Hanoi is a city to be felt, not explained. It is a city of paradoxes. It is visceral, it is complex, it is elegant, it is ugly.
Modern. Historic. Timeless.
The Old Quarter, where I am, a tangle of narrow streets lined with store fronts packed inside like sardines, a litany of any and all products ever thought up illuminated by florescent lights. Noodle and food shops, makeshift doll house diners for adults, with tiny plastic stools and low hanging tables. People bent over counter tops, slurping hot broth with a grace not mastered in Western countries. Stacked three or four story buildings with decrepit French Colonial faces above these ground floor economies. People, whole families, many living and breathing the same space as their ancestors did.
Hanoi, a city far from the coastline in this coast lined country. But it is not without water. Lakes, some more like ponds, scatter themselves all over the city. On West Lake, large and born from the Red River to its east, Vietnamese girls and boys break cultural customs and cuddle and kiss in the open air along the lapping concrete banks and in boats made to look like swans.
A place where the politics happen, and happen slowly for those who have neither the money nor the complacency to hand over money in exchange for expediency. Where the government controls its people peacefully but entirely from big, beautiful buildings with manicured gardens on tree-lined boulevards. It is Communism, Vietnamese style. Everyone must have the same. Except for the rich. They will have whatever pleases them.
Where parked motorbikes and food stalls line the sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to move amongst the bedlam of road traffic.
Where small women balance heavy loads on bamboo scales full of vegetables and street snacks on their shoulders like teetor-tooters.
Where men and women pee on the sidewalk but do not talk about sex.
Where crossing the street is an art mastered only through bravery, faith and determination to get to the other side of the road no matter what.
Where every once and while, you cross a person whose face looks more like an elephant than a human. Or a baby with a head the size of a watermelon. All signs that my country did terrible things to these people by terrible means and today’s formal apologies and admittances cannot erase them.
To exist in Hanoi, one must accelerate through the chaos or it will devour you. You must learn to move like water or you will bash up against it and it will break you.
Ignoring the stares at your differences and the beckoning of motorbike taxis and salesmen of all sorts. Weaving in between moving vehicles that will hit you if you hesitate, even for a half of a second.
If you cannot find your own grace, you cannot exist here.
I could find a home here, I think. Stay for a couple of months, or a couple of years. Maybe longer.
But then again, maybe not.
In Vietnam, my life and feelings are not easy to understand. A heady mix of everything I’ve ever felt and new things, too.
What the hell am I doing here? Why would I ever leave? I want to go home. Maybe I already am.
Maybe I feel lonely, maybe I feel alienated by the all the dichotomies that coexist in this space. But maybe I feel happier here than I have ever felt anywhere else.
I cannot tell.