An Englishman in Hanoi: Love at first sight

April 3, 2016 | 08:01 pm PT
"I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam - that a woman’s voice can drug you; that everything is so intense. The colours, the taste, even the rain. Nothing like the filthy rain in London. They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived." - Graham Greene, The Quiet American.

He knew a thing or two that Mr. Greene, and I couldn’t agree with him more. I have stayed in Hanoi for just over four months now and he encapsulates the intensity of this country splendidly in a mere few sentences. And yes, I did understand a lot in my first few minutes: arriving amidst a tropical storm, wading through ankle deep water to get to my new abode, flashing glimpses of life carrying on as normal. And now… and now the rest I am living.

Hanoi, at times beautiful, and not so at the same time, is a complex paradox: the northern most major city in Vietnam, and a Southeast Asian metropolis. Immersed amongst its seven million plus populous, I embrace life here in its fullness. Exquisite craziness fills every moment of every day. It’s not easy, but good things rarely are.

One of the first expressions I learnt from the visiting Westerners here, many now long-term residents, is 'Hanoi-ing'. A catchphrase which encapsulates the total frustration of the insane traffic, the language confusion, the cultural misunderstandings and the apparent un-professionalism. A first observation led me to feel as if the entire city was on its first day in a new job. But I soon quickly came to assess these issues as problems of my own. Maybe it was my Englishness that needed addressing. Obsessive punctuality, excessive efficiency, two-faced politeness; maybe everything works just fine in Hanoi. Possibly the proverbial mountain to climb is our own attitudes and the baggage we drag so heavily behind us from our own cultures.

There is plenty for your head to get around here. Crossing the road can be a major episode. With no underground trains, no overground trains, no monorails, no trams and few buses, a vast majority of residents travel on two wheels. In Hanoi, the scooter rules. For a countryside boy like myself the roads are your first preoccupation when entering this city. The noise, the heat, the beep, beep, beeps and the incredibly insane methodology of scooter driving here or, more accurately, the absence of it. I don’t know if it is fair to study a city’s traffic as a microcosm, but I have: lawless, yet self-regulating; hectic, but compelled to flow; lacking common sense, yet ruled by instinct; selfish, yet completely absent of rage. Perhaps it is the autonomy here that fascinates me the most. Having left the extremes of British surveillance (a country which is sadly renowned to have the most CCTV cameras in the world and extreme invasions of privacy ) here, in Hanoi, I feel relieved of the rarely questioned Stasi-esque situation in the UK. I feel free, to a certain extent.

This city is very alive, it is undoubtedly on the rise. There is a buzz, an enthusiasm I have not encountered for quite some time. I am relatively well travelled across most continents, a long stay traveller in various dots around the globe. But this place is thriving. Not without problems of course, there are many, but on general reflection, and early days as they are, this city I find positive. And it is growing and changing fast. Only yesterday I went out on a now familiar trek across town, but new roads led to new routes, and skylines changed as quickly so as to cause disorientation. Things are shifting here before our eyes, literally.

My first line soon after arrival in Hanoi was thus: I could see as many opportunities as I could challenges. A few months later and this statement has only intensified, as I try and embrace the challenges as blessings or lessons, but it’s not always that easy.

Unlike Mr Greene, I can’t say I am love with Vietnam. However, I find it an abstract concept to ‘fall in love’ with any country. I have heard tourists say “I love Benidorm” or wear 'I love New York' t-shirts, passionate proclamations from places where they have found temporary paradise for two weeks. But to say you love a country so soon is comparable to sleeping with someone on a first date and declaring instant amoration. It’s crass.

I am unaware of Mr Greene’s duration in Vietnam, whether it was love at first sight or a passion that developed over time. For me I have a curiosity, a fascination, an attraction. Yes, maybe the early stages of a love affair, but that has yet to be seen. It is too early to say, but there are signs, for sure.

Grant J. Riley is a writer, photographer and freelance ecologist from the southwest of England.He is the author of ‘A Journal from the End of Times’

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