Posts Tagged 'Hanoi'



Evening In Front of Uncle Ho

Bubbles blowing and bats swooping. Children giggling. The squeak-squeak of those little shoes they put on toddlers.

It’s nighttime in front of the Mausoleum, summer in Hanoi. The last time I was here it was winter and the city had a strict bedtime—10pm and like a light switched off: wide streets vacant, narrow alleys thick with shadows that slunk from the sharp cast of headlights.

But it’s different now. Or I’m different now. The season has changed and the city is full, parks blooming and bursting with people. Kinda like dusk in Phnom Penh, the “Golden Hour” I always called it—sky all pink and breezy, everything made even more excruciatingly beautiful by the fact that it’d all pass so goddamn fast, like sand through your fingers (have you ever held sand through your fingers like that? I hadn’t till then).

The stadium lights beat down and the bats swoop behind.

I’d wanted a walk. I needed a walk. It had been my first real shit day in Hanoi, following what had been my first real great day in Hanoi. It was the xeoms that had done it—stranded and lost and giving myself heat stroke, showing the driver the wrong address, him screaming at me when I realized my mistake, my eyes welling up, men at the cafe staring placidly, legs crossed and coffee. He had me. He charged me $6. I paid it.

I never did find the school I had the interview at. I felt about as broken and lost as I am in this city, in my life right now. My friend took me out for dinner; I ate too much; he said, “Remember that Bukowski poem: ‘it’s not the large things that / send a man to the / madhouse… but a shoelace that snaps / with no time left.'”

Exactly. Another chopstick full of noodles please.

So I needed a walk, something to clear my mind. He lives on this little peninsula and if you follow it down, you go on an isthmus between two lakes. The couples sit on benches and the lights stream pass and the old men sleep on their motorbikes. Get to the end, there’s women doing line dancing; they’re dancing in pairs and then they line up and “Macarena” comes blaring on the speakers and they start to dance with no irony whatsoever. There’s a boy up front, away from everyone else—socks pulled high and shirt tucked into his shorts—and he’s dancing to his own rhythm, wild and unrestrained and tragic. I can tell before I see his face that he’s got Down Syndrome.

He dances alone.

I keep going, cross another park, another roaring street and I come to the wide open green in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. They’ve got those big white stadium lights on and it washes everything in brightness, seems to make each blade of grass gleam. In the cement stretch in front of the building—block-shaped and austerely uplit in red—families are strolling, powerwalking, children chasing bubbles while a thousand hand-held fan whir.

There’s guards milling around, uniforms and little hats. It feels almost Italian the way the people are out. There’s a breeze and it feels like luxury across my arms.

I realize I haven’t seen a single prostitute during my stroll. At least a blatant one. I’ve got a head full of Phnom Penh and half my heart too, and all I keep thinking is—“Grass: you’d never see that in Phnom Penh”; “Look how nicely cobbled the pathway is”; “It’s after 9pm and normal people are out, families and kids.”

I like this, I think. This feels good.

I watch a mother blow bubbles for her toddler son; he squeals, waves his fat arms and chases them. A girl snuggles under the crook of her boyfriend’s arm. Two girls sit on the walkway between patches of grass, giggle in close towards each other. “Hello!” a boy exclaims at me. “Hello!” I exclaim back, just as jubilantly.

Had all this really been waiting? Really been going on—hidden under the cover of winter and of my own distance?

It had.

Just then the stadium lights start to snap shut—one, two, three—and a dimness is cast over the grass. It’s suddenly quiet, still, dark, backlit but the thousand motorbikes that snake around on the street beyond the grass. It feels further away than it is.

The guards start to blow their whistles. People gather their things, make their way towards the street.

I check my phone: 9:30.

I smile. So the city does still have a bedtime.

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The Haze and the Lake and My Life in Three Bags

The haze hangs low over West Lake. Not big and billowy like fog, but flat like a pancake. Like the thin blanket I’ve been sleeping under, a futon on the floor of my friend’s living room. My life in three bags, wedged into the corner beside me, slowing spilling over onto the floor. This again.

It’s not so bad, really. The polluted mist, I mean. At least for now, it feels better than the suffocating heat of Phnom Penh, that felt like a hand over your mouth, or the way the too-strong sun stung my too-Irish skin.

My friend lives on a little peninsula along the lake. Down one of those winding alleys that remind me of the inside of an Italian town. Though I couldn’t really tell you why. It’s a mellow little enclave; there’s cafes along the water, chairs set up under umbrellas and the shopkeepers walk the coffee over to you, across the street on metal trays. You can sit there at dusk, watch the bats swoop through the mosquito-ridden sky, watch the lights click on, feel something resembling a breeze cut through that haze.

I’ve been in a fog since I got here, four days ago, 9pm in a taxi with a broken meter. I’d handed the driver the address, carefully printed with its strange slanting accents. He looked at it and nodded. He could read it and he knew roughly where it was. I wanted to cry.

The fog I’ve been in is not a big and billowy one, like home, the way the clouds will pour over the hills behind my brother’s house—how I’d watch it through the kitchen window and it’d look like a living thing. It’s been more like the haze that hangs over Hanoi, asthmatic and dense and twitching with mosquitoes. It’s a cheap metaphor, but the best I can offer right now.

I guess you could say I’m shell-shocked. It wasn’t so long a journey here—a six-hour bus to Saigon and a two-hour flight—and there’s no time difference, but I feel like I’ve traveled across the world. Been sleeping like a log, spending long hours online searching for jobs and sending CVs, drinking coffee that doesn’t seem to cut through the mental haze at all. Taking some walks, but mostly sitting still. Not writing, not really reading. Mostly just staring a FB feed.

I have no idea what to say about my time in Cambodia or why I knew I had to leave. I don’t think it’ll make sense for a long time, if ever.

My first morning in Hanoi, Angelo caught me on Skype and we chatted. He told me about his trip to Detroit while I looked at his Instagram photos of bombed-out buildings and roller tags and the inside of art studios, abandoned convenience stores and houses with a thousand haphazard numbers painted on the outside. Dead grass and sunsets and his beautiful girlfriend, in high tops and cut-offs, skin burning with youth.

“How’s Hanoi?”

“I dunno, I just got in last night.”

I told him it was hard, that I think the transition will be harder than I’d expected. But that ultimately, I’ll be happier.

“I mean, it’s sad. I left Phnom Penh under sad circumstances.”

“How so?”

“I wasn’t really ready to leave. I didn’t hate it, you know; there was still shit I loved.”

“Then why’d you go?”

A pause. “Self-preservation,” I answered without thinking. I considered it a moment; I looked out at my bags, my life, crammed into a corner. I nodded to myself. “I realized I had to get out. And I can’t totally tell you why.”

“Man,” he said.

We trailed off into silence.

Hanoi’s Secret Cafe

I love rooftops, and I love rooftops in cities—sitting up on your bird’s perch and watching the strange dance of it all.

There’s no pigeons in Hanoi (except the ones you see plucked and pink at the food stalls), and there’s virtually no places to take respite.

Jacob told me about the secret cafe—not so much a secret, but a nameless, signless place you could never find without looking for it. On a road behind Turtle Lake, beside an especially terrifying roundabout, at the heart of the chaos—a nondescript storefront shop selling all the usual lanterns and bags and lacquered art. You walk past it, through it, down and back, what looks like the dim hallway to some squalid toilet.

It actually leads to a cafe, opening up into a courtyard that evokes the same “ah” sensation as stepping into a riad from the din of a Moroccan medina. A girl thrust a menu at me and told me I needed to order there, right there, before going any further. I pointed to the coffee with milk and egg white, as recommended, and the girl moved aside and let me pass.

I climbed up a flight of stairs, past a set of carved doors left ajar, revealing a glowing, smoldering altar within. Up another skinny staircase, and I was at a quiet little terrace that overlooked the lake, the skyline, the swarming street, the madness of the city.

It was my fourth day in Hanoi, and I was only then beginning to make sense of it. Its roads were a tangle of incomprehension, like lines in a palm whose fortune you couldn’t quite decipher—electrical wires and branches the gentle hatch marks that lay like a webbing, even less decipherable in what was certainly a story, certainly trying to say something.

But on the terrace it almost made sense, or at least begin to take shape. The other tables were sparsely inhabited by couples, leaning in and speaking low, by a few other foreigners smoking and reading. My egg white coffee came and it was goddamn delicious, thick and like a milkshake. I spooned it to myself like I were my own infant and sat there, just sat, thinking my nothing thoughts and watching.

It was refreshing, to be up there like a bird, in a city that doesn’t have any—to enjoy a moment of peace amid the frenzy. Which is a metaphor for life, in the way it’s all a metaphor for life—one great metaphor beneath the surface of everyday, at the center of everyday, everything just an arrow, pointing, leading, hinting us towards some soft secret (down a passageway, behind a trinket shop)—nudging us towards something we can’t possibly ever know or say, can only sense sometimes, in the still moments—can only approximate, speak about in abstractions, relationally. Which is why it’s a metaphor in the first place, and not The Real Thing—why we need metaphors and egg white foam in thick coffee and pretty little terraces to take a breather on.

Hanoi Secret Cafe: 11 Hang Gai

Suicide-Proof

I dreamed your apartment was suicide-proof:
those little half-windows
that only open in slits,
like doped-up eyes,
how we blew the smoke
sideways and down
and it couldn’t really make it out,
just blew right back to us.

I asked if there were earthquakes here
and you said there weren’t,
but I didn’t believe it—
not that I didn’t believe you,
but I didn’t believe the earth—
that somewhere down
under all this something
was shaking,
ready to shake:
the smell of a seizure
before it erupts.

I got up and paddled
my bare feet across the floor,
my bad ankle snapping.
I realized I’d forgotten the kitchen window,
that slides open wide—
a ledge and a little metal railing
that wouldn’t be enough
to keep a body from crouching,
crawling out
to the 16 stories
of honking beneath.

Learning to Ride On a Motorbike in Hanoi

Hanoi is a bipolar child with a strict bedtime.

Clinging hands behind me to the metal rack, I try to suppress the involuntary flinching—a circumstantial case of Tourette’s. It’s Saturday morning, and my first ride aback a motorbike through the frenetic traffic of Hanoi.

If you want to see the word “clusterfuck” defined, acted out in an exquisite charade, snap on a spare helmet, straddle the seat of your friend’s motorbike and take a ride through the streets of Hanoi. Feel the blanket of exhaust haze whip up around you; feel your legs naked to the risk of a thousand near collisions; feel the breeze of your own mortality and the queasy cocktail of sweetened coffee, cigarettes and exhaust churn in your stomach.

See towers of Tet trees and blossom branches balanced aback bikes; see jugs of water and housewares, bundles of mysterious somethings tied on in impossible precariousness. See families of four smooshed onto a single bike; see the eyes of children placidly blinking in the madness. See drivers texting, pulling out without looking, barely slowly, pedestrians stepping out into the chaos of it all—women walking with baskets balanced on a piece of wood across their shoulders, liked Lady Justice, except it’s their mouths that are masked; their eyes remain wide open.

Hear the horns beep and squawk like a million hungry birds—seven million, to be exact, and every damn one of em has a motorbike and is riding their motorbike, lanes just vague suggestions, right-of-way a nonexistent notion.

See this all this because you’re in this, suddenly a part of this: a passenger in the strange dance that feels more like a riot or a mosh pit—but no, no, must be a dance because you keep skirting disaster, skirting death, and you keep wanting to clamp your eyes shut but can’t, can’t.

Riding aback a motorbike through Hanoi isn’t exactly a near-death experience. It feels more like being on an airplane with really bad turbulence: you trust the pilot but not the skies. You know you’re not actually going to die, but you really can’t wait for the whole damn thing to be over. You get off feeling like you’ve just stepped off a rickety old rollercoaster that’s safety permits are supremely suspect.

“The sidewalks in Hanoi aren’t really for walking,” Jacob throws over his shoulder. “They’re more for commerce. If you want to walk, you’ve pretty much gotta do it in the street.”

It’s not a walking town, he says, and it’s true—at times I don’t see a single pedestrian, just a weaving, wheezing sea of traffic. How do you get to know a place without walking it? How do you get a feel for feel for a place without your feet on its streets?

It gets easier. I tell myself to trust, to put faith in the fact no one seems to be crashing. It begins to feel like we’re moving along this barely perceptible tightrope that weaves in and out of other people’s tightropes, maybe like telephone wires—like our own personal orbit, the miracle of chance that we don’t collide, such a miracle that it can’t be chance at all, but driven by some other force I can only suspect, can feel at times in the smoggy breeze, but can’t come close to naming.

Nighttime is different. It’s as though someone flips a giant switch. By 11, the streets have cleared, suddenly swept of everything but a faint whisper, the asthmatic glow of the headlight. The streets seem smaller in the dark, emptied of their madness—they don’t seem like the same streets at all, but an entirely different place, a different city. An incredible stillness settles over the buildings, the pavement, the wires stretching and branches drooping and the shapes of shadows in the dim drizzle—as if none of it were real, all the daylight mania just a waking dream, a reverse nightmare.

By Sunday I’m able to hang on with only one hand and snap photos with the other. I’m comfortable enough to carry on a conversation as we drive. Jacob points out landmarks and tell little stories; I tell him how my parents were revolutionaries when they were young, how the met in a Communist meeting. He quizzes me Vietnamese numbers, phrases; we laugh about the universal asshole-ness of SUV drivers. We weave through the manic chaos of daytime, and I tell him Hanoi feels like a bipolar city.

Rain comes that night, along with a cold wind; we move more slowly through the vacant streets. I blink against the lashings of wet and my hands turn frigid. Slowly, I loosen my grip on the metal grating, and place both my hands in my pockets.

I’ve learned how to trust the gods of traffic and chaos. I’ve learned how to ride a motorbike in Hanoi.


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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