“Hanoi is a vibrant city of more than three million,” writes new Correspondent Wendy Justice, “the cultural and spiritual heart of Vietnam.
“Less influenced by the west than Ho Chi Minh City, her brazen sister to the south, this modern city has retained its traditional roots, with small, family-owned businesses instead of fast-food chains, mega-supermarkets, and international department stores.
“Hanoi has a character rarely seen in modern Asian cities. It boasts beautiful examples of French colonial architecture, trees on every street, and busy cafes and shops spilling onto the sidewalks.
“Your first and lasting impression of Hanoi is of its energy. Barely controlled anarchy rules, as thousands of motorbikes, cars, trucks, bicycles, and pedestrians compete for space on the city’s narrow, twisting streets. A blizzard of sound assaults you. Horns honk, hawkers sing out, loudspeakers blare the latest government announcement, diners at the al fresco cafes seem to roar…
“During our three months living in the city, we spent a great deal of time sitting on our doorstep, watching the activity swirl around us. Every few minutes, a bicycle taxi, or cyclo, would stop, unbidden, the driver asking, ‘Where you go?’
“We saw a bicycle loaded with the equivalent of a small hardware store, the owner slowly pushing his goods down the street…a man delivering three gross of eggs strapped onto his bicycle…another bicycle packed with 12-foot lengths of bamboo…
“There was the glass vase peddler, with approximately 100 fragile vases artfully displayed on the sides and back of his bicycle…
“It is possible to see refrigerators, plate-glass windows, and full-sized mattresses strapped onto motorbikes…motorbikes hauling pigs, dozens of chickens, cases of pots and pans…a motorbike stacked 10 feet high with cases of toilet paper… The distribution network in this city is something to behold.
“Every day, a middle-aged lady would squat on a tiny little wooden stool on the sidewalk in front of our doorstep, a large, woven tray at her feet piled high with cuts of fresh meat. A customer would stop, and the two would negotiate a price. The lady would cut off a slab of meat and then, in a matter of moments, cleaver in each hand, deftly chop the steak fine as hamburger.
“Gossip and plans would be shared, money would exchange hands, then the shopper would wander a few feet down the street to chat and dicker for vegetables from the next vendor.
“The local economy of Hanoi is built on relationships. Prices are rarely marked, and negotiation is expected. A purchase is as much a social agreement as a business transaction. A foreigner can expect to pay more than a local, and a young woman may pay more than an elderly man; a person wearing peasant clothing almost certainly will pay less than someone wearing an expensive suit. A regular customer, local or foreigner, will get a price that is a fraction of what might be charged to a stranger.
“On one corner of our street was a bustling streetside café and snack shop. On the opposite corner, a bia hoi (fresh beer) shop that did a brisk business. Artfully dodging cars, motorbikes, pedestrians, and bicycles, the waiters would carry huge trays laden with glasses of beer across the street to diners perched on tiny plastic stools. Motorbikes would honk their horns and, without slowing, pass through the unregulated intersection.
“We saw many near-misses but, amazingly, few accidents.
“Directly opposite our doorstep were the bamboo merchants. Long poles of bamboo were stacked vertically against the building, reaching toward the roof. Sometimes the poles would be fashioned into ladders, pipes, canes, or baskets while the customer waited, sipping tea and sharing gossip.
“A lady would walk by smelling like daybreak with a mountain of fresh baguettes piled on a tray balanced atop her head. A young man with a stack of photocopied books would beam a smile to every foreigner he saw, hoping for a sale. We would watch ladies trotting down the street burdened with giant baskets of fresh tropical produce, household goods, or even small restaurants hung from wooden poles and balanced like scales on their shoulders.
“We found that we didn’t need to go to the store. Hanoi brought the shopping to us.
“One day, we heard a loud explosion. Was it a bomb? An accident? There was a rare moment of silence. A crowd of more than a hundred people gathered, only to find that a cat had apparently jumped off a roof and landed on an electric transformer. The power was out, but activity quickly resumed. Horns honked, and people discussed the event for a few moments, while bits of fur floated gently away in the breeze. Just another day in Hanoi.
“Another steamy afternoon, we watched as a motorbike screeched to a stop a few feet away from us. Jumping off his scooter, the driver lifted up the seat of his bike to retrieve some papers from the compartment underneath and out jumped a rat, which promptly scurried off. The rider barely noticed, but we couldn’t stop laughing at what passes for normal in this city.
“Other cities may have bigger markets or more glittery temples, but no other city offers such a sense of ‘other-ness.’
“The best way to experience Hanoi is to walk through the many micro-neighborhoods in the Old Quarter (the Hoan Kiem District). You’ll hear the tin street before you get there, as a block full of tinsmiths hammer from dawn until dusk manufacturing the goods of their trade.
“Nearby is Hang Ma, where bright lanterns, elaborate gift baskets, stacks of paper offerings, cards, lights, and holiday decorations erupt in a carnival of color.
“Hang Bac, where you can shop for every sort or silver imaginable, is near Lan Ong, where the tantalizing smells of Chinese herbs and teas drift over the sidewalks.
“There are linen streets, candy streets, fish streets, toy streets, art streets, audio streets, baby clothes streets, silk streets, cell phone streets…
“Part of what makes Hanoi so unique is the exuberant and incredibly energetic nature of its people. They are intoxicated with the enthusiasm and hope that come from improving living conditions and expanded freedoms. The laughter of children and the honest curiosity of the people are welcoming. The arousing atmosphere of ordered chaos, seasoned with a hint of luck and fortune, sharpens the senses.
“Vietnam was consumed by struggle for decades. It has emerged victorious. Its population, most born after the wars ended, are irrepressible idealists. They see their world developing and evolving and are determined to be successful participants.”