Hanoi

I lived in Hanoi from 1998 to 1999, or maybe it’d be more accurate to say for a large chunk of that time, I existed, possibly … but then I found this piece from those days (unpublished) and realise I didn’t completely waste my time or see the city solely through the prism of bored, drunken ex-pats, doing drugs and prostitutes, working 15 hour weeks and gossiping. By no means were all of them were so apathetic and spiritually corroded, but it was quite a hard place to live in many respects, quite lonely, and many of the good guys and gals were ground down and left, while those who remained I think found there were no longer any social constraints as they’d otherwise have had at home, the more rounded people were gone and the social circles were unbalanced, and on the one hand too much time and too much money enabled people to do what they wanted such that they corrupted themselves, and on the other, the strongest chords of their personalities – generous? Self-serving? Self-pitying? Misogyny? Drunken? Bullying? Traumas? Conniving? Egomania? – became the loudest and most played, they became caricatures of themselves that they normally wouldn’t recognise. (longtime PS – way more could have been done to embed with the locals? Aye, likely … a few more months, more confidence with the language, maybe, aye … I did learn a bit and had a few Vietnamese chums … hindsight’s great).

Maybe, but this is simply one jaded opinion. Luckily I met Laetitia, who was very sane, while I also sought, and found, a lot of solitude away from those other vipers, at night, in the town, and found much beauty for it  … :

Many have said, and written it too, Hanoi’s nightlife 

is a lost cause. It’s true, unlike any other capital,
the bulk of the town is in bed by ten, next to no bars
are open beyond eleven, and hotels are closing up in
any case.
But what if you’re locked out, and another night
propped up in the Apocalypse Now nightclub, wedged between the
large, the sweaty and the drunk, would really be the
worst, decadent end? There’s really no need. Hanoi’s
nightlife is there, it’s just so much more subtle.
There’s a beautiful, almost eerie serenity impossible
to envisage during the day. The long, wide boulevards,
usually chogged with scooters, now pad off into dark
silence, just a series of soft, yellow pools of light
beneath heavy vaults of dark green, and above, the
blackest, blackest skies. Along run rows of crumbling
French colonial villas, flanked by yellow or duck-egg
blue washed concrete houses, ending at junctions where
cyclo-men congregate and doze.
Best to eat first, so there’s a collection of all night
restaurants next to Ga Hanoi (the station), serving all
kinds of fried and sauteed dishes ’til all hours.
Around here, the duskily lit pavements hold dozens of
knee high tables and pixey stools, carrying snacks of
sunflower and pumpkin seeds, kumquats, tea, cigarettes
and zeo, or rice wine. Old women keep guard of these
troves by oil-lamps, as Pith-hatted Cyclo and Xeom
drivers gather, some perched feet atop the tiny plastic
stools.
Take a cyclo to Hoan Kiem lake. By day, this handsome
lake, with it’s pagodas and cafes, is the main tourist
focus and postcard-seller haunt whilst Hanoians
commute round it.
By night, it’s seemingly dead, but under the flat
hands of the trees that lean from its banks at
amazing angles, scores of men and women are fishing,
casting lines or wading in, eeking a living banned in
the day.
On the benches couples canoodle, exchanging elicit
passion as the moonlight dances on the ripples of the
water. Hanoi, city of lakes, has scores of these
gloriously romantic settings, providing a kind of privacy they could never get in plain public sight, for sexual mores
are still highly conservative. On this, some
restaurants on West lake have dark galleries on their
roofs, where young couples lie in each other’s arms for
hours, hours, and hours. 
Less tender, Hoan Kiem is also the main cruiser
circuit, and racing circuit to boot. Youth often drive
round at truly terrifying speeds on their playing-card
motorbikes, with occasional huge crowds on the
northern corners, stand there cheering away, oblivious to threat of

being ploughed into. On
occasion the police break up the show, brutally. And
the crashes are horrible to see.
So escape north into the old quarter, or the 36
streets. They maintain their medieval layout with
medieval squalor, tiny alleyways disappearing amidst a
dozen sleeping families, shattered pavements beneath
power cables strewn at neck height, and rats shuttling
down the deep gutters.
Near here, the markets begin. Head east towards the
river road, where up and down these dusty lanes
farmers squat with rattan trays over-flowing with
vegetables, whilst meat is sliced and diced on the
slab. Funnel-web lines are tapped from the cables for
the dullest bulbs to swing over the green clad
figures, stepping among the produce and splashing
bowls of fish.
The activity explodes at the junction of Tran Nhat Duat
and Pho Gam Cau, where arrive convoy after convoy of
bicycles from every direction, including above from
Long Bien bridge, with dustbin-sized wire panniers
stuffed with turnips, cabbages, corn and chickens.
Ancient Hondas cough in with three slain pigs dripping
their last over the back wheel. It’s the almightiest
midnight feast.
   
On that note, you may get peckish. Everywhere are
little pho soups stands, again tiny tables where
chicken stock simmers for hours in vats, with noodles
flash boiled. Beef or chicken are snipped and dunked,
vinegar with chilli garnished and chives chopped over
these soft, white strands.
If you can’t get beer with ice, try the zeo wine. Being
home made, the quality of this moonshine varies, but you won’t fail to
get tipsy. Cadge a tuc lao smoke, a bamboo
bazooka-esque pipe that, correctly smoked, feels as if
it went off with your mouth over the muzzle.
From here, follow Duong Yon Phu north, past the
oncoming cabbage-men, past the rows of dog restaurants
where podgy puppies are heard howling their last, and
at Phu Xuan Dieu, over the side of the dyke, is Flower
market. A vast web of fairy lights, conical hats and
deafening haggling over the most riotous field of
colours and smells. Row upon row of sellers, crammed
in atop the other, reach out with impossible types of
flowers as you pick through this stunning, surreal
garden.
By now, on the raised road, the older people are
emerging in their pyjamas, walking briskly and
swinging arms. Dawn is coming, and journeying back to
Hoan Kiem takes you to the centre of this aged army’s
pre-light manoevures, as the horizon cracks into dull
blues and yellows over squadrons of exercising
grandees.
For a last snack before bed in your re-opened hotel,
you may yet get bam bao. Men cycle around with
steaming canisters of these doughy pasties, mournfully
shouting ‘bam bao’, as if it were the name of their
great lost love. With luck, this sorrowful tale will
see you to sleep, as the voice fades into the haze,
before the harsh truths told by the Tannoys have a
chance to break your dreams. 
cRobin Tudge April 2000

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