07. Hanoi – The sense of Vietnam
Damien has just got off the minibus.
The young guy I sat with on the flight from Moscow to Hanoi, and the only person I can rightfully say to know in Vietnam, has now embarked on his solo journey.
Since my very first glimpse at the red book he was reading on the plane – the Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam – Damien unwittingly pushed me into the reality of my, and his, adventure.
Talking with another human about our mutual choice made it more palpable.
I listened to him and the itinerary he had in mind.
A completely unplanned three-week solo trip across Vietnam where he could design every single day as he pleased.
In his mild timbre I read a genuine excitement that his French accent emphasised.
A quick exchange of our Facebook and a promise to keep in touch, should we cross our paths somewhere around.
Squashed into the minibus from the airport to Hanoi centre, one by one the passengers are dropped in front of their hotel at the speed of parachutists being thrown out of a helicopter.
The drivers have to cut down on their good manners if they want to quickly run back to the airport and load a new human cargo.
I’m the last one to get off the minibus. All is so fast and furious that I almost forget one of my bags on it.
“Good start,” I tell myself.
The air is grey and gross.
A bold blend of pollution and humidity make breathing in hard.
All around I see moving barriers of rowdy and chaotic scooters, and pedestrians too frightened to cross the roads.
Parents with children squeezed on the same motorbike. Girl friends with airy skirts and no helmet. Elegant women completely covered in plastic to protect their clothes from muddy splashes. Plenty of faces hidden by masks.
The pavements are blocked by motorcycles parked randomly and turned into improvised open-air restaurants by locals who sit placidly on their small multicoloured plastic stools.
It’s four in the afternoon when I decide to leave the room and have my first walk around.
Even though I’ve just taken a shower, the shirt sticks to my skin as rapidly as the hotel’s automatic doors shut behind me and the air conditioning draft gets trapped inside.
It’s like going from the North Pole to Hell.
The alleys look labyrinthine and confusing. I need to memorize shops and hotels signs – my breadcrumbs along the way – if I want to come back.
A few crosses later I spot a small artificial lake and a promenade all around it.
The path is a people swarm.
Teenagers caught in their ultimate selfie. Sleepy drivers lagging on their rickshaws. Live portraitists waiting for the next client.
A radiant spring wife followed by eccentric bridesmaids.
I’ve got a feeling that the favourite pet here is the poodle.
I have some rest in a sheltered corner next to a bowed tree.
A gentle breeze brushes leaves and water; the buzz muffles as if someone had turned the city radio station down; some men are practising Tai Chi.
The scenario is still and silky. Romantic and melancholic.
Then, a group of local girls approach me.
They wonder if I speak English. “A bit,” I answer.
They ask if I’d like to have a chat with them. “Yes,” I say.
Huyen is the bravest, but her friends seem very enthusiastic too.
We sit close to each other and start to swap pieces of life.
Their looks communicate vivid emotion.
We jump from education to family, geography to age, culture to love.
On love, I start to braid my hair, and Pham suddenly offers to braid it for me. Agreeing to it seems so little thing, but her happiness surprises me.
After a while, the younger ones have to go. The littlest is ten. They thank me warmly in their premature English and ask if we can hug.
I struggle not to fall apart.
It’s only 6 pm but the sun has already faded.
I hold back with Huyen, Pham, Nguyen and other girls. They take pictures of me and us.
Then, some boys stop by with the same intention to practice English.
One of them – the chattiest – engages in a long conversation with me and the girls about life ideals, wishes and love.
He improvises a karaoke session singing Western pop songs and then asks me what ‘Beautiful in white‘ means.
I find it candid.
His eyes are sinking into a naive romanticism. Mine, in some melancholy.
Time for mutual farewells after sharing big hugs. I feel my tank filled with emotions and good advice.
I spend the evening in search of food at the night market; last time I ate I was on the plane.
Scooter fuel. Fried banana. Shoe rubber.
Fish skewer. Fusty humidity. Fried mustard.
Tonight, the sense of Hanoi passes through my nose.
I’ve never eaten Vietnamese food before. I’ve saved curiosity and greediness for the moment.
I randomly buy banana crisps and shrimp rolls at the less queued stand.
Not sure I’ve made a good choice. It’s ok though.