There’s a man standing in Hanoi airport holding a sign with our names written on. It’s the first time I’ve ever been met at the airport by a driver and the ease with which I glide towards the waiting car, am relieved of the weight of my bag, slide into the seat and am whisked away towards my destination reminds me why it is so desirable to be rich and why wealthy people age more slowly than the rest of us.
Everything is grey. English grey. Newcastle grey. It’s the cold, damp weather of home but I’m not homesick, I’m unreasonably annoyed.
We drive away from a brand new airport onto a brand new five-lane motorway. Continuing the theme, a brand new concept of driving in lanes has been introduced. Cars and bikes weave left to right, under and overtaking, slowing to a stop wherever works for them. A beeping horn means ‘I’m going to hit you, get out of the way’, a demand a young lad wearing glasses and a plastic poncho ignores, pushing his scooter all the way to its 40mph maximum speed veering wildly into our lane. We so nearly hit him when we speed past I have my head down in my hands, expecting to feel the jolt of his body under the wheels but incredibly he’s okay. I look back and see he only has one hand on the handlebars, he’s texting.
Rice paddies stretch out like waterlogged football pitches into a distance I can only guess at, the mist is so thick, but within minutes we reach the outskirts of Hanoi and the view goes from green to every colour but. It doesn’t take long to reach the Old Quarter. The buildings in the Old Quarter and much of its outskirts are like the half-finished Lego project of an extremely imaginative child. People just keep adding to what’s there, extending up and out and backwards and forwards using whatever style they feel like and whatever materials are to hand.
There are too many people for thespace. Too many doorways and alleys and staircases leading into darkness if it’s daytime, towards one flickering lightbulb if it’s night. It’s like the brave new world of a science fiction novel, light on the dystopia. This is the safe zone, the place where everyone wants to be, the place where life will go on no matter what’s happening to the rest of the world; a self-sufficient bubble where stock pots boil in fires on the street, government messages blare from loudspeakers and the 4G connection is better than anywhere else in the world.
Despite the chaos every person gets where they’re going. Somehow. The pedestrian always has right of way is a similar statement to the customer is always right. It’s not true. In the hierarchy of who has the right to exist in a certain space at a particular time the lowly foot soldier is generally at the top. Not in Hanoi, though. Buses come first, then taxis, then other cars, then motorbikes, then cyclos, then pedestrians, then street dogs.
From above we must look like bacteria under a microscope, constantly moving, singularly and as a whole, coming together and breaking apart, multiplying. The rules just don’t apply here. The rules I had drummed into me as I grew from a child to an adult are more like suggestions. Never, ever walk on train tracks. Look both ways and make sure nothing is coming before you cross the road. Don’t drink beer in the mornings. Don’t drink coffee at night. Don’t talk to strangers.
Our hotel room, like so many in these high but narrow buildings, thrown up like a terrace side-by-side, is windowless. I haven’t bothered to change the time on my laptop or my watch although my smartphone knows where it is in the world without me having to tell it. It’s hard to know when it’s okay to sleep. Without the light of day slipping into the warm safe cocoon of my dreams I don’t wake up until half the day is already gone.
Eventually though, I put myself back together and step out into the chaos, earning my place amongst it, finding the things I want to find.