Rediscovering Hanoi

My New Year’s resolution is to rediscover Hanoi. Having lived here for more than a year, I’ve already laid down a set of well-worn tracks through the city. On a map, I can easily trace the geometric patterns formed by major roads to and from my office, to and from my favourite restaurants, art galleries, and museums. Don’t get me wrong, to reach this point has required a significant amount of effort in itself, and of that I am rather proud. Lately, though, I’ve noticed that my daily routine has reached dangerously high levels of contentment and complacency, a lifestyle ever so slowly hardening into stone, fixing itself like iron cable car rails that still cut their way through neighbourhoods downtown.

All too often I find myself driving in a rushing current of commuters, hurriedly passing by hundreds of shops that seem to blur into one another as a mess of mixed colors and neon lights. After a time, I get the impression that the world around me is somehow reproducing itself via a monotonous cycle of generic storefronts, unidentifiable merchandise and multitudes of featureless residents strolling down endless lines of sidewalk. The feeling is not unlike a Flintstones character running through an absurdly long stretch of stone house with the same chair and end table repeatedly whizzing by in the background.

Rediscovering Hanoi

A French-style villa in Hanoi. Photo by Huu Nghi – DTiNews

This is really too bad because in actuality Hanoi is a city of particulars and, when given the opportunity for closer inspection, there is little that can be labeled as identical. Economically, this carries its own set of implications and is another topic altogether, but culturally speaking, it’s a very special and unique characteristic that tourists and residents alike should take advantage of. Not even a week ago, I spent a day walking around Hoan Kiem district, the heart of Hanoi. There, dozens of galleries, cultural spaces and exhibit halls are within mere walking distance. Painters, historians, and connoisseurs socialize in the varied languages of artistic expression. The 21st century seems to clash strongly and at the same time fit perfectly with ancient temples and soviet-era monuments. An urban landscape of colonial architecture and green lakes make for a strangely timeless experience that attracts tourists in large numbers. And it was there, in the city center, that I first came up with the idea to rediscover Hanoi.

How does one begin to rediscover Hanoi? There are many roads that lead to a destination and in this particular city, well…there are just many roads. The point of my inaccurate use of analogy is that my destination was Hanoi, a different Hanoi than the one I had become accustomed to, and my road of choice was the road less traveled, literally. That day, nearly a week ago, I deliberately chose a route I had never before trod, at least not that I could remember. I edged my way through streets so narrow that motorbike drivers heading in opposite directions brushed shoulders with each other, and ended up in front of St. Joseph’s Cathedral. I wound through lunchtime crowds overflowing onto the sidewalk, and soberly approached the “Maison Centrale” of Hoa Lo prison. With camera in hand, I captured images of the National Library, August Cinema, and bustling tree lined Lê Thái Tổ street. Initially, I felt accomplished for having conquered Hanoi; however, I realized shortly after that I had actually just begun to rediscover it.

Our relationship with Hanoi should not be viewed as an ongoing battle, or where concepts like victory and defeat can be applied. Sadly however, this theme echoes throughout the stories of many expatriates here, both visiting and established ones. I myself admit to having once enlisted in the psychological war against Hanoi almost immediately after my arrival. I struggled against the supposed evils of cultural differences including but not limited to a general disregard for traffic laws and appointed meeting times, divisions in social hierarchy, and inefficient waste management. It was one fateful day, however, that I was converted by a truth that has resonated deeply within me ever since, changing my perspective and ultimately my entire relationship with the city. It is this; Hanoi is a lot like my hometown. The bay whose shallow waters delicately penetrated the inland historic neighborhoods where I grew up had now become the Red River, spanned by the industrial Long Bien bridge. The ten speed bicycle I once rode through rush hour traffic transformed into my black Honda motorbike. The movie theatre I frequented almost every weekend to watch low budget, highly acclaimed independent films from around the world was now Megastar Cinema where I was recently moved by “Cánh Đồng Bất Tận”. Although Hanoi may never be quite the same as my childhood home, it is fast becoming my second home.

For me, Hanoi is a city of opportunity not limitation, of adventure not intimidation, and of evolution not deterioration. Then again, it’s all a matter of perspective, of discovery and constant rediscovery; that is, if you choose to do so. Hanoi cannot be understood in a day. Understanding often requires time, patience, experience and reflection. After all has been said and done, Hanoi may never be understood anyway! But that’s not to say that it cannot be loved after one day. My New Year’s resolution is to rediscover Hanoi. It is a lifelong commitment and an endless progression leading to nowhere in particular. Does this discourage me? On the contrary, it inspires me.

By Zac Herman