How to breathe in Hanoi
It took me all of a day to decide I didn’t like Hanoi. I arrived at night under a sky that was starless and rainy, air that felt cool and clammy—and in a taxi that cost me $15 more than I had anticipated. Come morning, a grey haze hung over the city, drizzly rain seeping into every crack of the mangled sidewalks and into my pores—admittedly a welcome relief after leaving behind a cold Canadian winter that had my skin as parched as a desert. The streets screamed with chaos—cars, motorbikes and bicycles all surged from seemingly every which way, a moving mob on wheels.
It’s not that I hated it. I don’t think I’ve ever “hated” any place. But Hanoi’s energy felt almost like an assault. New smells and loud sounds and the sensation that everything around me was always moving put my senses into overdrive. There was too much to take in, to watch for as I crossed muddy streets of reddish brown rivers, trying not to get hit by a weaving motorbike, my ears ringing from blaring horns. I just wanted it all to stop. I needed to breathe.
I was travelling with Rachel of The Nomadic Editor. “Just trust they’ll go around you,” she said, as I froze for the umpteenth time while trying to part the sea of motos. “They don’t want to hit you.”
It’s one thing to logically understand that the drivers of Hanoi aren’t aiming their wheels at pedestrians, but it’s quite another to convince your survival instinct of the same thing. Each time we crossed a road, it felt like victory—the prize being all my limbs still attached to my body.
I don’t know at what point my panic subsided, but on our second evening, as we dodged cars and bikes and vendors along Ngô Sĩ Liên, the mess suddenly felt methodical, moving like a ballet in organized chaos. There’s a scene in The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb (one of my favourite writers, and one of my reasons for wanting to go to Vietnam) in which the character of Maggie, terrified by the traffic, is led across the street by Hanoi resident Tu’. “It’s almost like floating, like walking on water. ‘Look straight ahead,’ [Tu’] says, ‘and whatever you do, don’t hesitate. You need to find the quiet inside.'” It felt a bit like that. Quiet in my body while the world whipped around me.
There were other moments of calm, too, like the kids who would squeal and yell hello! to me and every other Westerner who passed them—and then giggle twice as hard when I responded with a xin chào! Or sitting at a streetside phở shop, sipping a soup—the most delicious soup I’ve ever tasted—that makes you feel like time is standing still, even while traffic zips past.
Our first lunch in Hanoi led Rachel and me to a place simply named Phở Gà (translation: Chicken Soup), located next to the wildly popular Cafe Trang. Our soup wasn’t traditional phở, but a slightly sweet broth with pork meatballs in hers and chicken in mine and a collection of herbs and chilis more flavourful than the best soups I’ve had in North America. Before I had departed for Vietnam, everyone told me the highlight would be the food, that there is nothing comparable to real Vietnamese cuisine. In that moment, slurping up noodles and broth, I knew they were right—and thought that maybe they had even downplayed the power of a good bowl of phở when you’re wondering where the hell you are.
Rachel and I walked all afternoon (and took a few coffee breaks en route), eventually heading to Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which is said to be home to several endangered soft-shell turtles (bookworm side note: this is the lake Maggie and Tu’ were crossing the street to reach). We crossed the Huc Bridge that leads to Jade Island and Ngoc Son Temple. Across the water, Hanoi’s traffic carried on, the sound of horns still audible but no longer ringing in my ears as we sat under the weeping willows and fig trees and incense smoke spiralled above our heads.
After crossing back from the island, we wandered the park trail that leads around the lake. And the calmness continued, as along the way, we stopped to watch two men playing their own makeshift sport that seemed to be something like a cross between golf, horseshoes and badminton, and, with some coaxing from them, I tried my hand at a round (I was terrible, which they quite enjoyed). No words, just lots of smiles and giggles shared between a handful of strangers while the city buzzed on behind us.
In hindsight it sounds like a dull day, but that’s what made it perfect. When chaos is around you, you have to seek out the calm. Hanoi, I’ll remember your mayhem and your traffic, and not necessarily fondly. But I’ll also always remember that you taught me to find the quiet inside.