While doing some house-cleaning on this blog the other day, I came upon a piece I wrote back in July about my first day in Hanoi. I never bothered to publish it because I’d planned on going back and breaking Hanoi into several more cohesive, thematic posts instead of one slightly disconnected one. But eight months later, I’d say the odds of my doing that in a manner unaltered by time or nostalgia are pretty slim. Still, I’ve always regretted Hanoi’s absence on this blog, since I did enjoy my time in the city. So I’m posting the original piece here now, essentially unedited. This post covers only my first day in Hanoi, so it leaves out a lot of my later experiences in the city: my visit to the Hoa Lo prison, the morning Hayley and I spent shopping around for cruises to Halong Bay, and a comically ill-advised outing to a local heavy-metal bar, to name a few. But what the post lacks in comprehensiveness, I hope it makes up for in present-moment point of view. So, without further ado, let’s take a little trip back in time.
I wanted very, very badly to instantly love Hanoi. I know that sounds silly: it’s not as if I’d ever even been to Vietnam before landing in Hanoi; it’s not like I’m some history buff who gets a kick out of seeing statues of former communist leaders in public squares. And, hey, we all know I did next to zero research before arriving. But somehow I had a picture in my head of a colonially beautiful old quarter (have I mentioned how much I love France?); wide, walkable streets; the kind of sensibly laid-out pattern that makes poor navigators such as myself dedicated “city people.”
My idea, as per usual, was that I’d fall for Hanoi simply by walking around it aimlessly. Ambling around a new city with no particular destination or time frame is one of my favorite ways to spend a day, and it’s also the surest way to send me head over heels for a place.
But walking in Southeast Asia, I’m learning, is often a test of will power over internal temperature. And besides, Hanoi’s streets were too narrow and acutely smashed together for me to release my inner flâneur. And so my aimless, solo, flip-flopped tour of Hanoi quickly ended up taking on direction as I attempted to limit my time in the sun. I don’t know if the city succeeded in seducing me in quite the way I’d hoped it would. But its energy, unexpected touches, and quirky details did manage to win me over (though that may be heatstroke talking).
Take, for example, the outdoor performance I stumbled upon just hours after arriving in Hanoi.
My first night in the city, as I made my way towards Hoan Kiem lake, this immediately caught my eye: it wasn’t the bright-red background, so much, or the microphones standing at the ready. Instead it was the fact that an entire cement island, at the convergence of two busy roads, had been given over to folding chairs and organization. Spectators were seated calmly while lighting was adjusted and sound-checks were made; motorcyclists silenced their bikes and huddled around the outskirts in attention, even as frenzied traffic continued to bottle-neck around them. And then, men in fatigues climbed on stage and contradicted what brief (and likely one-sided) war knowledge I’d gained in 7th-grade history class by warbling patriotic (I assume) anthems out into the crowd.
Also oddly charming? Water puppets.
I’d seen water puppetry described in a guidebook somewhere along the way as “Punch and Judy in a pool.” That may have been meant as a discouraging description, but I, of course, found it completely irresistible. For five bucks, I got to spend a rainy evening watching floating marionettes act out scenes from traditional Vietnamese life — tending the rice paddies, fishing, hanging out with water buffalo — while a live band worked away on instruments I’d never seen and high-pitched singers called out Vietnamese dialogue I could never hope to understand. I was enthralled.
Not quite as charming: vaguely dedicated temples, crawling with people and completely devoid of shade. I do not know why this place is called the temple of literature, though I may have overlooked any written explanations as I searched the premises desperately for water and ice cream.
A bit more my speed was Hoang Dieu road, where the local embassies are located. I’d read the words “French-style architecture” in passing somewhere, and before I knew it I was dragging my sweaty, bedraggled self out of the Temple of Literature and across town, down a tree-lined avenue with huge stone buildings in South-of-France color schemes.
And then I threw in a little more France, just for good measure.
By the time I’d finished my whirlwind first day in Hanoi, I’ll admit, I needed a cab home. And some noodles. And a 50-cent draft beer. As tough as it is getting around Hanoi, I’ll give the city this much: it certainly makes it easy to relax.