Wholesome may seem like the last word that one would use in describing any large city, let alone Hanoi. But that’s the word that keeps coming to mind as I try to wrap my head around all we have seen and experienced here in our first three weeks in Vietnam.
As frenetic as daily life here can be, there’s an overwhelming sense of family and community everywhere you look. From our first 5AM walk around Hoan Kiem lake, where we saw dozens if not hundreds of people, young and old alike, walking, exercising, stretching, dancing, and generally enjoying life before the day got too hot, we realized this city was a bit different.
That sense was magnified our first weekend, when starting at 5PM on Friday the streets surrounding the lake were closed to traffic. A gigantic stage was being erected in Dong Kinh Ngiah Thuc Square. By Saturday morning the streets around the lake were teeming with students and families. As the weekend went on, side streets were taken over with dozens of mini cars toddlers could drive while their parents steered by remote control, dance competitions and feats of strength. Ice cream and fruit smoothies were consumed by the gallon. Everywhere people played badminton, jenga, or Chinese checkers, or danced everything from swing to the Macarena. By late Saturday, I couldn’t imagine there was a Hanoian sitting in an apartment anywhere. They were all gathered around the lake, actively participating in some type of activity.
Now, this is not to say that there haven’t been challenges in Hanoi. That’s the “hectic” of the title. Daily life as a non-local has meant dodging persistent ladies slinging baskets of doughnuts and conical hats, and guys trying to shine our shoes or sell us lighters embossed with Che Guevara’s face.
We have become expert at navigating the motorbike choked narrow streets and crossing intersections like an expert gamer in Frogger. We have learned sidewalks are for motorbike parking, street food vendors, and green tea pop-ups, not pedestrians; walkers take to the street. It’s actually easier.
But you quickly learn to ignore the insistent bells of the trishaw drivers who want to sell you an hour’s ride to nowhere, as you instead seek out just the right street stall for that next perfect bowl of noodles. You discover quiet oases in the temples and pagodas tucked along busy streets in the Old Quarter, and among the hundreds of cafés in the city, you find the ones that have nooks and crannies and large windows with leafy views, far from the donut ladies and hat hawkers, where there is always great coffee, and hopefully a cat.
Admittedly, our perspective may be skewed as we have spent the majority of our time in the Old Quarter, French Quarter, and Truc Bach, and not much time yet in Ba Dinh or further around West Lake. But we always gravitate to the most old, original areas of any city, and find that this is where you can really get insight into a culture. As our time in Hanoi winds down, we are realizing there is much we will miss about this city. We hope what we have learned about Vietnamese life will serve us well as we explore other parts of this intriguing, beautiful country.