Pictured: Nervous smile before indulging in cow tail soup.
Getting into Hanoi is like stepping through a portal into a drastically different world. As our Grab taxi emerges from the airport parking lot, we find ourselves barreling down a freeway, passing ramps and overpasses. There are more lanes than I can discern, and cars, trucks and motorbikes weave past one another. In, out, in, out. As if in a carefully practiced formation. I stare, entranced.
“This is fancy,” we say. “I wonder what the city will be like.”
The freeway continues on. Eventually the guardrails lining its sides have more breaks in them; turnoffs to smaller roads the twist and turn away from us. The number of motorbikes and scooters has suddenly increased tenfold. Where have they all come from?
We arrive at our hostel and – after rejoicing in having the luxury of dorm beds with privacy curtains – head out into the city. We have big goals for this evening. First off, we have no cash whatsoever, so we need an ATM. Second, beer. Third, food. Our needs are quite simple, really.
We head in a random direction and find ourselves at a Circle K convenience store. It has an ATM outside and cold beers inside; sweet success. We have a wholesome interaction with the guy behind the register as we try to learn our first few words in Vietnamese- our pronunciation is, of course, completely off. We ask for directions to the closest place to get some good food.
Once on the sidewalk we crack open our beers, cheers and spend a minute or two squealing in delight.
We follow the directions and -of course- get lost. We spend the evening walking in the rain and soaking in the newness of this city. We buy unidentifiable fruit and eat it as we walk – turns out they were lychees. I eat a cow tail soup that is equal parts good and equal parts questionable. The best “vegetable soup” we are able to find for Louis is a chicken soup sans chicken.
Our first night is wet and cold. It is wonderful and disappointing. It’s overwhelming and fascinating. We feel like there is something we are missing. It brings me great pleasure that both of us remain insistent that the light of day will bring us a better Hanoi.
We wake up from a restful night’s sleep at our hostel and head out for a free walking tour. Still cold and rainy, but so worth it.
The guide from the hostel, Ling, is an absolute legend and his tour includes facts, personal stories and a whole lot of jokes. We make new friends, we drink coconut coffee. We walk alleyways we would never have found on our own. We visit markets and encounter more street food vendors than I can count. I am blissfully aware that I am finally here. I am finally in Vietnam.
I eat my first pho in the country. It’s delicious.
Paul, Peter and Nicklas arrive in Hanoi and together with a whole clan of new friends, we all go out for hot pot. We eat. And eat. And eat.
We go out in search of the infamous 5,000 dong beer. There is a section of Hanoi’s old quarter where vendors set up kegs of locally brewed beer which they sell for 5,000 dong (€0.18). It’s cheap, it’s watered down, it’s not very good. It’s also one of my favorite things about Hanoi.
We sit on teeny tiny stools and say cheers. We meet more backpackers; pull up more stools. It’s someone’s birthday so we sing happy birthday. A trio of guys show up with musical instruments and we sing it again – feliz cumpleaños this time.
Suddenly our vendor ushers to us all to stand up. Whereas we slowly rise, looking around in confusion, she is quick. She scoops the stools out from under our butts and begins to stack them and set them aside. I notice that vendors up the street are doing the same.
“Turn your beer away!” someone says.
What the fuck? I think.
I hold my beer down by my side and look out towards the street. A police wagon slowly drives by. I hear a police officer’s voice over the loudspeaker. Hmm. So is this illegal? I wonder why we aren’t being asked to leave altogether.
Before I have the time to finish the thought, our lady begins to unstack the stools again. Ballsy, I think. The police wagon has barely passed our spot. She smiles as though nothing has happened and gestures to the keg and our empty glasses. A wordless: it’s okay to sit again. Now order more beer, please and thank you.
I have no idea what has just happened to us. For the moment I honestly don’t even need to. So far Hanoi is fascinating. It’s dynamic, it’s mad, it’s bustling. It’s captivating.
Tomorrow I’ll learn more. As for today? Right now? I stand under the glow of the streetlights, teeny tiny stools being unstacked around me. I look at the happy faces of both new and old friends. I listen to their chatter; soak up their laughter.
In this yellow glow, I am happy.