a piece of psychogeography i did for my ma.
Then, we were checked out of our hotel, failing to stop the 80-year old porter carry our bags to the door. Smiles and Cảm ơn and then out into the heat.
Later, we will board a night train to Sapa, an idyllic looking hilltop community that waits at the end of 200 miles of track.
Now, we are in Hanoi with a year’s worth of belongings on our back and nowhere to be for ten hours. We are looking for something we can’t find. Turning into a back street we know we shouldn’t have turned down we nevertheless march on confidently, knowing that indecision is weakness. We smell burning meat and cigarette smoke. Ahead of us a group of men crowd around a spit.
We had left England with a plan to be away for nine months, our flat sold, resignations tendered at work and looking for a break from real life. Spontaneity didn’t sit well with two thirtysomethings and so we had planned meticulously. 59 hotels, 26 flights, 8 VISAs and 2 backpacks, organised and reorganised endlessly before we left.
Everywhere we planned to visit came with an itinerary, carefully crafted in Google Docs and once abroad treated as gospel. Living in a near permanent state of flux with few belongings in foreign lands was enough for our minds to cope with, so we welcomed the trail maps and clues about where to go next that our previous selves had left us. We had walked these cities and towns a hundred times before, one click at a time along Street View, annotating brochures and scribbling paths along aerial photography. This is modern travel, after all: You will rarely go somewhere you haven’t already been on your phone or your laptop.
We watch YouTube travel diaries every night for six months before we leave. ‘9 Things to Do in Hanoi.’ ’13 Things to Avoid in Siem Reap.’ ‘The BEST BUDGET restaurants in Singapore’ We get to know the forever smiling hosts as though they are long lost friends beaming digital postcards back from their adventures. We hone in on the couples who seem to have most in common with us, wary of anyone too positive, too young, too white. We will be better, we say, we will see through the lies of YouTubers wearing fake smiles for free holidays, and we will complain less. We couldn’t be more prepared, and it will show in how we approach these new worlds. No city too big, no mountain village too remote.
Eventually, I catch myself writing Leave only footprints, take only photographs across the front of my journal and realise we can do no more before we lapse into saccharine cliché.
We leave on Valentine’s Day. We stick to the plan.
Hanoi is the last major city we see in Vietnam. We had entered the county from Cambodia a month ago. Recovering from a case of severe dehydration as we crossed the border by bus, feverish and semi-conscious, the relative modernity of Ho Chi Minh City had been an immeasurable relief. From there we had travelled north to Húe, Hoi An and Nha Trang before flying into Hanoi, and then on to visit Sapa and Hạ Long Bay. As a result of criss-crossing the north we will spend longer in Hanoi than anywhere else in South-East Asia, a basecamp for our excursions and a city interesting enough to explore in its own right.
The plan holds. We visit museums, memorials, restaurants. In the prison forever known as the Hanoi Hilton we politely read information boards that tell blatant lies about the Vietnam War and quietly wonder how many times we’ve read similar fabrications back home without even realising it. In the courtyard outside locals sell photocopied versions of American history books, communism besting capitalism one page at a time.
More than anything, we enjoy our time here. After three months abroad we are as accustomed to the heat as we will get, and Hanoi has a clammy, sticky humidity that is unpleasant but also not unlike a freakishly hot English summer day. We eat well and we relax into the rhythm of the city, rising early, sleeping through the worst of the afternoon sun, and staying out with the locals late into the night.
There are no videos about doing nothing. There are no travel diaries about having nowhere to go. We had read plenty of accounts of how to get from here to there, watched gap-year students traipse across cities with their belongings on their back, eventually rushing to make the last train. And yes, we had scheduled ‘down’ days before, time when we would relax and read, or drift from coffee shop to bar to sleep, but these days would fill up with the admin of living out of a backpack, emails and calls back home, checking money and reservations for future destinations.
But this last day is something else. Today, there is nothing but ten hours of blank space and time. We realise we are free to perform the mythical act of Living Like Locals and once said out loud the suggestion excites us. We can throw off the oppressive shackles of TripAdvisor’s Top 20 Things To Do in Hanoi, ignore Google’s restaurant recommendations. Instead, for just a day we can treat Hanoi like home, let the city lead us where it wants. Stop doing and just be. We imagine that in this transient moment we will in fact transcend to some plain of deeper tourism that books and blogs occasionally hint at.
The excitement doesn’t last. Without a hotel to drop our things, without the structure of having somewhere to return to, this freedom fast becomes stifling. The first problem is our backpacks, the 70 litres of belongings that functions as wardrobe, wallet, pantry and study that cling to us in the heat. Heavy becomes heavier when you can’t plot your progress from A to B and the prospect of meandering somewhere only to find nothing suddenly seems terrifying.
Nevertheless, we strike out in the morning before the heat is too much, determined to find something we can’t be directed to, hear something that can’t be recorded. The ephemeral delights of the city are out there, we’re sure, we just need to find them.
Eventually we admit defeat, stop wandering and head for Hoàn Kiếm.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake has become the axis of our own particular version of Hanoi. A murky green expanse with the modest temple Tháp Rùa at its centre, walk one street in any direction and the whole area disappears behind tree lines and crumbling store fronts. And yet every other sense always leads us back there. At street corners we catch a whiff of the stagnant funk that cuts through the constant smell of petrol fumes and cooked meat and we are reassured it isn’t far. The angry mosquito buzz of mopeds increases as you get closer, all roads leading to the vast roundabouts that sit at the lake’s edge.
Here is Hanoi in microcosm, divided like layers of a cake: Walk from the ancient temple across a rickety wooden bridge that barely clears the serene lake below. Stop down onto a wide pavement filled with street vendors and lost tourists, dodge the bed sheets covered in replica temples, lucky cats and belt buckles. Step beyond into a road wide enough that it forgets how many lanes it has, cars and mopeds and pedestrians weaving in and out of one another, the flow of traffic expanding and contracting with the breath of the city. Make it across in one piece and souvenir shops and clothes merchants grapple with convenience stores and fast-food chains for your attention. And now look up and be surprised how much of the sky you can see. Hanoi is a crouched city, its ancient buildings rarely higher than four floors. At the rooftops the city allows itself a flourish of style, a glimpse at a more modern style of design struggling to be seen. Here, upstairs cafes and restaurants fill their balconies with plants, with bright neon signs shining above, reaching into the dark, black beyond.
In these stolen hours it is inevitable that we return here, this melting pot of noise and commerce the closest thing to comfort we have found in Hanoi. It helps we have found a place to sit that feels both within and withdrawn from the chaos. At the far edge of a balcony bar we perch, wordlessly sipping dark beer and watching the constant stream of traffic below. There is a section of pavement opposite from where one can stand and frame the great lake’s temple with bending trees and swinging lantern light. We watch as foreigners line up and take turns to take the same picture again and again, this wild and unruly place ignored for a square image of tranquillity and calm. I want to shout down, to tell them to turn around. The lake is beautiful, but without what lies beyond the edge of the frame it could be anywhere. Take the picture backwards, look out across this peculiar collision of sights and sounds and it can be nowhere but Hanoi.
By the time we settle aboard the night train we are exhausted. It’s still hot and our shoulders ache from the backpack’s straps that dug deeper and deeper into our worn bones throughout the day. But more than this, we are mentally drained. Each hour had felt like days, our state of transience threating to never end and instead loop on forever, like the traffic circling Hoàn Kiếm.
And what had we found in this liminal time? Rather than tapping into some unseen Hanoi, some insights beyond those available to a tourist, we had instead hit a brick wall. We had tried to escape our pre-existing ideas of the city, the phantom images and routes we had kept in spreadsheets and documents, to turn purely to the corporeal world and find ourselves anew. Ironic, then, that it was our physicality that couldn’t help but get in the way of ourselves. Our backpacks, our skin, our clothes, everything that places us in Hanoi also served to keep us at arm’s length from Hanoi.
We begin to realise that authentic is forever one step ahead, disappearing beyond the next corner, or hiding out of sight in the next room. We meet its brasher doppelganger, ‘authentic’, who holds a fun house mirror to our expectations, shows us what we expect, only slightly off, slightly distorted. The xe ôm, Vietnam’s traditional motorbike taxis don’t wait to be flagged down, they stop to offer us lifts, to run us in circles around the suburbs. The faces that follow us along the street either gurn for approval and small change or scowl in annoyance that we’re taking up valuable space. A city that isn’t performing for the crowd is a city with no people. Like Tháp Rùa framed by foliage for Instagram, it may look like Hanoi, but it isn’t Hanoi.
But there is that one moment. Down a backstreet, choking on cigarette fumes, we finally feel as though Hanoi’s gaze turns away from us and we see a glimpse of the real. We continue along the alleyway, and notice the dog, rotating slowly on the spit, surrounded by drunk men, sweaty and sloppy, falling against one another. No-one sees us, no-one straightens up or comes across to sell something. A man younger than the rest leans against his bike, strikes a match against the saddle and lights another cigarette. He shouts something and the rest of the group break into furious laughter.
Here, lost in an alleyway, away from the crowds, we finally see past the city’s façade. Holding our breath, we turn away and hurry on.