourselves going from temple to museum always just a few minutes too late. We ended up south of the lake on our way to Hoa Lo prison, which was built by the French and gained notoriety for its role in their attempts to repress independence. This place is also nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton, where captured American airmen were held during the war, and according to the informative plaques, where they got to do arts and crafts and play basketball and learn about Vietnamese culture. What fun! There's all sorts of creepy propaganda like that here, but I'll get to that later.
After the prison, more soup, then beers on the balcony and an early night as all the walking caught up to us.