Just the name conjures up images and connotations. The nicest bus we’ve ever taken brought us into the heart of the beast. Traffic was insane, crossing the street seemed like more like a suicide tactic than a means of moving around. Sights and smells attacked us from all directions. You knew it was coming, and yet you are totally unprepared.
After a mini-adventure we arrived in the Old Quarter. The streets are narrow, which squeezes and intensifies the traffic like the nozzle at the end of fire hose. There’s more shops than you can imagine and everyone is jockeying for space. “Well Val, we certainly aren’t in Laos anymore.”
Despite it’s frenetic nature Hanoi has a certain charm to it. It’s been a powerful city for over 1,000 years and it has a developed culture that reflects that. Next to a 1,500 year old temple founded while Hanoi was just a village is a massive skyscraper. Next to the businessman stands the beggar. Beside the traffic lies a serene park. It’s difficult to put words to what it’s like, it repels you while it sucks you in.
We have only a two goals here. Get our visa to Myanmar and see the sites. The first goal proves impossible by ourselves, mostly because you can’t just walk in and bribe the official, that job is best left to a “visa expert” who knows exactly when the officials take their smoke break.
The second front was easy. We quickly learned how to read the traffic and how to cross the street. Despite the apparent chaos, there’s a pattern in the static, you just have to know how to look at it. We visited the temple of literature, walked past the “Hanoi hilton” and enjoyed watching the Vietnamese exercise in front of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.
Despite still being a Socialist republic Vietnam is all business these days. No one holds a grudge, our war was just one of many they’ve fought over the centuries. The style of business interaction and the culture is too much for many visitors. It certainly couldn’t have been more different than laid back Laos. Vendors are in your face and everything moves at a thousand miles per hour.
Sometimes you’re on a bus packed so tightly you wonder if you can survive to the next stop, but there’s always a local near you and your eyes meat with theirs. “Isn’t life crazy?” their look says, and their smile says “just hang on.” You do, and somehow it’s fine. Vietnam pushes you a little farther than you want to go, but you find it’s the company, the very perpetrators of the madness themselves, it’s their smile that sustains you.
Hanoi taught us to roll with the punches, to hold on tight, and to embrace the chaos.