An hour southeast from the airport and we were headed into the famous French Quarter of Hanoi. The closer we got to our destination, the more frequently I held my breath as motorbikes weaved through traffic on a narrow dirt road.
Our cab driver’s foot was aggressive. I had no choice but to trust that he had braved these uneven roads many nights before and lived to drive another day. Then, just as I began to convince myself I wasn’t going to die, I saw a man fly off his motorbike and land face first in the dirt. His head smashed. The bike scrapped along behind his body.
Our car slowed to a crawl as we passed the dead man. A large crowd of people gathered and started to snap pictures of the mess on their phones. I looked away immediately, and closing my eyes I told Mike I had changed my mind.
“I don’t want to ride on a motorbike anymore.”
I was nauseated, shocked, and very upset. We had arrived in Hanoi.
Admittedly, I know very little about Vietnamese history, and even less about its modern political and cultural awareness. Having some experience living in a country that’s divided geographically and ideologically (South Korea—where I lived for 15 months) I should have guessed that northern Vietnam would be distinct from the south. But like so many things on the trip so far, assumptions were becoming somewhat of a novelty.
As we walked the evening streets, I noticed a hardness to the peoples faces, in their eyes and on their hands. It was down right terrifying when combined with a semi-automatic weapon, like the men that guarded the lavish homes of important state officials.
Hanoi’s main attractions were everything you might expect from a Lonely Planet description, but on the fringes of town it was clear that the city was desperately poor. Children ran around with no shoes on selling cigarettes, the elderly were hunched under ripped tarps to escape the sun; all while motorbikes tore through any sense of calm the city had to offer. This is f****** crazy.
It was hot. As I strolled around the lake I could feel the tension of people who were scarcely getting by—confronted by people who come from far away places to take pictures of Uncle Ho, a political figure whose legacy is arguably the misery the poor in Vietnam suffer.
I became incredibly self-conscious of this economic inequality one afternoon.
Lazily walking down a thin bit of road not consumed with motorists, Mike and I were window-shopping. Prices in Vietnam fluctuate considerably—usually based on how much a vendor thinks you have in your wallet. It’s expected to counter any offer that seems unreasonable. But I think there’s an art to bargaining—surely the last thing a foreigner should do while traveling as a guest in someone else’s country is disrespect a persons livelihood.
Mike was going back and forth with a woman over the price of a pair of Nike flip-flop sandals. He was pretty sure that the price was too high, and also not convinced that the sandals had not previously been worn. He refused her price and began to walk away. She quickly crumbled and called him back.
The currency exchange in Vietnam is difficult to keep track of, especially if you’re like me, horrible with basic arithmetic. Since I was no help, Mike began to calculate the figures with an app on his new iPhone. He agreed to a new price, paid the woman and walked away victorious.
I think he ended up paying 9 dollars for the sandals.
Another significant difference between the north and the south is the curfew. At about midnight, everything in Hanoi shuts down. Windows barred, doors closed, lights off. We found ourselves walking in the abandoned streets of the French Quarter, hungry and wishing we had bought beer for our room. But as luck would have it, a friend of Mikes was living in Hanoi and had left him a message at our hostel.
“Would you like to go out?” the note read.
Ducking down under the mechanical gate that covered the front door and windows, we were suddenly inside a lively bar with several foreigners speaking English, mostly in accents from parts of Europe.
The lights were low, the music just above a hum and it was good. We sat in a party of five on a second story loft overlooking the heavy wood bar. I couldn’t wipe the stupid grin from my face as I became completely swept up in my imagination.
I contemplated what would happen should we be discovered. I felt like a pirate, an outlaw, soaking in my imaginary rebellion almost as fast as the second round of cold beers. Mike’s friend was a lovely host, she came with company—their names I can’t recall.
When it was time to leave, we slipped out a hidden door with more locks on it than I could count. The street was dead but still warm from the afternoon. I wanted to take a shower. It was time to be off the streets.