‘Welcome to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam!’ the sign screamed. I’d left England two days earlier and had only just arrived in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. It was past 10 pm, but the temperature remained stubbornly high. As can be expected from wearing the same clothes for two days – not washing and sweating out a pre-departure hangover – I smelled appalling and looked questionable. In the close confines of the small airport my fellow, more civilized looking, passengers afforded me plenty of room.
There had been a problem with my visa at Heathrow and my stomach was now again in knots. The edge of my visa letter had been cut off, with the missing two millimeters showing what year it was set to expire. I nervously approached the visa desk – in much the same way I would a bomb – and handed over my documents.
The desk was actually a fully glass-paned room. Documents were deposited at one end and retrieved from the other. Inside was a conveyer belt of human activity.
I walked to the other side and joined a group of people milling around like unsupervised cattle. ‘I guess this is socialism at work,’ mocked a man who was a lot larger than necessary. The group collectively cringed and the space around him grew slightly wider.
I watched my passport make its agonizingly slow route through the room. I imagined one man suddenly standing up, his chair crashing to the floor – a sustained ear-popping scream as he waved my desecrated documents wildly for all to see. Do they have gulags in Vietnam? I was snapped out of my daydream to find a smiling face holding out my passport. I scampered away quickly before they recognized me for the scoundrel I am – leaving the loud-mouth standing at the window red faced, screeching at the man behind the desk – who had the most wonderfully impassive ‘Go f^% yourself’ look on his face.
The next few days were bewildering. Hanoi is as chaotic as a tourist, let alone as a newly arrived employee. I’m an English teacher, and within two days of arriving I was introduced to my first students. I looked upon them with unreserved horror and disdain – as I’m sure they did to me, considering the enormous bags under my eyes and the unspeakable large patches of sweat converging around my body. It was not a glorious first lesson – but things improved immediately.
My usual excellent sense of direction seemed to have been deposited somewhere on the flight over – possibly after that spicy chicken dish. More times than I care to say, I was left by the side of the street, clutching a crumpled map and squinting at road signs. Phan Dinh Phung; Nguyen Tri Phuong; Tran Nhat Duat. Where am I?
Rush hour in Hanoi is a savage beast. The myth that pavements are a place of safety was quickly dispelled. I glanced up to see motorbikes charging towards me, seemingly from all angles. I froze – should I run? Could I out-run a motorbike? It was the wilder beast stampede from the Lion King – and I was Mufasa – I was sure this was the end. Drivers snarling and foaming at the mouth pointed their hellish chariots in my direction. Every pre-natal instinct screamed for me to get on the floor. Curl into a ball! But I stood frozen as they rocketed past me. The wave passed and I staggered deliriously into a café, where I was greeted by an elderly woman who gave me a toothless chuckle, ushered me into a seat and quickly placed a beer in front of me.
The old quarter is the most thrilling of places. Not simply a place to visit; it’s a completely fascinating sensory assault – absolute insanity, and great fun. The narrow suffocating streets are filled with an incredible abundance of activity. Humans, animals, motorbikes, cars – everything has its own path, and yet magically merges into one cascading river of thunderous movement. Did I mention there are a lot of motorbikes? Billions I believe.
Charmingly, the street names carry the items that are, or often sold there. Hang Non – Hats. Hang Luoc – combs. The unappealing, though surely necessary – Hang Khoai – Potatoes, and the wonderfully morbid – Hang Hom – Coffins. Many of the streets have changed, but it’s still common to find yourself on a road where every shop sells exactly the same thing. As a note: Tinned Paint Street is worth skipping and Bamboo street is oddly excellent. Shops open onto the street providing a fascinating glimpse into their tiny worlds – blacksmiths, electricians and wholesalers of every possible kind. Old women crouched in small alleyways, tending tiny stalls crammed with oddities that I couldn’t even fathom. Everything imaginable is for sale – it’s just not exactly clear where.
Smells swerve chaotically from raw meat, to spices, to sewage; to seafood; to feces (uncertain whose); to incense. And anything you could possibly imagine in-between. It leaves you panting for breath in the most exhilarating of ways. The many lakes and beautiful pagodas provide a welcome respite from the madness.
The Vietnamese are mostly warm, friendly and incredibly accommodating. Chasing me down when I’ve paid far too much and helping on the bus when I began to look at my map a little too frantically/pathetically. I befriended an elderly woman who sells vegetables on the street. She refused to give me what I buy unless I repeat it in Vietnamese. Attempts are always received with a high-pitched giggle. It sometimes becomes a little awkward when she invites others to witness the butchering of her language.
As the sign in the airport announced in the most boisterous of ways; Vietnam is a Socialist country. Except for the few banners, posters and flags, it’s difficult to comprehend exactly what Socialism means here. The images of capitalism are seeping in quickly. Like everywhere in the world the Iphone is king. It’s certainly a far cry from what many in the West would think a Socialist country to be.
It’s difficult to see Vietnam moving in any other direction – the brakes are on but it’s certainly picking up speed. The country will follow their own path, but it can only be hoped that they can retain some of their traditions and history. It’s difficult to feel negatively about people wanting the things that we’ve always taken for granted.
Hanoi is certainly not without its negatives. The traffic as already mentioned is horrendous. Subsequently the pollution can be thick and grim. That unnatural tickle in your throat is not the beginning of a cold. Scams and inflated prices for foreigners can be tiresome, but you quickly learn the tricks. The ancient buildings and the elegant French architecture are sometimes awkwardly juxtaposed with some of the most awfully bland and soulless Soviet style monstrosities. If they decided to tear them down and really tried to build something uglier, it would be tough. But if anything, these are just part of this crazy city’s charm.
Hanoi is a dizzying concoction of the absolute absurd, the truly wonderful and the utterly awful. It all adds up to an unforgettable, electric experience. Hanoi plays by its own rules. You are but a speck of insignificance to this raging beast, which writhes as its own pace. We are merely along for the ride. Just jump on – and hold on for dear life.
Author Bio: Olivier Guiberteau is a 28-year-old English teacher living in Hanoi. When he’s not teaching or pondering the daily the dose of chaos that comes with living in Vietnam – he spends his time exploring South-East Asia, hiking, rock climbing and taking photographs.