Living With The Unpredictable In Hanoi, Vietnam

Do You Ever Get Used To It?

Walking down a street near our house in Hanoi recently, we passed a group of four tired and miserable looking French tourists taking shelter on the stairs in front of a clothing store. One of them saw us and jumped up to block our way.

“Do you speak English?” she asked plaintively. We reassured her that we did, and with panic in her eyes, she asked us if there was any place to eat around this area. They were lost, hungry, overstimulated, and overwhelmed.

With plenty of restaurants all over the neighborhood, we were a little taken aback by her question but calmly reassured the group that we could take them to “Food Street,” an alley of two small blocks just a short walk away that was lined with restaurants. The four of them huddled close to our side as we crossed a moderately busy intersection, hoping that our presence would save them from being run over by the first passing motorcycle. Along the way, one of them asked, “Do you ever get used to it?”

I considered her question and came up stumped. “What ‘it’ are you referring to?” I asked her.

“It!” she said, the earlier panic still evident in her voice. “The traffic, the chaos, everything!”

It wasn’t an easy question to answer. The traffic and chaos can’t be ignored here, but after a while, they cease to be an issue. There are ways to cross the street that may seem counterintuitive but are perfectly acceptable and safe in Hanoi. Horns are constantly honking, but they become white noise after a while. The swarms of vehicles swerve and cut each other off, but no one gets road rage and accidents are surprisingly uncommon.

On rare occasions, I still freeze when crossing a busy street. Vehicles don’t yield to pedestrians, though they do avoid hitting them. You have to take that first step and keep walking, slowly and deliberately, until you reach the other side of the street. Taking that first step can be hard, though. More than once, a tiny, elderly lady has grabbed me by the hand and walked me across the street, acting as a buffer against the onslaught of motorbikes. Where I come from, we help senior citizens cross the street. In Vietnam, they help us.

We enjoy shopping at the traditional markets here. The goods are often fresher and more local than those sold at the larger supermarkets, and prices can be considerably lower, too. Most importantly, it gives us an opportunity to interact with the local people. Few foreigners shop for groceries at the local markets, and people are genuinely curious about us. We amuse them. They seem to love listening to us trying to communicate with them in Vietnamese, no matter how terribly we mangle the words.

Every now and then, we’ll buy some fruit or a bag of vegetables from a vendor who has never interacted with a foreigner before. Faces beaming, they’ll give us a price that seems absurdly cheap, hoping that we’ll return to them again. They’ll probably go home that night and relate the story to their family, saying how they had a tây, or westerner, buy from them today. Shopping at the markets is always an adventure. We never really “get used to it.”

We talk to the French ladies about these special moments as we walk down the same street we walk down nearly every day. For the first time, we notice an ancient temple tucked away down an alley. A family of four and three dogs whizzes by us on a single motorbike. Someone stands on their balcony in a crumbling French-Colonial mansion, watching us walk along the sidewalk.

A slender woman wearing a cone hat walks alongside her bicycle that is overloaded with dozens of fresh baguettes hanging from plastic bags on the handlebars and a Styrofoam box somehow strapped to the seat. Her friend is selling flowers from another bicycle: fresh orchids, chrysanthemums, roses, and carnations.

Another lady passes by, weighed down with two woven baskets loaded full of mangos, dragon fruit, and oranges that are strung together by a length of bamboo balanced on her shoulder. We silently wish her luck—she’s not even 5 feet tall and her daily wares likely outweigh her. We’re briefly interrupted by a young man who appears out of nowhere hoping to shine our sandals. We keep walking.

As the French tourists listen to our stories, their panic gradually subsides. We enter the mostly vehicle-free “Food Street” and walk them to our favorite Vietnamese phở gà restaurant, where a large bowl of soup, full of fresh vegetables, tender chunks of chicken, and flat rice noodles, served with assorted fresh greens and condiments, costs about US$2.50. The tourists are content, having found safety in a relatively quiet place and time enough to eat, relax, and regroup.

We, too, are content. We’ve looked at this city through their eyes and realized how different it must seem to them. For us, the fast pace, the noise, and the disorder have become normal. Have we gotten used to it here? Not really. It’s still an amazing place, and there isn’t a day that goes by without some odd happening. Our days of panic are long over, but the days of looking at the city with awe and amazement are not.

We could certainly live in many places in Asia—even in Vietnam—that are much less exotic than Hanoi. To us, though, living in this city that is so different is part of what keeps us here. Life is exciting and every day is predictably unpredictable. If we ever get used to it, it will probably be time to move on.

Wendy Justice

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