Foreigners feel comfortable behaving badly in Hanoi because the new-found freedom is intoxicating. The fact that rules are often treated as only suggestions, combined with a sense of anonymity leads to some pretty uncharacteristic behaviour. It takes time to learn that underneath what looks like chaos is a remarkably kind and caring society displayed in the slow speed of traffic, the space left for smaller vehicles, the liberal use of horns and the acceptance that people are free to make pretty poor choices. Most people mean well.
Last month I headed into the city center via Cau Chuong Duong, the newer bridge, just south of Cau Long Bien over the Song Cai, which was jammed with commuters traveling between the Old Quarter and the district of Long Bien. Underneath the roundabout on the west side, the parking lot, with its dimly lit grey underpass columns and smell of diesel and wet concrete, was filling up rapidly with people visiting the Old Quarter, the heart of Hanoi’s tourist trade and nightlife, though it has dwindled in the era of Covid. At the end of 2020 the feeling that the party is over is palpable. A strange mix of locals and foreigners are bumping up over the curb to park their motorbikes under the bridge to gain easy access to Hanoi 36 pho phuong, the only party left.
Motorbikes are lined up, squeezed tight and a chore to manage. The parking attendant in fingerless gloves ruffles through tickets and money from the comfort of his tiny blue plastic chair. He has a toothy grin; his eyes two glittering wrinkles. I go for the nearest available space, but the attendant directs me to the very back and I comply despite my confusion. Why must I park so far away? I find the space and widen it by dragging the rear-ends on either side further apart. If I knock the bike next to mine out of frustration, they’ll all topple like dominoes. Not to worry! I won’t be confronted by angry bikers from a Burt Reynolds movie seeking vengeance for the attack on their freedom. The Vietnamese are incredibly tolerant.
The party is indeed coming to an end and I am grateful to have been able to drink some bia hoi in the Old Quarter and reflect on how lucky I am to live here given the harsh pandemic restrictions elsewhere.
The rules are different here. Some deranged immigrant from Canada can drink herself into a stupor or inhale too much nitrous oxide and fall flat on her face shaking uncontrollably, and there is not really any help, but there is not much judgement either. On the contrary, there seems to be an understanding that she is not used to facing the full consequences of her bad decisions and should be forgiven. She is overconfident in her namelessness and untethered from the shame she might feel at home in her own small gossiping community. Spotted outside the Circle K with a confused look mumbling ‘What exactly is going on here? the crooked toothed, lascivious traveler set loose in a low cost of living and a pervasive, imperfect beauty grasps her new reality, albeit slowly.
Such nuance is lost on many foreigners who need time to shed old illusions and adopt the new mustard yellows and cartoon pink cherry blossoms of a new perspective. To get there, we teach and care for children and feel purpose again. We open small businesses relatively easily due to a lack of red tape and safety standards of any kind. We purchase SUVs and after days of aggravating 3-point turns in streets designed for bicycles, we put our feet up with a glass of wine and seriously consider donating to a charity to help the less fortunate. It is uncanny to belong permanently in the place you find yourself.
The Old Quarter beckons with less buzz and a somewhat reduced glow in these times of pandemic travel restrictions. I wander the maze of streets taking in the shoe shiners, trinket sellers, pretty green beer dresses and outstretched hands offering cheap food and cups of fresh beer. It appeals to rugged individuals seeking to fulfill the same unique desires as all the other rugged individuals milling about the streets late at night.
The party is indeed coming to an end and I am grateful to have been able to drink some bia hoi in the Old Quarter and reflect on how lucky I am to live here given the harsh pandemic restrictions elsewhere. I am not looking forward to locating my bike in the underpass parking labyrinth and heaving countless scooters out of the way to get to my rental. The annoyance and exasperation bubble just below the surface and make me want to do something stupid, but the parking attendant with glittering wrinkles smiles confidently, and easily removes my motorbike from the stuffed lot to set me free across the now empty Cau Chuong Duong over the Red River and eventually home.
Tim is a Chào Hanoi columnist. Hailing from Canada, he has been traveling and writing for 25 years. Now based in the Vietnamese capital, he is brimming with curiosity about the city and its people, and is adept at making simple social interactions awkward.
Illustrations by VJ.