There are not many things that have rivaled the immense sensory overload that is stepping out on the street in Hanoi. Motorcycles whiz by with no deference to road directionality, street signs, speed, safety, pedestrians, or the laws of gravity. People of all ages ride them. Some are loaded with entire families; our country coordinator jokes that the motorbike serves as the Vietnamese station wagon, I mean who needs seat belts or roll bars anyways. People ride past on pedal bikes, weighed down with flowers, fruits, and supplies of all sorts, everything from animals to brooms. Women walk by carrying huge balanced baskets of fruits and vegetables on yokes over one shoulder, bouncing as they walk. I am constantly amazed at the weight women carry on their shoulders all over the world, as much metaphorically as physically.
The sounds of voices conversing rises above the clinking of glasses as people drink iced tea and beer while perched on small colorful stools outside street side shops. The sidewalks are people’s place of employment, their kitchen, store, front yard and lounge. Plants are everywhere. Tall trees line the streets providing much-needed shade on sunny days and bougainvillea and other vines trellis on overhangs and up facades. Small plants and ferns live in all kinds of nooks and crannies, thriving of the very humidity and heat I think I am literally melting in. The air lays over you, still and sticky, like a blanket of dampness you can not unfurl. The pollution is thick in the city center and smoking is quite popular up and down the packed streets. I long for the smell of clean mountain air and have yet to see more than the most fleeting glimpse of a blue sky. I miss the stars.
The streets are named and organized according to what is sold on them. There is a street for matches and one for steel kitchen appliances/tools. One street is full of fake flowers and another kids toys. If I was in Hanoi for a longer amount of time I would love to draw a map of the Old Quarter and surrounding area based upon the goods sold there, what a fun task to set out to accomplish. The architecture is striking perhaps as much for its old French style beauty as for the juxtaposition of what used to be and what is now. Colonialism is a black snake, enmeshed and entangled in the society it could never tame.
Darkness descends so early here. Walking back from dinner around six it is easy to convince yourself it is time to curl up under the weight of the day and head to bed. This is probably due not only to the early sunset, but also my bodies slow adjustment to a 14hr time change and sheer exhaustion from busy days of classes, lectures and exploring. It seems I am just starting to feel comfortable here, which I measure by the fact that I can cross the teeming streets without feeling the need to simultaneously gasp and close my eyes and that I can count to ten in Vietnamese, which is a low bar, I know. I will have to become acquainted with this fleeting sense of place in the coming months as the IHP program is inherently mobile. Friday we will board a plane and fly to Da Nang in the coastal center of Viet Nam. We will spend two weeks in a homestay there, learning about new things and meeting new people. And just like that, the cycle starts anew.
**reminder/disclaimer: this is obviously a single story (watch this for clarity as to what I mean). I have been here for less than two weeks. I speak literally no Vietnamese (hello and numbers don’t really equal fluency). I am not Vietnamese and do not understand the culture or any nuance what so ever. I was raised in the west and though I have had the privilege of a critical education, the things I notice and how I experience “reality” is inherently dictated by the viewpoint I was raised in. Hanoi is all the things I painted above, but it is also a place of Porches and fancy malls filled with shops like Hermes and LV. There are juice bars and iPhones everywhere. It has been amazingly easy to find cool fusion vegan restaurants and to snack on Kit Kats (perhaps too easy for my waistline). As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains, the danger of a single story isn’t that it is untrue, it is that it is incomplete.