Humans are amazing survivors and thrivers when it comes to adapting to their environment. Even if the new environment is not a favorite, we quickly adapt and blend, losing equally quickly our ability to take in the sensory wonder of the new place. So I feel an urgency to capture my impressions, sensations, and experiences as quickly as possible before they blend into what I come to know as Hanoi or Vietnam.
We noticed nothing particularly noteworthy upon arrival at our hotel at 1:00 a.m. local time after 28 hrs of travel, advancing 14 hours worth of time zones, and crossing the dateline. All that changed the morning of our first day.
Vietnam is the 13th most populated country in the world; its land mass is certainly not commensurate. In the cities, at least, property is at a premium dong. Our first awareness of that reality was the width of our hotel. The lobby is no more than 10' wide; the main corridor to the elevators to the guest rooms passes through the only dining room which is only 8' wide.
Unquestionably THE most dramatic bombardment to a Westerner's senses and sensibilities is the buzzing and honking of an uncountable number of motor scooters and a somewhat countable number of bicycles that consume the equivalent of a one lane, 12' road in US.
Scooters, bicycles, peds, and a few automobiles all share the same space at the same time, and somehow, miraculously, it all seems to work. Everyone enters the intersection at the same time turning left, right, and going straight, at the same time and, if it better serves scooter drivers' destination to ride against traffic, they will do just that. Most of the wheeled traffic is going no faster than walkers, so that helps.
There are few traffic lights and many of those are simply ignored. There are a few pedestrian cross walk designations on the road, but who knows why, as they are totally ignored by all wheeled things.
Everyone just goes, but always just forward. Never stop, and certainly don't go backwards. To do either will result in a certain collision. Traffic is grounded, literally, in mutual trust.
Motor scooters park on the sidewalks, thousands of scooters gobble up the sidewalk which means that peds most often have to join the gaggle of movers using the 12' wide street. Oh, and BTW, foreigners are not allowed to rent cars in Hanoi, and for good reason.
Navigating the streets of Hanoi, especially in the old quarter, is literally like living inside a Video game on steroids. That said, I have yet to see a collision of any kind; I have seen no traffic cops; I have seen no road rage; and no one makes eye contact with anyone else. There are simply too many moving parts to make eye contact with any one. To do so would mean losing the big picture and make impossible the survival tactic of keeping a steady, forward moving pace.
Also competing for sidewalk space are huddled clusters of people all sitting on little kindergarten-sized step stools drinking Jasmine tea or eating Pho. Why are the stools so little, we asked? Space conservation for one, but also having a food vending business on the street is against the law. So, the little stools make it possible for customers and vendors to disappear in the blink of an eye should an overseer suddenly appear.
Speaking of overseers, a tourist would not be likely to be aware that they were in a Communist governed country. To that end, my first, and only clue so far, was to see, hanging in a t-shirt store, shirts bearing Hello Kitty, Heineken, and the Soviet gold crescent and cycle on a blood red background.
Also sharing the single laned byway are diminutive Vietnamese women wearing the signature conical hat with a dowel across one shoulder with a large basket of wares hanging from both ends of the dowel. They could be toting chestnuts, doughnuts, citrus, ten-cent trinkets, or Gillette Vector razors.
The backs of many scooters are outfitted with hand-made racks made of sticks akin to paint stirrers which bear an amazing assortment of wild goods, e.g.: multiple Costco-sized bundles of who knows what, baskets full of up to 50 blocks of bean curd, unwrapped, of course. Even saw one scooter hauling a tree replete with a ball of dirt; it is common to see bicycles that serve as an entire flower shop. I've seen a Golden Retriever riding at the feet of its master on a scooter and parents carrying a baby in a front pack, one in a back pack, and one riding tandem on the main seat. All a common sight.
Our first two days in Hanoi were weekend days so we didn't know till today that one of the buildings across from our hotel was a school. But a school there is and when the lunch bell rang out poured a hundred plus 10-year olds who blended easily and confidently into the flow of traffic without a single parent or traffic guard anywhere in sight.
A seminal book on the New York Times best seller list right now is Dan Ariely, Predictably Unpredictable. Navigating Hanoi, at least for a Westerner, is Predictably Unpredictable. In addition to the traffic patterns which seem ever so predictably unpredictable, so does the organization of commerce. Your first couple of days in Hanoi you are so preoccupied with simply surviving the traffic you fail to notice there is, indeed, order, to the shop after shop, block after block. It may be, too, that the streets are helpfully named, but no knowing a lick of Vietnamese, I can't be sure about that. What you will find is a block that concentrates on buttons, thread, and zippers; another on tin products; another on bicycle/scooter locks; another on toys; another on scooter repair; another on medicinal herbs; another on sweaters; another on suitcases and backpacks, etc.
I have kept wondering, where do all these people live? If you dare look up, thereby taking your eyes off the road, you'll find grimy, disheveled, hovels stacked on top of each other where the shopkeepers live who own their street-level shops. Have no clue where all the others live.
Alleys running between shops are named according to the name of the shop at the corner of the alley. Between other shops run tunnels going where? They give new meaning to: " I would hate to meet so-and-so in a dark alley."
Power lines are draped from tree to tree across streets and alleys. The maze of wires resembles the gaggled tangle of extension cords many of us were accustomed to in the '50's especially at Christmas time as our houses were decorated with Christmas lights. It's a wonder there are so few spontaneous fires given the over amping of resources. In many places an NBA player could bump his head on the power lines that power several blocks. We watched an electric worker repairing a jumble of wires my simply leaning a bamboo ladder up against the tree to which the wires were attached. No need here for a telescopic bucket to hoist a worker up 25-30 feet.
What I take away from my 3 days here in Hanoi is gracious hospitality freely given by not just those invested in the tourist industry, but also by those who call Hanoi home. What I hear from those who call Vietnam home is pride in their country and commitment to their political and personal freedom; after all, they celebrated their 1,000 year anniversary in 2010.
What I also take away is no desire to truly develop the skills necessary to navigate traffic as they do here and wear a mask in an effort to mitigate the severity of air pollution.
What I also take away is it is hard to find food in restaurants that meets my egg-free, dairy-free, grain-free (rice is a good guy), and corn-free needs. Part of that difficulty is the language barrier (not a lot of English spoken here and my inability to read Vietnamese ingredients, if they are even listed.), and in part because the array of allergen-sensitive alternatives are simply not available here as they are in medium-large cities in the US.