Hanoi was busy, dirty, loud and crowded. We had been dropped right into the old town, which in every other city would have been full of charming architecture, tourist conveniences and a touch of culture.
In Hanoi, it’s not. Instead, we found ourselves right in the middle of a busy market selling every disposable plastic product imaginable, from rope and cord to food packaging and rolls and rolls of plastic sheeting. This wasn’t a market for the neighbourhood – it was a wholesalers market, selling in big bulk quantities, to be piled high onto the backs of motorbikes, and rushed away to make delivery after delivery.
It was the antithesis of culture. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just what culture has become.
Like Ho Chi Minh City, to step out of your door is to take your life into your hands, but in Hanoi, there was nowhere but the street to walk. The sidewalks were taken up by impromptu shops and restaurants, tiny stools filled with people slurping noodles, selling their wares, or just taking up space. Every inch had been claimed, and it was impossible to avoid walking in the lawless streets. Plus, it stank of fish.
Hanoi was wet, mucky, stinky and generally icky. And I did not like it.
It wasn’t all bad though, and Mark and Austin had a fabulous time dodging the train on the “train street”. It rumbles through twice at day, like clockwork. All other times, the train tracks are taken over by the neighbourhood as a meeting place, market, restaurant alley and playing field. But come time for the train, it all disappears like they were in the Wild West when the outlaws came to town.
I was above my limit for stimuli, so I skipped the claustrophobic train street, and went for a tea and some shopping instead to calm my frazzled nerves. Anxiety really sucks, and I know that when it starts to feel like fireworks are going off inside of every single one of my cells, it’s time for less stimulation.
I managed to get away to do some shopping mall shopping, not really buying anything, but at least relaxing somewhat within the protected walls of a retail cathedral, and I went for one last SE Asian massage and facial. That helped…a bit.
At night in the Old Town, the streets come alive with people selling everything imaginable, including street beer. Home brew that to my palate tasted like it had been brewed in the laundry bucket, but Mark was okay with it.
Every 10 metres down the street sits a little man or woman with a keg and plastic cups, surrounded by people on tiny stools drinking their beer. Their incredibly cheap beer — about 22 US cents to be exact. I suppose if beer is that cheap, then you drink it even if it is a bit musty – if you’re Australian.
The nights in Hanoi were better than the days, but my anxiety was in overdrive, and nothing I did seemed to quell it. I had to get out of Hanoi, and fast.
With four days left on our visas, we set off for Mai Chau, a popular set of villages that are home to indigenous White Thai people, where you can bike amongst the rice paddies, perouse indigenous handicrafts, and sleep in traditional teak houses under a mosquito net. After the overwhelming experience of Hanoi, that sounded right up my alley.