Our Hanoi vacation was completely unromantic: grey skies, moldy hotel room, persistently wet clothes, sneezing, disease, death. Wait, sorry - I got a bit carried away. There was little to no death, and only trace amounts of sneezing. But you get the idea: it was a rough first date with Vietnam's lauded capital. The kind of date that should've made me delete Hanoi's contact info from my phone and then pretend I never got its messages if we bumped into each other at Starbucks.
But the truth is, I was smitten. Hanoi officially became my favorite city on earth.
How did I get into such a questionable relationship?
Because Hanoi has weather.
When we stepped off the train at Hanoi Station, it was 70 degrees and breezy. Two thoughts struck me in quick succession:
"I can’t believe we just signed a rental contract in Saigon!"
Pretty sad from a girl who grew up with blizzards and ice skates, but you see what Southeast Asia has done to my perceptions. I've had trouble transitioning to our City of Eternal Summer. Saigon is 90ish and sunny ALL YEAR ROUND. I’m programmed for seasons, and northern Vietnam has them. Kind of. It’s a twenty-degree temperature swing, but I’ll take it. For the first time in months, I wasn’t sweating through my clothes. I was ready to sign a lease within minutes of stepping off the train at Ga Hanoi. Too bad we'd already committed to the south.
Because every view is a photo. Even the ugly ones.
We’re not talking Dewy Rose At Sunrise postcard photos, but intense, bizarre, urban, strangely captivating views.
Sam was sick for most of the trip, so I amused myself with long solo rambles around the Old Quarter. I am not the photographer in this family, but even I couldn't help getting a few good street shots.
In Vietnamese cities, daily life takes place on the street. That's because (historically, at least) there isn't enough room for it indoors. Hanoi's Old Quarter is emblematic of this. The decaying French buildings and Vietnamese "tube houses" are crammed together like boards on a picket fence. Tube houses are only one room wide, built when buildings were taxed by width. As migrants poured in from the countryside, the Old Quarter was endlessly partitioned into housing and business spaces, with extended families shoehorned into single rooms.
The crowding was supposedly eased somewhat by the housing boom (and subsequent bust) in the late 2000s. But most everyday activities still happen outdoors: eating, drinking, washing, getting a haircut, reading the paper, having a smoke.
Because the city is on perpetual coffee break.
I saw, by conservative estimate, twelve zillion cafes in Hanoi. There were entire blocks of coffee shops with tiny tables and chairs spilling across the sidewalks. They were always full, no matter what time of day. Unlike Saigon, it wasn't just old men sitting around drinking coffee. Women in stylish clothes, businessmen tapping away on smart phones, young couples making googly-eyes over their iced coffees, a few foreigners with guidebooks open on the table; the entire population appeared to suffer from caffeine addiction. I was among my people.
Because banyan trees are amazing.
For an urban center, the Old Quarter has an unbelievable number of banyan trees. I had never seen banyans before - they looked like something out of the Jungle Book. The trunks were thick, ropey tangles that look like several trees twisted together. The branches cascaded down like willows. Many of the trees had tiny shrines worked into their crevices.
Because there’s a Women’s Museum.
The one bit of sightseeing we did was a trip to the Women’s Museum near Hoàn Kiếm Lake. This sounds like it would be insufferably preachy. It wasn't. The Women's Museum was straight-up awesome because it didn't waste time justifying itself.
There was a floor dedicated to the daily lives of women from different tribes across Vietnam. Another focused exclusively on female spies and soldiers throughout Vietnam’s various wars. There was a small display on women street vendors who come to Hanoi from the country hoping to earn enough money to support their families. By enough money, I mean one or two hundred dollars a month—though that’s more than their husbands can make farming.
The museum's general message: Vietnamese women get shit done.
I loved it. Instead of honoring a few Exceptional Female Role Models—which generally backfires by making it look like amazing women are few and far between—the museum acted on the premise that women at large are interesting and worthy of attention. Nicely done.
That was predictable, wasn't it?
Hanoi's food deserves its own post, so we'll write about it next week. But there's one thing I have to say: meat!
Hanoi, you can call me any time. I'll be waiting by the phone.