As a foreigner, who doesn’t speak Vietnamese I was at a distinct disadvantage in terms of language when I arrived for the first time. Signage was minimal and there seemed to be a lot of flights all landing at once at Hanoi’s Noi Bai international airport.
As I deplaned, I followed the crowd to the immigration area, retrieving my pre-approved visa and the letter of entry from my backpack I joined a large crowd of people with no real sign of a line.
I quickly surmised that I had to submit my passport and paperwork, including photos and entry fee somewhere else…
Noticing people disappearing down a corridor I followed them to a back counter, where I was able to submit all of the requisite forms, before heading back into the crowd to wait for my name and passport to be called.
It took about an hour to get through the process. Patience is a virtue in situations like this, however not everyone around me had the same approach and there was frustration in the air as those less travelled fumed at the perceived inefficiencies…
Once I had my passport, I retrieved my backpack, which had been sitting on, the now stopped carousel and headed out into the humid and sticky terminal to find my driver who’d been waiting so patiently for me to emerge.
I had pre-arranged a driver (highly recommended) to take me downtown to my hotel, and so we exited the Noi Bai airport we ran into what I thought was an anomaly.
Yes, my first introduction to Hanoi and indeed Vietnam and I was struck by the sheer number of scooters that were everywhere. Even in Italy, which I considered until this point as the “home of the scooter” paled in comparison to Vietnam’s pure volume!
The ubiquitous scooter isn’t only found in the big cities but also in every village and hamlet throughout the entire country.
It’s clearly the mainstay of transportation in Vietnam, and if I were to hazard a guess, I’d contend that there are more scooters than people in this country, crazy, as that seems.
A friend said that when he was in Hanoi, he “feared for his life” crossing the road. Was this just his relatively sheltered life experience talking? Or was it real?
As you know, I’ve travelled to some of the busiest cities in the world, so I was completely unconcerned about Hanoi, until I actually got to Hanoi. Wow, now I could see why he was nervous!
So, after getting to the hotel and securing a map from the concierge I jumped into a taxi and asked the doorman from the hotel to ask the driver to take me to the “Old Quarter”.
Hanoi itself celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2010. The old quarter is an area of 36 streets and alleys that are divided by the type of artisan working in these streets for hundreds of years.
For example, Hanoi’s silk or “lụa” merchants are found primarily on Hang Gai Street. As with many ancient cities there is no standard grid layout, but rather a jumble of streets that weave and wind their way around in no particular direction.
Pretty easy to get lost unless you have a map, although finding an actual street sign is another issue completely…
The interesting thing about Hanoi is that because the streets and alleys are so narrow and there is no place to park scooters. With parking at a premium the footpath (sidewalk to my North American friends) is the parking lot for scooters.
I was starting to understand why being a pedestrian in Hanoi was a little more tenuous than what I had originally imagined as I had to share the narrow streets and alleys along with every other person, vehicle and potentially animal…
The afternoon was very humid and overcast, and I could see the thunderheads swirling above me and recognized the tell-tale signs of a storm that was brewing.
I quickly sought shelter under a shop’s awning just before the street was inundated in a tropical downpour that you only find in this part of the world.
It was mere seconds before the road was completely awash and slick with water, however for the locals on scooters it was just another afternoon in Hanoi.
I loved observing how life continued on irrespective of the weather and found myself discovering photo opportunities wherever I looked.
This was somewhat tricky as I juggled navigating the edge of the busy streets, with stopping to take photos without becoming a casualty.
I soon realized that both patience and courage were required to wade out into the oncoming traffic and hope that they got around you; it certainly wasn’t an activity for the faint of heart.
Over the course of my first afternoon in Hanoi I took close to 400 photos.
As the afternoon turned to dusk, I found myself at the magnificent Hoan Kiếm Lake (incredibly beautiful and serene), but found myself caught in the open during another torrential downpour… bugger!
Normally I would have been upset with myself for missing the obvious signs and getting soaking wet.
As I endeavoured to shelter under a large oak tree and keep my camera dry (all of which was to no avail) all I could do was smile to myself and think how fortunate I was to be experiencing Hanoi in all its splendour at this very moment…
Until next week
Prologue: Hanoi was also the location where the genesis of my semi-erotic micro fiction series began. Check it out here!