Hanoi’s 3 AM feeling. It greets you even in the middle of the night, bringing its best face and putting its best foot forward:
The bus from Hue drops us off at 3AM, and after fighting off the near-swarm of Touk Touk “where you going where you going” drivers, we’re wandering the empty streets trying to find this hostel when two guys on a motorcycle come so close to hitting me my knee grazes their engine; we’re crossing the next street when the same motorcycle comes by and snatches my friend’s phone from her hand. And as they disappear into the night, the vroom from their engine seems to say, “welcome to Hanoi, bitches.”
Two weeks later, it’s the end of my last night, of Halloween, and I’m walking back with my closest friend from the Cat Ba days, an hour after nearly kissing the girl he’d been semi-seeing, three hours after ingesting the reality-altering powder that made me do it in the first place. He’s wearing his Raj cloth he’d gotten on his trip to India, and neither of us are ready to acknowledge anything that happened tonight. We say goodbye, to each other and to the city, in clipped generalities and well-wishing just as the sun climbs over the central lake.
Somehow, when Hanoi’s involved, it doesn’t seem so wrong to connect those two events. To say, even, you can’t have one without the other in this city where sleep comes narrow and the beer comes for practically nothing.
Your hostels give free beer and you wonder What’s the Catch? And there isn’t one until you realize that free beer is the catch: you realize it around 8 AM the third day in a row you’ve been destroyed by it.
Your hostels give free breakfast, a long buffet table of bananas, hashbrowns, liquid knock-off Nutella, and filter-through coffee you always drink too much of even though you’ll be back in bed in twenty minutes, and so Hanoi tastes, in the light, like chocolate grains and heart-jolts while the Cathedral across the road rings the bells and gives benediction.
All the free breakfasts and free beer, and you know it’s killing you but you wonder about staying forever.
It’s captivatingly beautiful. A city of narrow buildings, squeezed up beside each other, of balconies, pillars, wooden shutters, and rooftop orchards with the flowers spilling over them. Crooked streets and old oak trees breaking past roofs, through roofs. The lakes and their lights. Cathedrals and Daoist temples nestled amongst food carts, plastic chairs, and stalls piled with clothing, trinkets, and shampoo. The grandiose French Mansions crouching in the city’s back corner.
It says so much about the pride of the Northern Vietnamese, the red winners of the war, that they’ve kept most of their capital intact. While Ho Chi Minh, like (basically) the rest of Asia knocks everything down and Americanizes, Hanoi still runs like it’s always run.
The result is a city that I haven’t seen intact in Asia: a place that keeps so much of its history, and yet doesn’t feel like walking through a museum or Disneyland the way Hoi An, Pingyao, Suzhou, or Luang Prabang do. Hanoi, Hanoi’s real. It’s not here to cater to tourists, and you better move the fuck outta the way of that motorcycle ripping at you.
Try just admiring the architecture when the motorcycle cavalry are coming your way, when ladies with carts full of limes push past, when a man with a gluegun tries fixing your shoe so he can charge you for it (attempted shoe-gluing is, surprisingly, one of the most invasive things I’ve had done to me). Hanoi’s just as full throttle as its glassy brother to the south, something you’ll realize when the sweat’s stinging your eyes and you’ve been trying to cross this road for an hour.
The city becomes a different beast at night, though no less ferocious. The roadside cafes become, like shape shifters, roadside bars, plastic chairs covering entire alleys as older men in shirtsleeves clink their 25 cent beers with the 20-somethings in sleeveless “I Love Hanoi” shirts, everyone sweating and having a great time. Strings of lightbulbs zigzagging down the alleys making arcs of white over the stalls while casting shadows across the balcony pillars. The temple in the middle of the lake is lit orange, its bridge lit red, and the pagoda on its next island is purple. Couples are strolling, the bikes zip by behind them, and if you sit down by the water you’re guaranteed to have a group of university students come up and practice their English.
It’s Hanoi, and at its best moments all these things make sense together. I’m looking at it, my first night, and I feel the city bursting through my veins and feel a dizziness like love. It’s Hanoi, a do-anything be-anyone kind of city, and I’m going to drink it dry:
Riding on my friend’s motorscooter to meet someone I’ve only met online, the wind flies at me with the screeching horns, my hands are slipping as my heart moves into my throat, and I can’t remember feeling this alive.
The lights in Japan-town cast a crystal-ball glow over their doors, and I want to look into every restaurant someone’s curling noodle onto a fork, into every home someone reads a newspaper.
The keg’s opened up, I sit down by a table, crack a joke, and it’s a blank slate with new people who might just be the best friends I’ve been waiting for. The night can go anywhere and be anything.
And every morning, I wake up with heavy bones and this assumption the day’s already ruined. I feel every bit of that free alcohol like sand grains running through my veins. And yet it’s less the alcohol than the ghost of last night’s endorphins that follow me: for every great and good thing about last night, there’s it’s opposite whacking down now. When I pull myself out to the streets, I wander without a map or a place to see. A car will come up against me and I’m pushed to a side street, only to come slicing up against a scooter, tripping over plastic chairs. Buffeted by the currents. It’s smoky, there’s all the fruits and aging meet, and gasoline poisons everything. On days like these, you feel a minor celebration when the dusk is coming on, like surviving the day is something that needs to be rejoiced. So you reward yourself with more free beer, more friends, more nights you’ll regret.
Hanoi’s a constantly accelerating merry-go-round; the more fun you have, the closer you are to throwing up.
It’s always good until that edge hour: 3 AM, the closest I saw Hanoi to showing something like a true face, the in-between of its day and night. The streets are empty, except for the men on motorcycles, always two of them, that always look like the cell phone stealers. Gated storefronts, shadows over upper stories, and the magic you’d gleaned is gone. You’re left feeling duped, walking in on a magician when the unsevered lady’s coming out of her box.
I think so much of this comes down to living through Hanoi as a backpacker. It’s, maybe, a city I haven’t seen. Not the real one, at least, the ones the Vietnamese call home. What I know is backpacker world, where Monday-Sunday loses meaning when every night’s Friday, and every friend you make is from some other corner of the world. It’s 3 AM and there’s no one here because it’s a Wednesday and I’m the only one here who doesn’t have to work at the crack of dawn.
Now, Hanoi and its region is famous for being standoffish. One outspoken northerner I was talking to believes that, while the South adopted American characteristics during being their allies in the war, making them louder and more outgoing, the North maintained everything they’d learned from the French, keeping them reserved and proud and ultimately independent.
It’s a nice theory, sure, and definitely something to chew on, but it’s too blanketing to encompass everything that makes Hanoi tick. No. When I think about it, I had every chance to make Vietnamese friends there. Whenever I sat down by the lake, the students that came to talk to me (mostly) spoke English well enough to create a real connection. The young teacher I met in the Museum of Ethanology definitely wanted me on Facebook so we could date, sure, but couldn’t something really valuable still have come from that? (Her teenage students, out on their excursion, all lined up on the ramp so they could watch us chat from the benches below, side-poking and sniggering).
Why’d I keep my distance? In China I pushed to connect with everyone I could, even when it’s a shaking train, 14th hour in hard-sleeper, and someone’s yelling at you in provincial Mandarin you barely understand. Meanwhile I was encountering some of the funniest, most pedal-to-the-metal nother-day-dollar people in my whole trip, many speaking enough English to share a bia hoi with, and I never did.
Maybe that 3 AM feeling, that deadness, I get comes not from the annoyance of being duped by the city, but instead is the guilt coming from being duped by the backpacker’s circuit. By hostels serving free beer and breakfast served with a side of insomnia, by Same-Same and elephant pants and where-ya-from’s I’m getting sucked into. By the taste in my mouth, like cigarette butts, that comes with realizing this wasn’t what I’d set out to do when I said I’d be travelling the next undefined set of months.
I was a part of all that, I contributed to it—in Laos it’d be even worse. But for all that, I don’t think I did Hanoi wrong. I could’ve drunk less, could’ve talked to more locals; seen all the museums or charted the city like a geographer. I just did things my way. I wouldn’t do it that way again because I wouldn’t need to; I didn’t meet locals, instead I met friends I’ll follow across the globe. Hanoi was a cocktail of emotions, but now, the memories burn bright, and I miss it. Miss it enough to go back and do it right.
It’s 3 AM and Halloween’s almost over. The party decided to extend onto rooftops, alleyways, clubs, places that become clubs after all the legal ones have been fenced off, strange houses by the river in districts I haven’t been to or can easily leave. It’s Laos in the morning, and so everything that builds and falls apart tonight won’t matter so much: when there’s always more people, more places to write and erase again. Tomorrow I’ll stare out the window of a café, watching the motorbikes accelerate around the roundabout, and think that after six days here I haven’t gotten any closer to grasping. But it’s 3 AM and I’m happy.
There’s an ending here.