There are no sidewalks.
Well, there are sidewalks, but they’re used for motorbike parking and pop-up food stalls rather than pedestrian traffic. If you want to wander the streets of Hanoi, you’re going to be in the street, motorbikes narrowly dodging you as they manically steam toward their destination.
Hanoi is a sharp contrast to cosmopolitan and polished Saigon. It lacks the Western echoes, retaining it’s aura of Asian mystery that will always lure and confound us Westerners. It’s messy, and noisy, and unapologetically brimming with Vietnamese culture, impassive to the tourists and travelers that flock to it’s center.
After a few hours, though, your heartbeat catches up to it’s rhythm. You find yourself sipping coffee on a rooftop overlooking the lake, an oasis in otherwise concrete jungle. Or crowded around a banh mi cart, swapping stories with a young man from Wales, a middle aged couple from Birmingham, and honeymooners from New Zealand. After a few days, you’ve visited the National History Museum and gotten a sense of the scale of the history of this country. You’ve filed respectfully past Ho Chi Minh’s carefully preserved body, goosebumps rising on your arms as you take in his waxy face. You’ve watched the dance classes in the parks fringing the lake, unable to hide your smile at the senior women bopping around like they don’t care who’s watching.
And the narrow streets that you’ve learned to navigate start to feel a little like home. Take a left at this hotel here, when you see this restaurant turn right, and when you see the lights strung above the street, you’ve arrived at Beer Corner, where glasses of daily brew can be purchased for $0.20.
Hanoi is the kind of place you don’t realize you’ll miss until you’ve already left. Then you look back on the memories of who you were when you first navigated the streets, terrified of being hit by a motorbike. And you think about how, in the space of just a few days, you’ve emerged from the city an entirely different person.
That is magical, transformative, crazy Hanoi.