Hanoi in B&W
October 2017, Hanoi
My journey in North Vietnam starts here.
On the road from the airport to the city centre, the driver begins in this way when introducing me to Vietnam’s capital.
It’s a bit dark and the humidity is very strong. The car crosses the city’s streets and a lot of motorbikes carrying big objects, animals or the entire family, pass us. Normally here, on the streets people wear surgical masks which they use everywhere because the air pollution is high and the smog smell is very strong, and they know that it’s responsible for throat and lung illness.
The traffic goes fast and they keep honking, even when they don’t need to, and it’s extremely irritating, but they don’t care about it. It’s a habit.
The traffic is incredible and it’s also incredible seeing the pedestrians crossing the street with no apparent rules: it’s impressive! The first time you see the traffic in Hanoi, you’ll ask yourself “How do I cross this super busy street?”. The answer is don’t rush, start crossing and walk slowly, the mopeds will avoid you – it’s better if you cross in the slipstream of other pedestrians! It looks scary but in the end, you’ll survive the chaos of the traffic.
After the big impression of the traffic, what can surprise you is the street food and how many people cook on the street: the BBQ is a must and the food odour invades the narrow streets packed in the Old Quarter. People sit at little tables with plastic chairs, all of different colour, in a scattered order on the street. It’s not easy making your way through the space between the tables, with mopeds also in the queue behind you honking!
The Old Quarter is a continual carousel of food: the streets are full of people in the morning and during the night, and in the evening those streets become an extensive street food market, always very busy with tourists and Vietnamese people there to eat Phở or buy fresh meat or fish.
Sometimes the police arrive suddenly for inspections of unauthorized stalls at the illegal street market, where the traders sell everything. The markets are known also “Frog markets”, because of the way the vendors jump and run when they see police coming.
I was there during the evening when they arrived walking in the middle of the street. If they find a table serving food to tourists, it’s guaranteed they’ll seize the merchandise! Therefore, a scream from the bottom of the road warns of the arrival of the police, and before they can make their slow passage down the street, the waiters run to the little tables and take them away from the tourists savouring boiled hen’s feet with spicy sauce. Seeing the stunned faces of people is priceless! They just look at each other and start laughing and looking around. When the police left the street, the waiters gave back the exact table with the exact plate which the tourists were enjoying earlier.
The Red River passes through the city and several bridges link the banks. The oldest, Long Bien Bridge, was designed by Gustave Eiffel (completed in 1902) and links the city to the Hai Phong harbour. It had been the most strategically important bridge for the economy of the city. In the past, it was heavily bombed due to its strategic importance, and it has had to be rebuilt several times, with almost the same style and material. Today, it’s still in use as a railway bridge and only bikes or mopeds can cross it. You can cross it on foot but you have to walk on the sidewalk made with tiles that shake when you pass over and with gaps between them, through which you can see down to the street and cars passing under the bridge!!! I tried to walk there…. but just for a few feet and I went back – it’s better to get a bike!
Following the railway to the western part of the city, I passed through Train Street, where twice a day the train passes between the houses and where people work, cook, and dry their clothes. The place where the railway passes is a narrow street and you don’t have too much space between the wall and train when it’s passing through. It became one of the tourist attractions in the city because it looks terrific standing there when it’s running not very fast.
Living in Hanoi for several days shows you that day here goes very fast and it looks like people never sleep. The chaos of the traffic with the honking noise will impress you very much and you will never forget it. However, if life gives you a chance to go there from your Western city, you will be happy to share the days with the Vietnamese people in this noisy city.
Post published on vnExpress International (June 2018)