Walking the World: Hanoi (part 1)
Generosity, happiness, and spiritual emptiness
The airport bus swung three lanes over, beeping the entire time, slammed on the brakes, shoosh-ed me off onto a median with shouts of “here here here!”, then swerved back, rejoining the five lanes of beeping mopeds, bikes, cars, and other buses.
The bus shelter, a concrete slab in a strip of mud, had no walk light, no crossing strip, no anything to help me get off the island, so I did what I saw others do, including 80 yr olds with canes and pre-teens with heavy backpacks, which was walk steadily and calmly (well, not that part) through the flock of oncoming mopeds, hoping they swerved, slowed, or stopped. They only did the first, with lots of pre and post swerve beeps, mostly competently, except for a fierce red moped whose mirror almost whacked my arm. I turned to shoot the driver a bird, only to see a girl of perhaps 11, with a Line Friends helmet, and a grey stuffed bunny on her lap, wave at me and proudly say, “Hello!”
Two hours later I was sitting at an outdoor bar on the edge of a smaller but equally busy road, the guest of, well everyone around me, doing cheers after cheers with strangers stripped by the heat to their shorts, being fed pig ears, corn-nuts, fish chunks, chickens feet, pigeon eggs, watching a 10 yr old girl, in an oversized “touch me, feel me, love me” t-shirt, expertly steer a moped onto the sidewalk, fill three old plastic Pepsi containers with Hanoi beer, somehow carry and balance them on the moped, before driving off to bring them back to her parents. Presumably.
Three hours later, at midnight, all of those still at the bar, mostly very drunk men dirty from real work (not writing, or photographing things), shirts still off from the heat, jumped onto mopeds, some three to a single one, and zoomed away, helmet-less, into the still stunningly warm night.
For the next week my walks through Hanoi were all variations of this mix of industrial-level aggression, chaos, and the very humane. A mix that reminds you, no amount of architectural, infrastructural, and urban brutality can strip humans of their soulfulness and natural generosity.
The walk were long treks along wide modern roads thick with bikes and mopeds, driven by kids as young as 10, the elderly, the rich, the poor, some hauling doors, fans, cages of birds, towers of bananas, large screen TVs, anything and everything, the sidewalks (broken and potted with holes) stuffed with stores, stands, carts, selling food, clothes, computers, movies, massages, beer, more food, more beer, and even more beer.
Then through quieter older neighborhoods of winding small roads, some the width of only a doorway, periodically dodging the family on a moped going out to eat, or the mom getting her 5 yr old from pre-school (the tiny tot clutching at moms shirt from the back, or perched up front, peering over the handlebars).
These alleys are almost all residential, lined with three to four stories homes, the bottom floor open to all, it roll shutter up, with families, only feet away, lounging around watching Disney, or playing Minecraft, or eating dinner on the floor while grandpa sips his tea. Or homes with the bottom floor turned into a store selling just hacked up fish, or chicken, or hens jammed into small cages, or a place offering to sew up your clothes. Or both — Grandpa selling tobacco and rice wine from the kitchen table while watching his granddaughter play World of Warships.
Like in Seoul, and Lima, everyone in Hanoi has a gig or two or three, hustling from here to there, hawking this or that. The guy who runs the cafe where I get my morning coffee, also sells parking spots for mopeds, sim cards for phones, and if a customer wants something that’s not on his menu, will dash to a nearby stand and get it.
Most of this hustle takes place out in the open, either from homes open to the street, or on the sidewalks. There are official markets in Hanoi, but they are only slightly denser versions of what takes place absolutely everywhere.
All of this makes walking in Hanoi a constant game of risk management. Will I trip over the cages of geese being sold, or twist my ankle on the bricks holding down the piles of clothes being sold, or will the log from the trees being trimmed by someone who looks to be charging people to do that, drop on my head? Or will the moped hauling ice hit me? Or will the moped hauling bananas be distracted by the log about to drop on the moped hauling garbage, hit me?
Despite all of that, there’s a weird counterintuitive functionality to the chaos, that once you get an intuitive feel for, becomes orderly, and you can move around quickly, crossing roads more easily than in the US.1
The biggest obstacle to walking in Hanoi isn’t the infrastructural nastiness, but the continual offers of hospitality. It is an exceedingly generous and warm city. Perhaps the most I have ever been in.
You cannot, certainly as a foreigner, pass along an alley of open homes, stores, and through the plazas of kids playing badminton, older women dancing, without being asked to join. To sit down, then given a drink (No no no way you’re paying. Absolutely not. That is clear), then offered the best cuts of what they are eating. Or even be asked to come inside their home and have a meal and do some shots of 8 year old rice wine.
As I write this, I’ve got a lingering hangover from spending three hours sitting on tiny plastic stools with a bunch of people in a back alley I was walking through, who noticed I stopped to listen to the music coming from the local communist party hall, and then insisted I stay, and then fed me, beer-ed me2, and bong-ed me3.
They basically did everything they could to make me feel like I was part of the local community. And what a community it is. Everyone around the alley knows each other, helps each other (and sometimes fights I am sure), all helping to care for the kids and that run freely around what is effectively a moped speedway.
This wasn’t an isolated event. From night one at the local beer hall where I stopped to regain my composure after being dropped in the median from hell, to the regular morning collection of elderly outside my apartment who ask me to join in at badminton, to the women at the Banh Mi stand4 who when I left my phone (worth like at least a month of her income), stashed it behind the counter for when I returned, to the old lady next to me at the Phở table who scooted over to spice my food properly, to well, everyone has been embarrassingly generous to me, a guy who has way way way more than what they have in material wealth.
Not in a cold transactional “what can I get out of you way”, but in a hey, I want to share my world, my neighborhood, and what little I got with you way.
It isn’t just the generosity that strikes you, but the genuine happiness and contentment of everyone. Especially compared to the US.
And as much as I don’t want to constantly compare everything to the US it’s my point of reference, and after long days walking and nights drinking, I go back to my apartment, log onto my computer, check Twitter, and read the US morning news.
It’s, to put it mildly, jarring as F.
Everyone is fighting. Everyone is angry. Everyone is mad. Everyone is bitter. About every little thing all the time.
And these are people, who like me, have at least twenty times the money the Vietnamese have. And more education. And more safety. And more individual freedom.
We highly educated Americans have, in overwhelming spades, the exact four things — wealth, education, safety, and most of all, freedom — that we claim everyone in the world should want. Should strive to have. Including the Vietnamese.
Yet we’re miserable.
Hanging out with people you’re supposed to feel sorry for, who are fundamentally more content, happy, and generous then American elites, makes it hard not to wonder if we (the American elites) are the ones missing the point of life.
Which, at a simple empirical level, is to be happy rather than miserable.5
Part of our misery is about our definition of freedom, which is central to who we are, and core to our dual US ethos of individuality and meritocracy. One that says with enough hard work “you can be whatever you want to be”, and whatever you want to be, no matter how out of tune it is with the mob, is just fine. Even better than just fine, it is amazing. You are unique. Your own thing. Your own brand.
That definition of freedom rarely seems to lead to happiness, or contentment, or peace. That freedom brings with it a constant misery of always comparing yourself to what you might of, or should have been.
Of always feeling a failure, and all alone. Isolated by your own uniqueness. Unable to sell “you” to a country that demands “you sell you.” That freedom doesn’t give you a place in the universe, no community, and is spiritual empty.
There is another freedom, that many around the world still strive for, which comes from being part of a community, and understanding you cannot micromanage every part of your life, and every part of your desire.
Of not constantly worrying about failure. Of having only a few possessions worth stealing.
Or as the country song says, freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose.
Paid subscribers, as usual, can download high res copies of the photos in this piece (and more), in the usual folder here: To My Subscribers
I’ve also started a YouTube channel (Walking the World), where I post little videos that hopefully will partly “fill in” these words and photos.
PS: Walking Hanoi part 2 (things I really like about Hanoi), will hopefully posted next week. Then off to Northern Vietnam to explore some of the smaller towns near the Chinese border.
Till next week. Be kind!
The problem to the whole system isn’t the moped mobs that sometimes spill over from the roads. But the cars, which jam up the whole system. They are a different size, and require a different space. Without them the whole thing would work exceedingly well.
As someone noted on Twitter, the mobs of mopeds alone act very similar to a flock of birds, which all seem to move in a well understood, but not voiced, order. The cars disrupt that shared understanding.
It really is a great example of large scale systems of individual actors, each operating with very simply rules (don’t get hit, or hit, go forward), behaving as a group in a complex yet smoothly operating orderly system.
There needs to be single word for when people buy you drinks. Like fed me is to eat. What is the drink version of that? Beer-ed me?
Tobacco only. Smoking tobacco from the traditional bamboo pipes is like a super leveraged Juul. It’s great. But hurts the next day.
The woman working this place does EVERYTHING all alone, including making sandwiches, smoothies, teas. More on that in part 2
I don’t want to be that decline and fall guy, who reads some Gibbons, then pronounces its all over for the West. Especially the US. But it’s hard not to spend time overseas and not start wondering if the US empire is in a pretty big period of decline, or at least a deep melancholy, brought about by an absence of meaning, a lack of community, and spiritual decay. Mostly a spiritual decay, but that’s an essay for another time.