By Merran Eby
Dense, bustling, and lively, Hanoi is a city in transition. Thanks to the sweeping economic and political Doi Moi reforms instituted by the leaders of Viet Nam’s communist government back in the 1980s, the past few decades have seen Viet Nam transform itself from one of the most war-torn and impoverished corners of Southeast Asia into a dynamic and rapidly industrializing nation. Its meteoric rise has made for not-insignificant growing pains, however, as old and new struggle to synthesize into a coherent and sustainable path towards the future. Glitzy high-end cosmetics boutiques and fashion labels jostle for space with grungy open-air motorbike repair shops and tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss it eateries selling bánh cuốn (sheets of fermented rice batter rolled around various savoury combinations of meat and vegetables) or bánh mì (sandwiches made using French-style baguettes, a popular relic of colonial history). And, of course, cafés: a national pastime. Vietnamese coffee, dark, fruity, and ubiquitous, is often served sweetened with condensed milk, coconut, or a sweet confection of egg yolks and sugar. (My Vietnamese pronunciation is abysmal, but thankfully cà phê is usually one word that needs no translation.)
Perhaps one of Hanoi’s best-known features is, however, the byzantine unspoken system that governs its traffic. Rush hour turns every major road into a seething, roiling mass that appears at first glance—and second, and third—to be a scene of utter chaos where traffic lanes seem to be more of a gentle suggestion than a strictly observed phenomenon, as the city’s five million motorbikes swerve around the few lumbering cars in their midst. (On the way home in a taxi one evening, my madcap driver decided that things were simply not moving quickly enough for his liking, and, completely unruffled, forged ahead against the flow of traffic on the other side of the street, honking all the way.) Crossing the street as a pedestrian is a similarly zen-like experience: the lack of designated crosswalks outside of more populated or touristy areas means that you are required to step directly out into traffic and walk across at a slow, steady pace, allowing everything to flow around you like water around a river stone, albeit a slightly panicky one (at least for the first few weeks). Somehow, improbably, it all works. Whatever Hanoi’s other divisions, at least its denizens are all bound by this mysterious embodiment of trust, fluid dynamics, and the universal desire to avoid collision.
Sidewalks are little more than a dusty afterthought to restaurant seating, parking for unused motorbikes, and the occasional wayward chicken, forcing would-be pedestrians to instead pick their way along the side of the street. That being said, even their raised concrete ledges will not save their charges from the ravages of flooding that have been occurring with increasing frequency in recent years. I say this with the rueful voice of experience: a few days after moving into my new house, I found myself wading home in murky water halfway up my thighs, and thinking wistfully of how it might have been more advisable to purchase a kayak than a pair of what were now, quite clearly, woefully inadequate rain boots.
Ba Dinh—the old French quarter, south of West Lake, where the UN building located, and where I now live—has been established as the diplomatic district since the time when it was still the capital of French Indochina. The larger streets, when they are not crowded with cafés, are crowded with embassies. My own short route to work goes past the embassies for Haiti, Mongolia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Brunei, and the proximity of the Japanese one ensures an unusually high (although certainly not unwelcome) selection of sushi restaurants to visit for lunch. Wide boulevards lined with soaring rows of trees provide diplomats in transit with a leafy green shield from the worst of the summer heat, and young soldiers stand watch outside their gated destinations.
The back roads of Ba Dinh are just as much a part of central Hanoi as are its sleek new high-rises and imposing compounds, however, and arguably closer to its heart. The moment visitors leave the main roads, they will find themselves in a veritable labyrinth of cul-de-sacs, sparkling ponds, and tiny alleyways, the twisting routes of which are sometimes still unrecorded by GPS mapping. Narrow, five-storey houses with a completely baffling numbering system tower over meandering lanes often barely wide enough to allow two motorbikes to pass each other; their European architectural influences are seen in a plethora of unexpectedly delicate balconies and wide French windows, as their inhabitants sell freshly butchered meat, sweets, toys, and bundles of fresh flowers and herbs from shallow woven baskets in the morning markets that happen at their doors.
I may only have been here for a short time, but already I must confess myself utterly charmed by this city. Hopefully the next six months will present many more opportunities to explore!