Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Five Vietnam: Hanoi and the End
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is tiny streets and miniscule alleys packed with sellers of all things, from vegetables to headstones. The roads have baffling twists and mysterious termini: you may round a corner and have a beautiful lake filling your view, or you might find yourself on the doorstep of Kentucky Fried Chicken. In sheer numbers, the bodies and machines filling the streets can’t match Ho Chi Minh’s frenzies, but Hanoi’s more constricted environment makes every road crossing or packed sidewalk an obstacle course.
The Quarter certainly does feel old. Beautiful aged buildings are everywhere, and traditional markets line some of the winding alleyways. While it’s also the hub for budget-minded tourists, most of the locals – except for the ones catering directly to foreigners – go about their business without so much as a glance at the intruders.
Preparations for Tet were in full swing: everywhere I saw people carrying huge bunches of flowers, and orange trees – apparently a common gift and decoration – filled up Hanoi’s parks. Unfortunately, my flight was on the morning of February 2, the eve of Tet, so I didn’t get to experience the New Year in Vietnam. When the day turned I was somewhere in the air between Guangzhou, China and Los Angeles.
The energy of the Old Quarter was undoubtedly my favorite aspect of Hanoi. It could get exhausting – but then, it felt like a place that should be exhausting. At the same time, greater Hanoi was an attractive, park-spotted city, well-oriented for rambling. One afternoon – after failing to see the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, which was apparently open only in the morning – I took some back alleys, the kind to which you’re never quite sure there’s an exit until you hear the traffic from a real road up ahead. I ended up at a large pond entirely surrounded by multistory buildings, with entrances only large enough for motorbikes. Along one side of this pond was a long wall separating the walkway from a row of apartments; smack in the middle of this wall, a mirror reflected a man’s half-shaved face and his engrossed barber.
I was definitely struck with a sense of last-chance-to-see, since Hanoi was my ultimate stop. This gave me the odd idea that I should be doing something in particular to mark my final days in Asia – seeing some famous sight or throwing major dong at a special meal. But I realized that nothing would be more appropriate for the end of my trip than simply looking and listening. With rare exceptions, I never set out for a place with specific intentions, and usually I’ll gladly take aimlessness over an itinerary.
So I looked: at joggers around Hoan Kiem Lake, women washing dishes in buckets on the sidewalks, people taking in laundry under the sullen grey skies. I listened: to the chatter of men in the coffee-drinking circles, the admonitions of mothers to their children, and the insistent hum of engines. Everything ordinary – that’s what I wanted for my last couple days.
Fittingly, my grand exit was more of a sneaking crawl under cover of darkness. I woke up before 5am, when the streets were miraculously quiet, and tiptoed downstairs to shake the hotel proprietress awake so she could unlock the doors. She was sleeping peacefully on the lobby couch, protected from the chill by a thick sleeping bag. After clearing my throat ineffectually, I reached out and tentatively applied the smallest touch to her ankle region. I did this probably half a dozen times, increasing the pressure almost imperceptibly each time, before she woke and sat up blearily. I felt terrible. I had told her the day before that I had to check out early, but that fact assuaged my guilt not at all – especially since she and her husband had been extremely kind and helpful during my short stay.
“Did you pay?” she asked, rummaging around for my passport. “Yes, last night. I paid the older woman. Your mother?” I guessed. “Older woman?” She seemed confused, but let it pass, and finally handed over my passport and opened the doors, shivering as the chill cut through her pajamas.
“Thank you so much,” I said guiltily. She smiled slightly.
“And Happy New Year."
I walked the dark, empty streets to my airport shuttle. I sat in the cold airport. Boarded the plane. We took off.