You know when you’ve landed in Southeast Asia (whatever that designation actually means). It’s the air and the smell that you don’t get anywhere else. We love it and it’s what keeps drawing us back to this part of the world. The air is thick, but not in an uncomfortable, Sydney-humid kind of a way. 'It's like stepping through a warm blanket,’ said a friend of ours. He’s right, it’s warm and embracing.
Hanoi is a bustling city of xe om (moto), cyclos and all manner of vehicles. The drive from the airport takes you along an amazingly wide road, 4 lanes each way. 'Gladys could learn something here about building roads,’ says Sarah, and we both have a wry chuckle. Further in from the airport, you start to see the Hanoi that I had expected. Roadside stalls with plastic stools drawn up on the footpath, young folk eating bowls of steaming Phó or other street food.
Whilst you drive on the right, road rules appear to be flexible with people driving, or rather weaving, to the left if required. The horn is king. It makes crossing the road for the unwary challenging. Oh, and there are few footpaths, so pedestrians mix it on the roads.
What also strikes you is the noise: horns, construction, the constant chatter and music. (Sarah says: ‘It’s better than Times Square!’) A night market springs up around Hoan Kiem Lake on Friday and Saturday nights. PA systems play swing and couples dance effortlessly beside the lake. Further around, six 20-somethings dressed in white practice their latest dance routine while the crowd wanders by. This is how you do a road closure: a few crowd control barriers and a couple of police; no thought of a vehicle-borne attack here.
Further on we’re stopped by a young woman asking if we have 5 minutes to spare to help her students practice their English. Simple questions about where we’re from, what’s our favourite colour, what animals do we like. I get a quick history lesson about the Roman Catholic Cathedral too, then it’s time for a photo and they’re off, looking for the next tourist.
There’s a sense of 'hurry' but also not. It will take time to find your rhythm. Walk and look up. Interesting cafés and bars are on rooftops. But you have to be game to head down a narrow corridor to find the gem.