I wanted to start my trip in Hanoi for the ultimate culture shock; a powerful shove outside of my comfort zone. That’s not what I got. Instead, I got a sense of…comfort.
Before I left, I kept saying I was ready for this. And now I realize how ready I truly was to be somewhere other than “home.” I don’t feel out of place. I’m not shocked or horrified like some other tourists who visit Hanoi or Vietnam in general for the first time. The raw meat and fresh vegetables on plastic tables in the middle of the street does not make me uncomfortable. The women washing used cutlery and dirty bowls in the middle of the street with buckets and hoses does not concern me. In a way, it almost seems familiar, like I’ve been here before and am finally returning after a long time away.
I thought I would be terrified and apprehensive of crossing the busy streets where motorbikes don’t stop for anyone. Red lights are ignored and crosswalks are completely useless. I watched a few videos about crossing the street in Hanoi before I came here and they were exactly right: don’t stop walking and you won’t get hit. When you stop is when you cause problems. In many ways, Hanoi reminds me of New York City. I grew up going to Manhattan every single week during my childhood for church. I was allowed to wander the streets by myself when I was 9 years old; of course, my parents were never more than a few blocks away, but I don’t think I would be so comfortable here if it were not for my experiences so close to the city. The sounds, the sights, the liveliness, the smells all seem blurry but recognizable. Everything is just stronger here; it’s more chaotic in every way possible.
As I was sitting on tiny stools with a local girl Huyen in an alleyway eating Bún chả at a small plastic table like something you’d see in a preschool, I said to her, “I feel like the locals are watching me attempt to use these chopsticks and laughing at how stupid I am.” I did not say this in a self-defeated way, but I am seriously bad at using chopsticks. Instead of agreeing with me, she said, “they are more curious than anything. They watch because it is interesting, but no one thinks anything beyond that.” It was that simple. They were curious. Not mocking. And that’s one of the things that has stuck out to me the most in the last two days of being here; no one cares enough about you to think about you. The only time people care about what you are doing is when you are in their way in the middle of the street. How self-centered I have become to even think that people care enough to be thinking anything of me or what I am doing. This is something that is inherently American, and I don’t think many people can deny that; social anxiety is a nonfactor here because of how little anyone is even paying attention, and I think that it is beautiful and refreshing to feel that way. I enjoy being unnoticed.
I am spending two more nights here before I head to a farmstay outside of the city for 4 nights. After that, I will be back in Hanoi for a bit, head to Moc Chau for a night, and be back in Hanoi for Tet, the lunar year. Hanoi will quiet down a bit but I am looking forward to seeing the streets a bit emptier.
Until next time,
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