Hanoi Vietnam Travel Writing; photos and videos from Hanoi coming next. If you’re interested in travel tips and travel blog from Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, check out Rolling Coconut’s post. Or if you plan to visit Vietnam, see the Vietnam section to view all stories.
From the first glimpse of Vietnam, I know I’m to enjoy this country. Smog has remitted, sunny afternoon shines, millions of bright green paddies squared and triangled below…
Then the taxi driver asks, as he nudges the guitar case into the car trunk: “Is this to do some spanking in bed?”
I’m puzzled by the perverse albeit innocuous train of thought of the cabbie. Notwithstanding, step in the cab, reassured by the presence of two new friends, S and M.
Met S, a talkative expat, in plane and socialized. Run into her again at the airport exit. A good thing, because her boyfriend, M, soon showed up to pick her up with said cabbie.
They’re both very talkative. In a fun, spirited way.
M comes from a mixed background, to say the least. He was born in Vietnam from Algerian parents and brought up in a Francophone environment (Algeria used to be a French territory, whereas Vietnam used to be a French colony).
Upon the opening of the Algerian Consulate in Vietnam, his father, an Algerian military man, was transferred to work here as a driver.
After a few years, M’s mother was able to join his father, working as a janitor at the consulate. The rest, as they say, is history. M’s brother now works there too, in the IT division.
I watch the distant houses scroll by the window, faded billboards, as the taxi rattles onwards on the rather ordinary highway.
S is working for a French company building a dam in Laos. From there she can travel cheaply and regularly to Hanoi. The couple is evidently close, intertwining their fingers with the joy of reunion, and immediately at ease sharing some of their intimate stories:
“I once made the mistake of finishing the last slice of pizza,” confesses M.
“Things did not go well,” admits S, manifesting some residual anger, even years later, at the painful recollection of the final slice’s disappearance.
“She was so angry I had to go out the next day and get her bicycle fixed.”
They’re getting married in August.
“The first time he visited me in France, he met with my parents. Because he’d never set foot in the country, his French was a bit awkward.”
“I remember meeting her father and asking: ‘Can I take your daughter?’ ”
To which the good-natured father replied: “Well, you son of a gun, I sure hope you already have taken her.”
Coco and I ease into the backseat with a smile. I rejoice at the smell of adventure lingering in the air, I like the feeling of discovering a new country, a new part of the world. Southeast Asia. Former Indochina. Images from childhood reads conjured.
The kinky taxi driver drops off our two friends. We make plans to meet again during our stay in Hanoi.
Drive by the lake on our way to our Couchsurfing host, who resides not too far off the city center; flushed and colorful houses, whose architecture and facades dates back to the French colonies of Indochina.
Meander through narrow and hidden side-streets in search of our host’s house. She greets us with a smile. She’s fairly young, eager to learn more about the world outside of her hometown and Vietnam. A bit stand-offish. I’m impressed.
She shows us to a set of couches in the living room, which is decorated with traditional taste. That evening we gather with her family in the kitchen, and her mother teaches us how to make spring rolls, quickly dipping the rice paper into a bowl of water, then folding the fresh vegetables, slices of carrots and cucumbers, into the paper before it sticks.
Her kind father offers to take us around town for a night drive. My mind wanders sleepily. A cathedral. Young people gathered in the hot night in front of a famous ice-cream shop.
Legions of scooters – see an accident on our way out, a motorbike locks its front wheels, the driver lifted off and to the ground. Luckily he’s not too badly hurt. We witness at least three or four minor accidents in our first days.
Despite being many people’s most valuable possession, a means of transport, an access to work opportunities, and a way of life altogether, the scooters are donned in their sober industrial coating.
After visiting the Philippines and its Jeepneys, Indonesia and Bali and its multitude of temples, as well Laos and its gold-sheathed aura of Buddhism, I wonder at this lack of personalization: does Vietnam have less of a culture or ornaments, or could it be a remnant of the standardized past of Communist North Vietnam? Speculations.
There is however, an undeniable and prevalent culture of commercialism accompanied by a keen sense of salesmanship, paradoxical as it may seem in a country with a Communist heritage. This isn’t paradoxical: in my humble opinion, such a State-induced context only contributes to exacerbate people’s innate thirst for personal profit – much like China.
Coco is quick to point out the coquettish-ness of Vietnamese women, cocking their hair with their hands and batting their eyelids at their mirrors, or, more modernly, at the front camera of their cell phones. Dreaming of their prince charming.
The men? Not so much. They wander shirtless, patting their full bellies as they walk or loiter around the streets. The women are in charge, tending the shops and storefronts.
We eat at a very local bar, seated on stools inches high, on the sidewalk. The Vietnamese who surround us drink and talk vigorously. S. and M. join us, along with a few local friends. We laugh into the night, wallowing in beer pints. M. takes us to a nearby Pho – Coco and I slurp it ravenously… we’re drunk
the party needs to move elsewhere, before we know it, the three of us are riding in the back of M’s motorbike, back to the town center, glazed and happy, cautious however, in recollection of the accidents we’ve witnessed…
We part our own ways, tell our friends we’ll see them again soon, and wish them a happy wedding.
Then we make a mistake, out of necessity : we have yet to book a cruise in Ha Long Bay, and Coco’s been dreaming of this for a while (I too, sort of, but the Internet has flung a mixed bag of reviews onto us). Inebriated, we enter a lobby, then another, the Vietnamese saleswomen grin, show us laminated brochures, discuss prices, commission flashing in their eyes.
We walk out, then back in again. It’s late, we’re drunk. We book something.
I think we walk back past the lake, seeing the youths gathered in front of the ice-cream shop again – a man is lying down on his moped, sleeping, how I can’t fathom – and we catch a bus
I’m beat as we return, falling asleep. Coco does a better job of thanking our host by conversing and partaking in the sharing of worldly knowledge between beings of different cultures.
The night is short, and fairly uncomfortable. Hanoi is getting hot. Broiling hot. The maritime air will do us good, and in the early morning we say good-bye to our host, Midan, wishing her the best in life – such are travels, good-byes recurring and frequent, moments together ephemeral and gone too quick – and we ride the bus again, to the designated pick-up spot.
It’s eight in the morning, hundreds of degrees; sweating, waiting with a bunch of other tourists and backpackers for a shuttle that is nowhere in sight.
I don’t know what to expect of our Ha Long Bay expedition, whether it will be the dreamy boat cruise of Eden depicted in the brochures, or the ghastly pirogue ride on the Styx that has left many visitors feeling as livid as the emptiness of their pockets.
What I do know: there’s only one way to find out.
Next: photos and videos from Hanoi, Vietnam.