OLD QUARTER, VIETNAM: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 11

9 April – 2 May, pt. 4: Thaison Palace Hotel, Old Quarter, Hanoi

“Ooooh that smell
Can’t you smell that smell
Ooooh that smell
The smell of death surrounds you”

– Lynyrd Skynyrd, “That Smell”

Few things in this world can trigger a memory the way that your senses can. That being said, I’m going to have a lot of unpleasant memories about this place.

The Sights

Some of you may have wondered, “Why didn’t they go anywhere in Vietnam? They went to several places in Hong Kong.” That is very true, but for those of you who are uninformed about us personally, here is the answer. We went to Hong Kong for a vacation after my last job [10 years long] came to a close, because I wanted to teach English overseas. Hong Kong was a luxurious stop for us; a chance to take a real vacation in what we had hoped was one of the most exotic and beautiful cities on earth. It was. Vietnam was where we decided to look for my first teaching job. So until I found work, we didn’t want to spend the extra money on trips inside the country. So we didn’t see the beautiful places of northern Vietnam, of which I’m sure there are many. We pretty much saw the Old Quarter, which isn’t quite so pretty. If you look at just surface stuff, you’ll see beauty here. The old French architecture, some of the sidewalks paved in old marble from the days when this was French Indochina, Hoan Kiem Lake, situated just 3 blocks from our hotel. However, look closer, and it’s not as appealing as the photos you can find all over the internet: The architecture looks run down, and covered in city grime that NO torrential downpour can wash away; the garbage of tossed away food, cigarettes, even feces, scattered along the sidewalks and curb-sides. Hong Kong was as clean, if not cleaner, than most American cities. By contrast, most Americans, including myself, would be disgusted by the sight and smell of just how dirty this place is.

The Smell

It was rarely pleasant. At best, tolerable. Most of the time, you smelled the moisture in the air. As soon as you step out onto the street most days, you are in a perpetual state of moistness. It’s like being a Duncan Hines pudding cake, but in my case, more fattening. I will say that the smell of fresh rain on a humid night here was delightful – as if the air itself was begging for the heavens to open up. Otherwise, it smelled like oppression, heat, garbage, and cooking dog, though in the case of the last two, it was hard to differentiate. You could also smell the exhaust of all the vehicles in the city. I for one, like the smell of burning fuel, but even this place was too much for me in that regard. Overall, this place smelled like sewage, a smell that never seemed to go completely away, probably because this place looks and smells like none of it has been cleaning since the Napoleonic era.

The Sounds

With the exception of later at night, in our room, there are almost always sounds being produced, whether it’s from other hotel guests (soundproofed rooms, my ass!), or from the constant din of traffic. Outside, it is virtually ceaseless, even at midnight, and this city has a midnight curfew, obviously not strictly enforced. During the day, sound fills the air; the sound of street food cooking on makeshift Hibachis, city sanitation workers banging on their giant garbage carts to let people know they’re ready to pick up the garbage, babies crying, people shouting above the rest of the noise, and always traffic, constant honking of horns from buses, taxis, private cars, and more scooters than the number of men who have masturbated to an image of Scarlett Johansson. They are everywhere, constantly, like a plague of locusts being chased by a plague of frogs. There must be more Vespas here than in all of Italy. Which brings me to…

The Traffic

The only time I’ve seen the streets ever come close to being empty is at either 1am, or on their Independence Day holiday, last night, when everyone was at the lake, watching the fireworks display. Nothing says victory over America than Chinese gunpowder making similar sounds to what was heard when the Americans were bombing this city 45 years ago!

The traffic seems, at first, to have no rules. However, that’s not true – it has FEW rules. My sister-in-law came up the best analogy. Pretend you’re the frog in the 80s video game, Frogger. That’s it. There you go. If you’re walking, that’s kind of what it’s like here. But combine that with what it’s like crossing Alder St. or Patterson, near the University of Oregon. Time it right, and you won’t have to worry. Avoid the cars and buses, sure, but dodging the scooters is easy. Walk with purpose, don’t slow down or stop while in the middle of the street, and you’ll be fine: they will dodge you…or at least I’m pretty sure they will…I wasn’t hit. Then again, I’m bigger than most scooters.

Tomorrow it gets even more interesting, as I cover the people here. Until then…
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston