Skinny three-story homes lay straggling in between the paddies of rice. Their architecture is delightfully puzzling: two bits rococo (encouraged by the French, no doubt), a sling of neoclassicism or modern touches, and from time to time, several dashes of Disneyland (especially apparent in the paint selection) are present. To my left. To my right. In fact, in every direction, I see nothing but these peculiar homes and extensive green space. Land is a precious commodity here and any acreage that is not sloped has been converted for agricultural use.
“Welcome to Hanoi,” I whispered to myself.
I wait for the sun to dip before beginning my scavenger hunt for dinner as the locals don’t seem to sprout prior to that time. Aspiring to dine with the Vietnamese, I stop at one of the myriad cafes facing St. Joseph’s Cathedral in the Old Quarter. Here, the Hanoi locals, clad in formal business pencil skirts, skyhigh heels, and dress shirts balance themselves agilely upon three-inch-high plastic children’s stools to sip lemon tea among comrades, sending puffs of cigarette smoke into the hardly-waking evening stars. The benches are so low to the ground that it feels like I drop before making contact with my seat.
And when I did, finally, hit that target seat, my reward was a steaming bowl of Pho, soft white noodles with clear broth, a few spices, and sometimes a bit of stray meat chopped delicately thin. Every restaurant and street vendor has its own rendition, so I hardly hesitated ordering the staple multiple times over my journey.
Post-pho, I feasted on sweet puffed bread, hot from the oven. Like a potion for the taste buds, it leads Westerners to reminisce of a perfect offspring between thin gingersnaps and cinnamon buns. Wanting to escape any foods I might find back home, I sought out a Boba/Jelly seller that scooped me various preparations and flavors of the slippery delicacy into a chilled glass with a blanket of coconut sugar syrup on top. It was clear: finding great food in Vietnam would be the easiest part of my adventure there.
In contrast, I had already been introduced to the difficult part. The cool aurora set by the locals flanking me dramatically ended with the sidewalk where just inches away an entirely different scene awaited: the battleground between pedestrian and motorist. The latter, no doubt, claims the majority of victories. I had heard testimony of another traveler who was hit and injured just the day before and was not ready to surrender my vacation to one of these bikes. Luckily, with a bit of observation, I picked up the rules. To traverse the asphalt kingdom, move just feet into the street at any time, look every direction your head can turn, and maintain speed in one direction until you have returned to the serene sidewalk scene. Repeat as necessary.
I participated in many rounds of this battle, throwing myself in the ring more times than my heart would have liked. While the scene was eye opening in itself, it also brought me to realize the increasing presence of contrasts in the Hanoi’s environments, people, and dishes. The tea-sipping cafe-mongers and zooming motorcyclists are just one example of the dueling scenes that stack tranquility directly up against tension. The types of people you meet around town are also contrasting: street vendors may add a “tourist tax” of up to 200% all their goodies, I experienced, while just streets away, families will offer you a seat at their home table. Opposites are present even down to the cuisine. Greasy, puffed bread is submersed in pure, clear soups and crunchy outers love to protect soft, gooey centers.
This contrast brought my experience full circle; Hanoi has taught me to accept that, in traveling, I must accept (and expect) discomfort to accompany delight.
Follow Monika on Twitter @monikalutz.