HANOI - VIETNAM
The beauty of Hanoi is that within and around all its chaos it exudes a relaxing and gentle nature. That could be said for Vietnam as a nation, but in a city pushing 10 million people it's easy to presume that things would just take on a totally different and more metropolitan approach.
While the airport is humble and unassuming (and maybe even mysteriously empty) you're quickly thrown into the crucible as you pass over the Red River and into the city proper. Pandemonium would be the most accurate way to describe this little jaunt towards Haon Kiem Lake. Traffic laws don't exist. Buses take their place on the top of the totem poll, then come what little cars there are on the roads followed by mini-trucks and a deluge of scooters flooding the roads like ants moving in an direction they please, taking the quickest route from A to B they can find. Pedestrians take their place on the base of the pole; a sure foot and no sudden changes in pace are what I found to be least stressful approach to crossing a road. You end up being only one degree away from closing your eyes and hoping everyone will make their way around you.
All that being said in my couple of months in Vietnam I don't recall seeing any major traffic incidents.
The first foray into the bedlam can leave you a bit breathless. Overwhelmed. Disorientated.
Once you take a step back and see that despite the anarchy and lack of traffic management their system works, it's easier to feel a bit better and more at ease. It's only after you've accepted this that you truly begin to see the real Hanoi. Although having a substantial backpacker scene the city doesn't come close to being labeled anyway touristy. Even the city center caters for the locals first and foremost and you'd often struggle to pick out foreigners unless you take a stroll through Beer Street at night. Street food is available on every corner and generally seems to be the dinner of choice whether you're a local or a visitor. Gangs of people huddled around tiny plastic stools and tables that wouldn't look out of place in the Early Learning Centre. As unsanitary and unkept as the conditions in these makeshift kitchens seem to be, the stirfry's and noodle broths are next to none. Couple this with the sheer amount of bicycle vendors walking the streets selling fresh fruit and veg, Hanoi is truly a city for the regular Vietnamese.
On reflection after seeing the rest of their country, it's apparent that the North Vietnamese hold onto a strong national identity far tighter than their southern counterparts.
You get a very strong sense of individuality and independence from the people of Hanoi. English is at a minimum, even on the rare occasion that you manage to find a walk in restaurant or bar you have to resort to one word conversations and pointing at pictures on a menu to get your order across. Western commercial influence is almost zero save for a sole McDonalds and Domino Pizza in the most touristy and highbrow area of the city centre (if that's your measure of capitalism). Architecture is still clearly influenced by bygone French colonial times with very little evidence of change or modernisation. Locals go about their day irregardless of what tourists are doing around them. The city never stops and the chaos of the streets waits for nobody, certainly not those least versed in the conditions. That being said, the people of Hanoi don't go to any efforts to ignore foreigners. They're as humble and as welcoming as their fellow countryfolk, which can't be understated. You'll get the same reaction in a field in Mai Chau as you would walking around Bay Mau Lake; warm and inviting.
This is the crux of the charm of Hanoi and what separates it from the rest of Vietnam in my mind.
For the sheer density of the city it has no right to be as intimate and welcoming as the rest of the country is. Nevertheless, whilst the city doesn't cater itself for tourists it welcomes them with two open arms. Whether it's a smile and wave from a passer-by, children reaching out in awe to touch your hand or a gaggle of students approaching you looking to borrow a bit of your time to have a conversation and improve their English. I spent hours out of days over the course of a couple of weeks purposely getting lost in what felt like an infinite amount of streets and back alleys, never once feeling truly lost or any sense of intimidation or discomfort; always a friendly face around the corner somehow knowingly pointing you the way you needed to go without even being able to communicate with you.
You get all of these intimate experiences all the while people are still going about their lives like you're nothing special. Nobody cares for the tourist. Nobody wants to sell you anything or con you out of your probable wealth. There's no lust to scam you or profit off of your visitor status. You simply step into their world and watch as they glide around you. It's a refreshing turn of pace from the expected reception.
Despite being the furthest away from home I'd ever been and in the most alien environment, I never once felt in danger or in any sense of discomfort or intimidation.
It's clear to see why so many expats in Vietnam choose to settle in Hanoi; it behaves as a city like no other, almost self contained in its cultural individuality. You eat where the locals eat. You park your scooter alongside 100's of others going to Hoan Kiem Lake to visit the weekend Walking Street for music, dancing and markets. You get your laundry done collectively by the same woman as the rest of the street that you're on. For somewhere so truly foreign and otherworldly you can't help but feel immediately at home. It's a city that doesn't want to change with the times. It's stubbornness adds to its appeal and it's its inhabitants that make it!