In Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, there is only one rule when crossing the road: do not hesitate.
Hundreds of colourful mopeds stampede down the road through a thick diesel mist, oblivious to the traffic lights. As you ask yourself “Why did the tourist cross the road?” you sigh: actually getting to the other side is undoubtedly a feat. Without a single break in the traffic, the bikes resemble an unyielding river rapid; as you cross at a constant pace, they part around you like water around a boulder.
While you cautiously edge forward, do not become distracted by the loads these two-seater bikes are carrying: whether it’s a family of six glued together; twenty cages of mangy chickens stacked like bricks; or even a bunch of gutted pig carcasses with flies dancing on their intestines, how these bikes fail to topple is a mystery. Once you reach the opposite curb you exhale, unaware that you were holding your breath in the first place.
Trying to absorb every detail while walking through the throbbing city is a welcome challenge. Century-old skinny buildings tangled in webs of telephone wires extend unnaturally to the muggy summer sky, defying gravity and avoiding heavy property taxes due to their narrow girth. Multiple families continue cramped lifestyles in only a few rooms to the rear of the buildings, while the shop fronts heave with piles of green and red lacquered plates, smooth wooden bowls, and handmade silk scarves.
Shopkeepers sell traditional Ao Dai garments and football jerseys alongside garish plastic toys that festoon the entrance of their stores. Wedged between these tacky wonderlands are traditional sweet shops, crammed with giant jars that overflow with candied plums and other dried fruits. Art galleries pop up every fifty meters with the painter planted on the footpath. They craft everything from meticulous reproductions of masterpieces to landscapes of green patchwork rice fields. Most astonishing are the portraits of women from colourful hill tribes, which are almost indistinguishable from photographs.
After continuing through the cultural maze you will eventually stumble upon a street market. There are many dotted throughout the Old Quarter and all can be located purely by scent. Chunks of unidentifiable meat sweat under makeshift material shades, while fish entrails create a putrid path beneath your sandals. But it will take more than the fetid stench to deter you from eating lunch in Hanoi – one of Southeast Asia’s food capitals.
From midday, tourists delight as they fumble with ingredients, trying to assemble rice paper rolls whilst watching hawkers rattle past. Crouched on the curb nearby, a man wearing only dirt-coloured pants and a conical hat gulps an over-sugared coffee and nibbles on a baguette, a lingering scar from the French invasion during the 19th century.
After a morning of submerging yourself in the continual buzz of the city, it is only natural to feel exhausted. Yet somehow, after slurping a bowl of fresh noodles, you find yourself craving the commotion of Hanoi all over again.
This piece was shortlisted for World Nomads' 2011 Travel Writing Scholarship: http://journals.worldnomads.com/scholarships/story/72164/Worldwide/Travel-Writing-Scholarship-2011-Our-Winner!