City Life in Hanoi

Our month in Vietnam began and ended in the capital, Hanoi. It’s hard to convey the feel of this crowded, noisy, friendly, and fascinating city, but I’ll try (though Melissa’s pictures may do a better job than my words).

A typical shop selling a little bit of everything, from SIM cards to baby formula, and from noodles and drinks to moped helmets

Like other cities, Hanoi has different areas with distinct characters. We spent most of our time in the narrow, densely packed streets of the Old Quarter, with a few forays among the wider boulevards and grander buildings of the colonial French Quarter. So my impressions of the city apply to those central neighborhoods—not to the farther-flung parts of Hanoi notable for their shopping malls, convention centers, corporate offices, and high-rise apartment buildings with lake views for wealthy residents.

The view from one of our hotel windows

If our plant-loving mothers lived in a Hanoi apartment, it would probably look like this

Hanoi doesn’t look like any other city I’ve seen. At some point in its past, property taxes were assessed according to how much street frontage a building occupied. In response, Hanoi residents built narrow houses that stretch far back from the street. These “tube houses” started out being one or two stories high, with a shop in front and living quarters behind and above it. But over the years, as people wanted to expand, there was nowhere to build but up. As a result, central Hanoi consists of blocks of long, narrow buildings of various heights, styles, ages, and colors, crammed together cheek by jowl in a wonderful jumble.

Two of the hotels we stayed in were only one room wide, so just the rooms at the front and back on each floor had windows. (If you stay in Hanoi, be sure to ask whether your room has a window.)

It’s not unusual here to see a seven- or eight-story building rising like a middle finger from a block of buildings half its height. Space is at a premium in the city, so little bits of balcony or covered roof space are carefully carved out to give residents some light, access to fresh(ish) air, and a place to hang laundry or bird cages, grow plants, or keep chickens. (I wasn’t expecting to be awoken by a rooster in downtown Hanoi, but sure enough there was one on a balcony across the street from my hotel room!)

Here and there among the narrow buildings, mansions from the turn of the previous century sit a little back from the street, their colonnaded fronts and yellow painted plaster gracefully decaying in the humidity. Many of these once-grand houses have been subdivided into apartments and shops. (They reminded me of the scene in “Dr. Zhivago” when the doctor returns from the war to his family home in Moscow, only to find that Soviet authorities have turned its rooms into tenements for a dozen poor families.)

Down at street level, many front rooms—which serve as shops or restaurants or a family sitting room—are tiny. A steep, narrow flight of stairs at the back of the room hints at the cramped living spaces above. Between buildings, covered passageways lead toward the back of tube houses, offering shadowy glimpses of small courtyards and more apartments tucked into every available space.

In many ways, Hanoi reminded us of Naples, Italy. Both cities are dirty, crowded, noisy, and vibrant. In both, families are crammed into dark, airless rooms in crumbling, formerly fancy buildings; religious shrines dot the outside walls and street corners; and all the layers of history are built on top of each other.

Much of daily life in Hanoi is lived on the sidewalks and in the parks. You can find residents doing everything—from repairing motorcycles to building furniture, giving haircuts, cooking meals, taking naps, playing cards, and practicing martial arts—on the pavement or whatever bit of grass they can find.

A favorite afternoon pastime is sitting in front of a cafe drinking glasses of tea or whiskey or beer, cracking sunflower seeds, and talking with friends or family. Some cafes (particularly those mainly for men) have cages of songbirds hanging from the ceiling, so patrons have something beautiful to listen to as they drink.

Hanoi is by no means comfortable. Sidewalks are a chore to navigate, traffic-choked streets are hard to cross, and hawkers are constantly on the lookout for tourists to approach. But it’s a fabulous place for people watching and is full of delicious food.

We initially found Hanoi overwhelming, but with time we came to appreciate it. Now we’d gladly go back again to experience its constant energy, interesting museums, and mouthwatering dishes of grilled pork, beef, noodles, and vegetables, best eaten on a small plastic stool on the sidewalk as city life flows all around you.

A typical Hanoi restaurant, with the kitchen in a small storefront and the tables out on the sidewalk

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