Hanoi: Finding my way

So, I’m in Hanoi.

I’ve started a lot of emails that way in the last few days, because I haven’t really known what to say after that. There’s really no way to describe how utterly unprepared I was for this part of the trip; I just sort of went, “It’s a work thing, they’ll take care of it,” and showed up, which is high on the list of ill-informed decisions I’ve made.

Our house is near the old quarter, in something called Valley A, which is a warren of narrow, twisting streets accessible only by scooter and on foot.

Let me tell you, if nothing else, Hanoi has given me a very, very healthy respect for the Vespa/scooter/motorbike and everyone’s ability not to actually hit me with theirs. Patty always talks about the innate sense you gain as a New Yorker of how to weave through foot-traffic without crashing into anyone. That skill is trivial compared to watch I watch in action here.

One day, I’ll actually feel confident enough to cross by myself the one major street I have to deal with on my daily travels. For now, I’m happy that I can at least find my way around to necessary destinations now, even if my internal sense of direction is based on things like recognizing certain street dogs, construction sites, advertisements, and the particular sound of one cat’s meow, which has been the only way I can find our house in the dark.

I’d tell you the epic story of how my housemate (who is from HCMC and so is also learning to navigate here) and I got ridiculously lost trying to find the flat late one night after all the lights had been turned off in the Valley, but it’s not very interesting, we just had to get back out and start again, but that cat was very helpful.

The level of sensory input here is higher than I am used to, and it makes it hard for me to focus, but I’m getting better at it. At night, I really, really like it, because things are a bit more mellow and suddenly I can pick out details and spend time on them. During the day, I’m getting there, but the moments where the wind shifts and I can smell plant life and wood fires, food and the lakes, as opposed to traffic and highways are amazing.

Little things are the markedly different from home, of course. Crouching on the floor to cook my dinner or not having a refrigerator, those stand out. But the house stays very cold, and fresh food is available everywhere, so it doesn’t really matter.

The fact that the whole of the bathroom is the shower (no dividers or anything) is unfamiliar too, but I’ve managed not to flood the house several days in a row, so yay me. Never have I ever been so glad that I roll up my jeans though, because it takes a long time for that water to drain. My hipster ways have saved my ass, or at least keep my ankles from being soggy.

Meanwhile, finding ATMs that accept my card has been the most notable small battle, but one that I think is now solved (thank you HSBC).

One thing that’s sort of nice about this experience is that I’m not in any sort of ex-pat community here. It’s just me and my Vietnamese colleagues, who have been gracious and patient with my many confusions and issues (celiac disease is a whole ‘nother thing to navigate here).

I’ll confess there’s a part of me that almost wants to seek out some of the toxic ex-pat drinking culture badness that I know is here for some sort of context of what’s expected of me here, versus what I’m actually doing, but I know that would actually be a terrible plan. And probably a boring one.

I promise I’ll take pictures soon, and figure out how to cross the street, and come up with adjectives. But right now, I’m just here, taking it all in, and figuring out the basics of an experience I never asked to have, but suspect I’m going to be very fond of before it’s all over.

7 thoughts on “Hanoi: Finding my way”

  1. Over ten years and reading blog posts about my birth city in still startles me. Perhaps I’m more American/French than Vietnamese now (at least my parents think so), but from time to time I still remember sucking my fingers still oily from eating fried bananas in plastic bags. Do the street vendors still sell that? Please do post pictures soon.


  2. If, when I am a little older, I have even half (maybe a QUARTER) of the life experiences you have had, I will be a happy girl. Your life is so rich, and reading stuff like this makes me want to get out of the hellhole that is Alabama and see the rest of the world.

    Good luck with that intersection, and finding gluten-free foods. Be safe and be happy 🙂

  3. I spent some time in HCMC a few years ago, and it was just amazing. Vietnam is really a whole other planet from the US, just the history and energy and the way people move around each other on the streets. I remember the first night arriving, I was on a bus headed to a hotel, and looking out the windows at the motorbikes swirling around in the street, it was like the stars had all fallen. Things buzz differently there. I never made it to Hanoi, but Da Lat was a little like how you describe it, tiny paths and foot traffic. Really amazing.

  4. I think all big Asian cities have those crazy motorbike and scooter drivers for hire, zipping around fitting into extremely tight gaps and being affronted if you like your personal space. On the upside, I love the concept of no refrigeration meaning market-fresh food every day… Ha Noi is cooler at night than Manila, so you don’t get that festering funk smell March to October and can leave the windows open.
    Rice cakes are where it’s at — steamed, they’re everywhere and usually super-fresh. Also try the ham if you can — it’s pretty legendary, one of the more innocuous fallouts of French colonization.

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