South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: When the lights go on in the city.
Date: May 8, 1995 18:22

22:16 Hotel Especen #11; Hanoi-Vietnam :: 6 MAY 95

I am glad to have already spent 60 days in Asian countries before entering Vietnam. Arriving in Hanoi, particularly Hanoi, may well have been too much all at once. In all the world that I have been there is no place like Hanoi, beautiful, decrepit, eroding, vibrant Hanoi.

The fallow years of communist economy set this place apart from what I've seen of Asia. While others simultaneously decayed and renewed, Vietnam decayed only. Before free-market reforms, it was a country no taller than seven stories. Now, while buildings still crumble and wither, brick by brick, layer by layer, back to earth, nearby cranes heave concrete into the sky. Debris from construction and destruction alike collects everywhere on otherwise unused surfaces. Woven mat walls, bamboo joists and a thatch roof cap the fourth story building beside our newly reno'd hotel. Seven years ago, Hanoi awakened from unquiet slumber and now it brushes cobwebs from cramped, atrophied limbs.

Differentiating also is the legacy from which it deteriorated. The achievements of past conqueror's efforts stand everywhere. Much of what still stands, colonial France erected and so Hanoi in parts resembles an Asian Paris. There are trees here, lining the streets. And parks where flowers grow, children play and the population whiles away the hours. The stately buildings, melding French and Oriental motifs, concentrate where avenues broaden. There the spacious sidewalks once beckoned gentry outside their fences of stucco and iron for ambling afternoon strolls. In the evenings they retired, safe behind the walls they thought would last for years. Brick is feebler than flesh, iron thinner than blood. The conquerors fled. The walls remain.

Remains of the French
Hanoi, Vietnam

Where the streets are narrow and cramped, life spills out onto them. Under the tree-lined canopy surge the scooters, bicycles and cyclos, the odd Japanese car or Russian lorry, like corpuscles through arteries. It is a swarm, a stampede. Staccato horn blasts signal, "Here I am! Here I am! Look-out, look-out! Here I am!" With the sidewalks appropriated by hawkers, restaurants and businesses we, the pedestrians, must share the roadway and so dodge and side-step and brake suddenly. We listen for horns and shoulder-check before changing direction, an action never made abruptly. Somehow the herd always parts. We are safe within the flurry.

17:38 Hotel Especen #11; Hanoi-Vietnam :: 7 MAY 95

While by Malaysian and Thai standards the streets seem narrower, the buildings small and cramped, while people live even more in each other's laps, there remain significant Vietnamese improvements on those standards. A small army wielding brooms, shovels and wheel-barrows daily assaults the dirt, debris and other trash collecting in the streets, from early in the morning well into the night. The streets and sidewalks are well brushed, the storm-drains clear. All over SE Asia, rotting, fetid ooze accumulates, festering the air so that even an open durian, a smell worse than exploded skunk, is lost in the acridity. But not so in Vietnam. Pointedly, I've seen no durian sold here.

Cleanly tidiness is a hallmark of Vietnamese character. Market stalls are immaculate, produce and products aesthetically ordered and displayed, cutting boards scrubbed clean. Thais, Malays and Chinese will use any open space as a rubbish tip. You'll not see that here. Even in the most depressed areas a broom is the order imposed on the decaying city. If things are to fall apart, they will at least do so neatly.

The men who drive cyclos, yet another version of the three-wheeled bicycle cab, smile a warm hello and wave. Hand and facial gestures implore, "Ahhh, you are walking in the rain and it is dry here in my cab. Why not let me take you where you are going?" We always walk and politely decline, "No thank-you." Another smile and good-willed wave good-bye. In Ho Chi Minh City, they were often more persistent, two followed me several blocks, rarely are they so here. Here if I anticipate them with a smiling shake of the head, they nod, smile and ride on.

I have fallen for the people whose smiles light up the sky. I've apologised for Thai 'unfriendliness', suggesting the language barrier leaves them understandably reserved. How then are the Vietnamese, who speak English no more often than the Thais, so often gregarious, forward? "Hello! Where are you from?" They call to us, particularly the children.

But these friendly advances are momentary gestures to interesting strangers. Overall, there is a cool reserve to their character. Perhaps Katrin is right and the reserve is better described as subdued. And yet they return smiles with glowing smiles-broad, beaming grins, that warm the recipient deep inside. If they are subdued it seems a peaceful, contented subduction.

Cycling Hanoi

14:59 Saswasdee House; Bangkok-Thailand :: 8 MAY 95

There are too many of them for their reserve to have much meaning in the throng of human interaction. A million people quietly going about their business still generate a buzz. Four of us arrived at night in the centre of Hanoi amidst a cacophony of horns, voices, motors. In a whir, from all directions they came and to all directions they went. Dim lights reached not even second story eaves, buildings hunched in crowding out the sidewalk, pinching the street to a narrow gasp. And the trees hunkered low completing the tunnel of concrete and darkness.

The initiation is like a blow. All senses fired, drubbing the mind with the alien and the merely new. A flood washes over the banks of perception. What one cannot wholly perceive remains unintelligible, leaving only a reflexive grip on the stimulus. I see, hear, smell, feel; I taste the air in my mouth. Even with two months sensitisation to the Asian context, even after three days in Vietnam, the Hanoi scene boggles.

Making no sense of it, my mind is reduced to another sense organ, firing off unanswerable half-formed questions to an over-stimulated brain. Tree-lined? This narrow street? What looms in the darkness above? A one way street? No signs! How do they know? Where are we? All these horns! Can't think. On the sidewalk: a family dining table or a food-stall? Yikes! Don't think-watch the scooters. Is she? She is! Uggh, squatting right in the storm drain. "No, no cyclo, thank-you." He smiled. Not persistent. Is it just the cyclos wearing safari hats? And khaki? GOD! A train's on the street. Oh, just a lorry horn. Marvelous TREES! Street-cleaner trucks?

And on it went into the night.

In the morning, after watching the hubbub from above while eating breakfast on the hotel roof, with radiant sun filling in the night-time holes, after fitful sleep with unquiet dreams sorting and categorizing the sensations, examining the questions, Hanoi the weird, fabulous, fantastic place of the night before became Hanoi: beautiful, decrepit, eroding, vibrant Hanoi.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --

It is easier to suppress the first desire
than to satisfy all that follow it.
  graphical element Benjamin Franklin