I made it to Hanoi early yesterday morning after a 2 day train ride through China and the northern border between it and Vietnam.
The train ride itself was a lot nicer than I’d hoped. The train was comfortable, safe and reliable. Buying the tickets in Beijing wasn’t as tricky as I’d feared and overall it was an amazing journey, giving me a glimpse into China, even though I didn’t stop anywhere along the way. Just looking out of the window was enough to get a sense for the country – field upon fields of rice paddies interrupted by big cities, all concrete tower blocks, dust and factories. At times in the distance you’d see factories pumping out smoke, and as we got further south, jagged rocks and small mountains started to crop up, like those you see on the South East Asian coast, but strangely enough, these were all inland, a weird and fascinating sight. Amidst the fields the sights of people in traditional hats sowing seeds and picking up rice alongside ox pulling carts was a strange – a typical cliche, postcard picture but yet one that is still very true for a lot of rural China.
The cities were also pretty interesting. Having left Beijing’s oppressing pollution and strange architecture, it was actually pretty much more of the same. The influence and power of China’s communist past obviously stretching in all directions, which when you consider the size of the country is a pretty impressive feat. Most of the cities were all concrete tower blocks, dust and busy streets. Very grey, a feeling only made worse by the cloudy sky and huge amounts of smoke emanating from factories both on the outskirts of big cities and randomly found across the countryside.
Arriving in Hanoi, the feeling of chaos and noise I’d felt in Beijing only continued, and much to my surprise turned out to be a lot worse. Though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I’m realising now one week into a month in South East Asia, once you let the chaos just flow around you and learn to walk through it rather than be stunned and scared by it, it’s really not that bad at all. I think more than anything, my time in Japan really made me forget how life in a big city can really be, and this sensation of chaos is only amplified by the relative calm and order I came to learn to live with while in Tokyo. And when I say that, it’s not that Tokyo doesn’t have its own chaos, but it really is a lot more ordered and contained than anything I’ve seen on the Asian continent so far.
The chaos on the streets of Beijing shocked me. But Hanoi is even worse. I was expecting it – the images of hundreds, even thousands of people on motorbikes, scooters and other two wheeled vehicles amidst cars and pedestrians is a typical postcard, but seeing it in the flesh is really something else. Again though, once you get over the initial shock, and in ways awe, of the chaos that is a typical Hanoi street, crossing it isn’t that bad. Do like the locals and go with the flow. Soon enough you find that hesitating and worrying is the worse thing you can do. Not caring seems to just make you arrive on the other side safe and sound. I took a bike out today and expected it to be a little trickier, and yet the same applied. Going with the flow I somehow survived over 5 hours of cycling the streets of the city and found that being part of the traffic flow was quite appealing in its own way, with people on bikes stretching on all sides at times and everywhere you look. It’s truly a one of a kind situation, one that seems to have such a strange and fascinating way of working out perfectly out here.
And while the streets are as noisy and chaotic as Beijing, one thing I soon realised walking around on the first day, is that the streets here actually have a smell. And not in a bad way. With restaurants, cafe and street stalls everywhere, walking around not only means being surrounded by noise and chaos, but also by the sweet, or sometimes not so sweet, smells of various ingredients and dishes. It made me realise how Tokyo also lacked a certain sense of smell like this, something I was used to back home in Europe, where it’s common to walk around towns taking in the sights and smells, from markets and restaurants. Even London has its own unique smell, even though that one is a more peculiar and particular one, more of a street smell than a food one. Tokyo has great food yes, but the smells never really seem to wander around like they do here.
The street stalls are fascinating too. Amidst all the shops and tourist spots, which feel a lot more ‘normal’ than those I saw in Beijing, there are countless street stalls cooking food with locals sitting on tiny chairs and in front of tiny tables, eating, drinking and talking. Being literally at near street level is odd at first, but soon feels normal. The food itself is amazing, with every place cooking up different dishes or takes on the same thing, including the traditional pho noodle soup, spring rolls and more. I’ll be spending a bit more time talking about food in another post, but after a so-so experience with local food in Beijing, Hanoi has been a breath of fresh air.
One thing that really struck me when I first walked around yesterday was the architecture. I’m staying in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, which I realised today after cycling around most of the city centre is actually a pretty special part of town. Not only does it seem to have the greatest concentration of street stalls and food vendors, as well as shops, it’s also a totally amazing architectural environment.
And cycling around today, what really hit me was how the chaos of the streets is reflected in the buildings. Where Beijing’s cityscape was a strange blend of the traditional old, communist past and capitalist new, Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a totally chaotic mish mash of old, new and falling apart. The influences and remnants of its French colonial past are appearant in almost every street, however all the buildings are pretty much falling apart, with paint dried on walls, colors changing everywhere, wires criss crossing the streets and covering the buildings while fighting with creeping vegetation.
Standing still on the street I found myself not only fascinated and hypnotised by the traffic and chaos but also doing the same when looking at buildings. The sensation is crazy, like nothing I’ve felt before, it totally overwhelms you and traps you in as you try to figure out what is what, where things start and where they end. Where the streets have order in the chaos, the architecture of the Old Quarter has beauty in its chaos and disorder.
Cycling around to the other parts of town this feeling disappears at times or lessens, as you come across wide streets lined with well-maintained colonial buildings, newer buildings and slightly more traditional architecture. Still it seems you’re never more than a corner or two away from the buildings’ own fascinating chaos, which makes walking or cycling around the city really fascinating. As long as you remember to keep an eye, or better both, on the road.
As for the people, they’ve been incredibly warm and friendly for the most part. As with China I’ve realised that it’s not really crime you need to worry about – it’s people trying to take you for a ride. And as I said then, and continue to realise now, that’s only fair enough, especially considering that most of the population lives in relative poverty compared to the west. Once you get past the people heckling you for everything from a bike ride to weed or prostitutes, there’s a wealth of warmth and a sense of welcome with people willing to help or even just chat. Fact is no matter where you go they’ll always charge you a little more than the locals, but as long as you keep a smile on your face and a fairly relaxed attitude, it’s actually not bad, and never really comes to that much money. I’ve managed to eat for about a few pounds a day so far, sticking to street vendors and bars where the prices are clearly advertised. As with most travelling, a good sense goes a long way, but I’ve been really pleasantly surprised with how nice and easy it’s been to deal with. I guess living outside of it, whether in the West or in Japan, it’s easy to get a distorted picture of what it really is like. But a no, a smile or a wave of the hand is always enough for people to leave you alone. And afterall it’s only fair that they would try it on. It even leads to some hilarious moments when someone comes up to offer you a postcard or something else at random and swiftly moves on to weed or other things once you’ve refused as if it was the most normal thing in the world (ok so maybe I’ve got the face, but it’s just a beard).
I’m heading down to Saigon tomorrow, with another 2 day train ride. I’ve heard Vietnam’s south is a lot more different to the north, and while I didn’t expect this much from Hanoi, I’m now really looking forward to seeing how Saigon compares. And the journey along the way, with its coastlines and scenery should be a real trip.
Oh yeah and while Hanoi is nowhere near as bad as Beijing for pollution, the oppressive heat more than makes up for it and gives off the same claustrophobic feeling. But it’s a lot easier to deal with then walking through smoky, polluted streets pounded by heat.