“It’s a Real City!”: Hanoi Through Cambodia Goggles

Tourist time with Uncle Ho!

“Hanoi: Refreshingly Free of Prostitutes”

This was the tagline that ran through my head my first few weeks living in Hanoi. Which perhaps isn’t most people’s dominant first impression of the city. Which perhaps says a helluva a lot more about me and where I was coming from, my Cambodia goggles, than it did about Hanoi itself.

I’ve been talking a lot to one of my friends here about first impressions of places, whether there’s any clout in them or if they’re all just superficial and uninformed and in the long run say more about the viewer than the place itself. (We’ve reached no verdicts but I’ll get back to you if we do.) Particularly we’ve been discussing the tendency of certain travel writers/memoirists to put places into what feels like a pre-determined box—the exotic romanticism of a place like Hanoi.

For instance, if a writer talks about the smells of “verdant green” and “incense wafting” in Hanoi, it makes you stop and think: “Really dude? Are we talking about the same Hanoi?” (“In Hanoi I just smell trash,” another writer friend said.) It’s like some people have already decided what a place is gonna be like and then goddammit, they go out looking for things that confirm that belief, bolster that vision, and seem to block out every other damn thing that may challenge or contradict their predetermined notions.

Which doesn’t actually tell you a whole lot about Hanoi, but does tell you a lot about the person experiencing Hanoi. For instance: last week I had two friends from Phnom Penh in Hanoi. It was another one of those long weekends that riddle the Cambodian calender like bullet-holes, a great excuse for them to bus-it and plane-it up to Hanoi to soak up some autumn breezes, street food and much-need kick it time.

I miss the hell out of my Phnom Penh friends, so it was great to catch up and roam around playing tourist. But one of the funniest things about my friends visiting was listening to their impressions of Hanoi, cause they were the exact same as mine when I arrived here. Which basically amounted to: “Holy shit, I’m in a developed country!”

Cambodia’s really gotta be one of the few countries you could come to Vietnam from and be impressed with the level of competence, wealth and infrastructure. Every time I saw the garbage collectors when I first came here—a mini-phalanx of women with rubber gloves and masks and UNIFORMS—I wanted to cry. When a xe om driver could read the address of where I was going, I nearly teared up. When my landlord installed a new stove top, with actual gas burners, I instagrammed that shit.

Both of my friends had been to Hanoi before, one more recently than the other, but their remarks were basically the same, including:

“People are so fat here!”
“Wow, a mountain bike!”
“Wow, a city bus!”
“Hanoi is like, a real city.”
“It feels like there’s so much more to explore here.”
“The beef is so good here.”
“People are kinda mean.”
“You can really feel that it’s a middle-income country.”

Comments like that made me feel good, made me laugh a bit too—when we stood on the corner and perused the poncho selection, the ones with the clear plastic in the front so you can put it over the front of your bike and still have the headlight visible (what I call the Teletubby Poncho). “The ponchos here are so nice,” running their fingers over the sturdy plastic. “How come people in Cambodia haven’t thought of this?”

All of which is great cause you hear a lot of bullshit about Vietnam—such as this god-awful post lamenting the deformed beggars (??) and fragile (haha!) Vietnamese women—shit that makes you think, “Are you sure you were in Hanoi and not Phnom Penh? Or did you just decide that Hanoi was gonna be a third-world shitshow and look for examples to confirm this belief? And when you didn’t find enough examples, you invented them?”

When I moved here there was a number of people I met who wanted to Tell Me How It Was In Vietnam. Sigh. I suppose they had good intentions, but it all chalked up to “Vietnam is so crazy!” And I just kept thinking, “Puh-lease. You clearly haven’t seen what I’ve seen.” So much so that I tuned out a lot of the lingering dysfunction and insanity of Vietnam, was so enamored with the functionality that it took me a few months to notice the things that really still weren’t developed.

All of which makes you wonder if you ever really see a place clearly, or if it’s all just an endless shifting of projections, in a Jacob’s Room sense. Which is bullshit—of course you can see a place clearly, it’s just a lot harder to do, takes a lot more thought and insight and care, and maybe only comes in fleeting moments of sensory assault.

Either way, it was great to spend a few days trolling around Hanoi in tourist-mode, seeing it again through Cambodia goggles.

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7 Responses to ““It’s a Real City!”: Hanoi Through Cambodia Goggles”


  1. 1 roomaomao October 22, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    Haha , last February my Chinese girlfriend and I took a trip to Phnom Penh. This October was Hanoi. She was totally expecting a place like Phnom Penh (which I really like) and was shocked at when she saw city buses , the amount of Hanoi traffic , the fancy clothes and makeup shops , and people walking around with iPads and iPhones. Hanoi is even building a subway system too? So yea, pretty much just what you said haha.

  2. 2 erinfrances October 22, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    I’ve never been to South East Asia and I’m kinda sorta reaaaaally glad to have found your blog before one day going. I love your take on your life there and what life is/can be/is seen. It’s so much more irreverent and hilarious than I feel many others are when processing their time there. I love it. Keep it up!

  3. 3 Jessie October 23, 2012 at 12:28 am

    “It’s like some people have already decided what a place is gonna be like and then goddammit, they go out looking for things that confirm that belief, bolster that vision, and seem to block out every other damn thing that may challenge or contradict their predetermined notions.”

    AMEN to that.

  4. 4 mishvo October 23, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    I love that you’re completely aware of the potential biases you may have when visiting this new place. Self-awareness is the key to…everything!

  5. 5 The Wanderlust Gene October 28, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    Do you ever really know a city you didn’t grow up in? After visiting, and living in Colombo for 20 years i still sometimes feel like a foreigner, am still taken by surprise by things I didn’t expect – but yes, the scales fall away a little, revealing a much more complex and delightful city than my perhaps ‘oooh ahh exotic’ first impressions gave me.

    I know what you mean, though, about seeing a ‘foreign’ city you live in through the eyes of other visitors. I’ve particularly enjoyed seeing Colombo through the eyes of friends from Switzerland and Australia – whose surprise that daily life here is so much like their own was delightful to behold.

  6. 6 @tomosaigon October 29, 2012 at 8:53 am

    LOL – “Cambodia’s really gotta be one of the few countries you could come to Vietnam from and be impressed with the level of competence, wealth and infrastructure.” Sad but possibly true. In many ways, Phnom Penh is like a small town provincial version of a Vietnamese city.

  7. 7 aviatrixkim November 5, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    Great post! Just got home from Cambodia 2 days ago. What I noticed was how different Phnom Penh looked to me after spending a few days in Kompong Thom province and then in Stung Treng. It only took one night showering in a barnyard by dipping water out of a huge clay pot to make PP suddenly seem rather modern, as in “Wow! There are no pigs in this bathroom.”

    Would love to hear your impressions of PP as an expat. I was quite disgusted by the old-Western-men sex tourists, and it sounds as if you were, too. And I suddenly find myself extremely appreciative of sidewalks that you can actually walk on, and drinkable tap water. I did love some things—the outdoor noodle soup places, strolls by the river, the people I got to know. And of course, the amazingly creative array of uses for the krama.


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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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