Until the eleventh day I did not see streets wrapped in total blackness. Unearthly silence followed me to where taxi buses depart for airport. Even women street vendors have not spoken to each other. Quietly they lied piles of bananas and pineapples on heavy bicycles, getting prepared for another busy day in which they’ll need to earn enough Vietnamese Dongs to feed their families on the outskirts of Vietnam’s capital.
Good morning Vietnam
Despite the deep sleep in which the Old Quarter was in, it seemed as if the sun rose above the Hoem Lake intentionally, to throw its first rays on joggers, speed walkers and Tai Chi performers. At five in the morning even encouraged city rats came out to seek for food and most shocking, motorbikes drove without a single beep.
More and more people began to appear on the streets, opening their shops, pulling plastic chairs on the sidewalks and preparing their businesses for tourists.
Life in all its rawness was about to unravel on the streets of Hanoi.
Death and life, side by side
Death was mixed with the scent coming from a nearby temple and intense urine smell. An old Vietnamese woman sitting on a chair in front of a cafe obviously wasn’t disturbed with mourning across the street as she closed her eyes, enjoying the brush going through her hair. Life must go on among the living and having hair done next to the funeral was distasteful celebration of life. Nguyen Huu Huan was filled with coffee lovers. Served along with ice tea, Vietnamese black iced coffee, coffee with egg, coconut or a yogurt is a “morning’s must”.
Around noon there was hardly any left seat at the table. It was time for Bun Cha, the most desirable dish for lunch that was being served in family owned restaurants throughout Hanoi. I sat on a plastic baby chair and played with the chopsticks, waiting for my portion of pork belly and rice noodles. Asian dog slept under the table, half covered in dirty tissues and food leftovers. A young Vietnamese girl folded napkins, without worrying about the mess in her family’s restaurant. Nevertheless, she started to fill bowls with chili sauce at my eating table, giving me just enough space to move my hands. The fen on the ceiling was spinning slower and slower. Was it trying to hypnotize or announce siesta? A vendor who sells pineapples passed by and caught my hungry eyes. While she was slicing one large pineapple, I admired her skill as well as a traditional Vietnamese hat that she wore. Non La is made of palm leaf and protects both from rain and the sun. I wanted to touch it but that would be inappropriate. What an ironic thought in the city where inappropriate goes hand in hand with“normal”.
“Motorbike lady, motorbike?”, one older Vietnamese shouted at me while the other two on the cyclos, a three wheel bicycle that appeared in Vietnam during the French colonial period, offered me a one –hour sightseeing tour. I just wanted to eat my pineapple so I crossed the street in a hurry, jumping over a couple of chickens that roamed freely, trying to avoid the upcoming scooters. “Something sweet lady? Very cheap!”, another woman wanted to sell me sweet sugar balls, but my attention was drawn by a policeman in unusually small, somewise funny police truck with the megaphone in his hands. A man next to me was cleaning pig’s legs but suddenly stood up and started grabbing chairs from the sidewalk. When the truck passed, chairs came back and the man returned almost religiously to pig’s legs.
“36 Old Streets”
Crossing chaotic streets was usually a source of excitement but some days would make me more nervous than humidity calling for rain. Not only there was never enough place for walking on sidewalks due to parked scooters, souvenir shops and “portable restaurants”, but rude drivers wouldn’t give a room to walk either on the streets.
Wandering brought me inside the “36 Old Streets”, named after the crafts they were once known for. For a writer madly in love with tea, I blame fate that brought me to the “Tea street”. My nostrils were full of fragrances that I could not distinguish. Small shops were still placed in their original buildings dated from 15th centuries, calling for times that are long gone. I wanted to take out my notebook, sit down on a sidewalk and bleed the words out. That would be an invitation for potential death of the upcoming scooters so I did not do it but I got intentionally lost roaming through “Shoe street”, “Gift wrapping street”, “Paper street”, “Silk street”…
And then I froze, staring at young Vietnamese crossing the street holding a baby in her arms. A stream of motorbikes and cars was going in all directions, with no visible intention to stop or even slow down. Her face remained steady as if she was walking on clouds. Vietnamese women really are invincible. I immediately thought of my visit to Vietnamese Women Museum where I left stunned by the fact that Vietnamese women, during the American war, were not just on the battlefields and working in factories, but also cultivated the land, cooked and gave birth.
I needed a breathing space away from the defeaning noise and found it in the oasis of calm consisting of temple buildings, pavilions and courtyards known as the Temple of Literature. Vietnam’s first university, built in 1070 is a temple dedicated to Confucius.
Jianzi, music and local food
While I was already there, I paid a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum but only from the outside. I didn’t go in to see the embalmed body of this Communist revolutionary leader as my stomach announced hunger. Sun was slowly sinking down and I quickly walked back to my “Pho”, jealously watching families eating their dinner and men drinking Bia Hoi. They behaved as if they were in their living room and not on the street where everyone could get a glimpse of their most normal routine. Is privacy overrated? A young woman who served roasted green rice pork saw me coming and smiled. I was a regular so I sat and ordered my favorite while watching endless streams of motorbikes passing by, beeping and beeping.
On my way back I shot a glance at older men who were playing Jianzi, popular board game. Although it was getting late they drank tea and smoked cigarettes as if time was all they have.
Windows in my room were wide open, allowing all the sounds and flavors to fill it. Just when I was about to close them, karaoke began. Night clubs competed who can play louder music. A dozen of slightly drunk backpackers ate their banh mi sandwiches silently on the corner of the street. It was nearly midnight and night air was getting colder, creating tiredness and less people moving around. In the city that never sleeps we are the ones who get tired. Hanoi continues its dance through the silent night, patiently waiting to challenge our beliefs in the morning again.
Photographs by Ivana Hanjs and Joaquin Gonzalez (JGF Producciones)