Hanoi, Vietnam – the thought of visiting this city had me in bouts of nervousness and excitement. For one, I don’t travel as much and as often as my peers do. Secondly, this was going to be my first overseas trip with my boyfriend, K and the first time we were going to spend five days straight up with each other. Then of course, there’s the fact that, I’m a big worry wort. Will it be safe? Will we be okay? What if we lose our way? What if we argue? What will the Vietnamese be like? Will we become bored of each other’s company? Will he enjoy Hanoi? Will I enjoy Hanoi? Yes, my thoughts went on and on, in endless circles… 😅
The morning of our departure, I was typically running a little behind time and was just slightly over-the-top nervous. I think I repeated my prayers at least 10 times. Thankfully, my godpa was on whatsapp, which helped calmed me down; and the taxi driver was real nice. His advice: Keep your money in separate stashes and cross the roads like a boss. And boy, was he on point where the latter was concerned.
From the moment we stepped out of the gates of the Arrival Hall at Noi Bai International Airport, our senses were bombarded by constant motion, an endless cacophony of Vietnamese tongue and an unrelentless chorus of honks. Out on the roads while on our way to the hotel, we saw but one traffic light, one to no side mirrors on motorcycles, no arrows and – amazingly – no accidents. It was mesmerising to watch and fascinating beyond comprehension. Our first step onto the road, our first crossing – it felt like the biggest jaywalk of our lives. Time and again, I was mind blown by how we made it across the street in one piece. Touching down in Hanoi, one week before Chinese New Year, I had five days to fall in love with this ancient city.
And already, by Day One, I had found my first love: its traffic. I loved that there were rules and no rules at the same time. I loved how they had a system without obviously having one. And traversing its roads was less about your skills than it is about the expertise of its motorists. Vehicles instinctively knew which direction every roads. Motorists instinctively knew how to avoid running you over without ever appearing like they actually kept an eye out for you. And pedestrians instinctively knew how to cross the road – like a boss. Should you get to truly witness a local cross the road, you will realise that this is possibly the biggest, boldest “Freefall Trust” game one could ever play. Here we were looking left and right, right and left, up, down and centre just to cross the road; and there a Vietnamese man in his 50s, took it cool, took it slow. He looked neither left nor right as he stepped off the sidewalk. His eyes were fixated on the street across and with unbelievable faith, crossed the road. Watching him, I gaped at his seeming audacity and almost squealed in delight at his apparent success. The traffic, the road crossing – I loved every bit of it.
Except for when I was famished! K and I made our way around Hanoi city, mostly by foot. K is really good with the map and navigating so that crosses Anxiety Nos. 3 off my Worrywart’s List. Walking, we really got to soak up the sounds, the smells (not all pleasant) and the sights. But when your stomach is roaring as loudly as the hoots of all the motorcycles combined and you can’t walk a straight, unobstructed and quick path to your food stop of choice, trust me, the desire to kick every motorcycle zipping past you is intense.
Yet, the hunt is all part of the fun and the food well worth every step we took to get there. From the very local chicken pho to the guidebook recommended eateries with luxurious local bites like bun cha and bamboo sticky rice with grilled chicken, each was so full of flavour. Even the simple bowl of gruel made of rice flour, cooked in chicken stock and topped with pork floss and youtiao was wonderful to taste.
In between it all, I loved how we would dip into seemingly random alleyways. Its dark, narrow depths became a refuge from the operatic madhouse that is the streets of Vietnam. Commotion was replaced by calm and racket gave way to quietude. Here, we found ourselves beckoned by a deep, black depth of a different kind and in appreciation of a different tongue. Here, we lost ourselves in the aromatic lull of authentic Vietnamese coffee…