To me, Hanoi resembles the pressurized, heated, perpetually moving environment of the human circulatory system. Its convoluted streets are packed to their narrow edges with such an insistent volume of motorbikes and other vehicles that its ability to function more or less uninterruptedly appears miraculous. As the regional metropole and a bustling center of commerce for most of the last millennium (periods of American military destruction excepted), Hanoi, especially its Old Quarter, is an intensely complex place resembling a respiratory system in which even the smallest unit – the red blood cell – is represented analogously: walnut faced old women watch over bootleg football jerseys wedged into the tiniest of spaces between buildings. Everything is interconnected.
I’m reaching a bit with the vascular metaphor, but if you have a chance to visit you’ll understand. The bronchial system of avenues, streets, alleys, and side-alleys conveys a nearly literal flood of delivery vehicles carrying the oxygen of a commercial district: building supplies, beer, vegetables, livestock, people, documents, consumer electronics, and on and on. Those same vehicles (or vessels) remove the byproducts of Southeast Asian urban metabolism: hung-over Australians, Bia Hanoi empties, organic waste, assorted rubbish.
We arrived in January and as tempting as it is to believe that Hanoi is a brutally hot, oppressively humid tropical party zone, winter is undeniably damp and cold once the sun goes down. Hanoi also has an uncommonly early bedtime, when considered beside its sister capital cities in Southeast Asia. Nearly everything shuts down pretty early – between 10pm and midnight – a result of both cultural and governmental influences, so if you plan on raging until the sun crawls up and over the eastern horizon you should probably save it for Ho Chi Minh or Phnom Penh.
Frenetic daily life and the anonymity afforded by such lend Hanoi a romanticism that is hard to escape. Yeah, sure, plenty of other major cities are hive-like centers of commerce with long histories but in northern Vietnam this has been operating almost seamlessly for well over 1,000 years. Northern Vietnam has long been a thorn in the Chinese underbelly, an intractable region that has, throughout the centuries, forced the Middle Kingdom into tributary state arrangements, wars of conquest, wars of maintenance, and wars of retribution, not to mention complex border negotiations.
Hanoi is a part of a proud culture that fell under the colonial heel (as the variety of French colonial houses and the ubiquity of baguettes throughout the city prove), fought its way out against the most advanced, well funded military on earth (America!) and has emerged again as an important center of manufacturing and trade. It is fun, vibrant, a mix of old and new (each street is named after the craft guilds that used to occupy it), and an undeniably alluring place.