An entire day of my life had disappeared. Twenty-six hours devoted to traveling, and all of it was a blur. We started on a deserted subway platform, minding the gap as we pulled our two small suitcases onto a train spotted with early risers. Now here we were, about to land in in Vietnam. A day in transition nearing the end.
What did I know about Vietnam? Wikipedia imparted a history of occupation. The New York Times praised tourism, beer, and the rapidly growing economy. The popularity of Vietnamese food in New York such as Pho and Banh Mi had given me a taste of what to expect. A hand-me-down Vietnam experience. But here we were: a day lost, eleven hours gained, on the edge of forming our own impressions.
Impression No. 1: Greenhouse effect
Thick air mixed with the musty scent of damp soil. Distinct, but not unpleasant. A verdant smell associated with moss and orchids and all things steamy. We had left the desert air of the plane and entered a greenhouse. Dazed and vulnerable, we met the representative from our visa service. She held a white paper sign printed neatly with James’ name inflating my sense of self importance. We signed a few papers, and then our precious passports were carried off by a uniformed officer without explanation. This represented the first of many times when we (reluctantly) just had to have faith and go with the flow. Nothing was explained, language barriers were not crossed, we just had to trust. The entire visa process was completed away from our presence. Those pesky immigration forms that we diligently completed on the plane proved useless. But in the end, we were left admiring our shiny new Socialist Republic of Vietnam stickers… like a gold star.
Impression No. 2: French balconies
Speeding toward Hanoi, our view grayed by darkness, we strained to capture any images that we could commit to memory. Through shadows and headlights, tall skinny houses grew out of the flat earth like awkward pillars. And then I thought of my mom. For every place we visit and every picture she sees, she reserves the same comment: “Oh, that looks like New Orleans!” This time I would have to agree; New Orleans is the only place I have to compare it to. A scene of french balconies and hanging plants.
Impression No 3: Shrimp chips, choco pies, red fruit
Yin, proprietor of the Hanoi Old Quarter Hotel, raised the graffiti-free metal grate and greeted us in pastel pajamas. We were over an hour late and definitely missed the 11pm curfew. Luckily, she had a special room waiting for us. The room with a view, the luxury suite, the self-proclaimed King Room. There were braided baskets of spiky red fruit, shrimp flavored chips, individually packaged choco pies, and a fully stocked mini bar of cola, water, and beer. While I showered away the grime of traveling, James, who had never eaten a shrimp in his life, devoured two full bags of shrimp chips. As comfort food, we ate (and later became obsessed with) the choco pies. And because who eats fruit after all that salt and chocolate, I took pictures instead.
Impression No. 4: Daylight
Jet lag had me up at 6am. The floor to ceiling windows let in plenty of light as I peered out over the misty red river. A wide bridge with four converging lanes of traffic expanded into the old quarter. A colorful mosaic propped up at the intersection celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of Hanoi. Stepping from the air conditioned room onto the narrow balcony, the immediate change of temperature left a thin layer of fog on my camera lens. Leisurely traffic, including early morning motorbike deliveries and women heading to the markets of the old quarter, gradually increased to a sea of pedestrians, bikes, buses, and cars.
Impression No. 5: The Streets
Life in Hanoi happens on the streets. To the casual tourist, it seems a public event. Sidewalks are not for walking. They support rows of parked motorbikes. They serve as restaurants and kitchens. The overflowing store fronts spill out into vacant spots, and the homes in between are kept with open doors. Basket ladies wearing traditional conical hats hobble up and down the street, heavy goods hanging from both ends of a stick supported over one shoulder. Sparks fly from the tools of metal workers. Sounds include the clinking of hammering tin, the contrasting horns of motorbikes (beep beep) and busses (WAWAwawawa), a cleaver meeting a block of wood as it chops through raw meat, birds chirping in thousands of spindly wooden cages, and men yelling “Hel-lo!” and “Moto-bike?” as we pass. Not quite as diverse as the soundscape, fish sauce and exhaust are the prevailing scents. What would be considered back alleys in New York are busy multi-lane roads in Hanoi. Rather than a structured city grid, organization in the old quarter is based on industry. Silk Street, Coffin Street, Music Street all winding through the city changing names every few blocks. At first the chaos is invigorating and exotic, but we find ourselves needing long breaks from the detailed attention it takes just to walk across the street.