Blessed to be a witness

<= previous | back to index | next =>

Thursday, July 1st

Du temps perdu

Whereas other places I've revisited when I've been travelling this time round I can remember vividly, like a snapshot - for instance I could guide you from Number 1 Hostel to Jack's Cafe via the Post Office in Dali, Yunnan, even though I only visited once - I am a little lost here, recalling Hanoi only in little vignettes.

Even though I spent the best part of two weeks dodging around the city in 1995 with my girlfriend at the time, trying to buy two black-market motorcycles to make the long journey south, for some reason I recall only the atmosphere - not the big picture of the city, nor its geography. I can't find where we stayed, or ate, or anything, even though I know the general area.

What I do remember of this place seems only to be set off by smells or tastes, cheesily like Proust's madeleine (which is appropriate, given that the place is so Frenchified that half the cafes here have madeleines on the menu): the air heavy with two-stroke oil from the teeming motos; the smell of nuoc mon (anchovy sauce) cooking; the taste of the rich, dark locally-grown coffee infused with condensed milk; Vache Qui Rit cheese spread on a warm crusty baguette. The light is how I remember it too: dark and yellow from the pollution and humid air, shining dully on crumbling colonial shophouses.

Looking at the mindblowingly chaotic traffic, I find it difficult to believe we rode these same tiny streets and alleyways on the 125cc Russian-import Minsk trail bikes that we finally acquired, but I did; I must have become a bit more cautious over the past decade.

With the memory of the trusty Minsk, nicknamed Minnie (my then-girlfriend's one called Molly) comes the first hint of inevitable modernisation: whereas our ride from north to south of Vietnam was relatively unusual - an illegal jaunt on an illegal vehicle, running roadblocks the whole way - now it's a package tour. "Discover Vietnam on a Minsk!" say the signs. There's a lot more traffic now, I think, and a lot more neon. Air conditioning is becoming ubiquitous, and boutique bars are everywhere.

Still, I really like this city, much more so than the southern 'capital' Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon/HCMC. And much more so than Bangkok, where we just spent a deeply frustrating three days waiting for our Vietnamese visas, neither in Phi Phi nor our next destination, hating nearly everyone we met, and with an abiding desire to smash Jack Johnson in the face - the laid-back Hawaiian songwriter whose CDs were the only three things I brought with me on my MP3 player, but who is so overplayed by every CD stall, restaurant and bar in Bangkok and Phi Phi that I now cannot stand the sound of him.

However, we're here now, in an actual hotel - check us and our style - dining on baguettes, fromages, and lovely coffee, awaiting three friends from Dublin with whom we're going to spend the next three weeks travelling. Despite the intense modernisation, Hanoi has for me retained its charm and atmosphere that I recall. Peasants still sell baguettes in the street, or carry yokes of kale and limes and wear limpet hats, dodging between the Beamers and the Mercs and the Hondas.

<= previous | back to index | next =>

To comment on this, or just to say hello, mail me at