The noise from outside woke me. I sat down on the corner of the bed, rubbing my face and scanning the unfamiliar room as if it was the first time I’d seen it; the bedside table, my paraphernalia dumped on top of the ottoman, the TV. From outside, through the half-opened window, filtered the noise. A woman’s voice, echoing from dozens of invisible loudspeakers, proclaimed words in a language I didn’t understand but that I took to be the morning ration of propaganda. Trying to cover her were the incessant honks of thousands of horns, an impromptu Aida chorus tuned by thousands of mopeds. It was rush hour in Hanoi, Vietnam.
I arrived in Hanoi the night before, cruising the streets in a Toyota van driven by a couple of youths who, after having inquired whether I was a Juventus supporter – I wasn’t – remained in an embarrassed silence, clutching the cans of Coke I bought them at a bar. We drove along quiet streets, lit by lampposts on which hung couples of flagpoles; one drape with the yellow star, another one with the hammer and sickle. Fleeting glimpses of nightlife – men and women huddled together around a meal of noodles, open shops, banyan trees drooping over the many bundles of electric cables strewn across each street – passed before my eyes in a confused kaleidoscope.
The following morning I entered a labyrinth animated by a chaotic entropy. The streets, in the Old Quarter, are a confused bundle, bending leftwards or rightwards at random, as if they were designed with the declared intent to confound the visitor. Their names were equally long, a succession of words – names? locations? – whose vowels were festooned with accents and cedillas that I’d never seen before, coagulated in almost illegible blobs on my cheap, photocopied city map.
Life spilled on the streets. Sidewalks became shops, lunch tables, coiffeur, repair shops, even stomping ground for chicks and roosters. Mopeds circulated in waves, their ebbing and flowing accompanied by a cacophony of horns, carrying everything: families, sheets of corrugate metal, large floral ornaments, queen-sized mattresses.
Vietnam, is often told, holds the non-so-enviable title of being the most bombed country in the world. It is estimated that, in 11 years of war, American planes and artillery dropped more than 8 million tonnes of ordnance, three-and-a-bit times more than what was dumped over Germany in WWII. Hanoi was spared the worst of the ordeal, for the fighting occurred mostly in the south; yet, almost one million tonnes rained over the northern flatlands, 20,000 alone during operation Linebacker II, on Christmas 1972. By comparison, less than 4,000 tonnes were enough to destroy Dresden completely.
Yet, the legacy of this past of destruction is imperceptible. The crumbling colonial buildings and the slender Vietnamese tenements showed no sign of the bombings they must had to endure; humidity and smog, instead, seemed to be their biggest enemy.
I had all but given up hope of finding a quiet corner in this metropolis clogged up in traffic, inhabited by men and women and beasts in a perpetual frenzy; then I found myself walking beneath the canopy of lush trees, along a large boulevard lined with tall walls painted yellow. Serious-looking indications hung from gates and signposts, signalling the presence of the military, or of the government, or – possibly – both. Outside the entrance of a compound, huddled in green ponchos, were three soldiers. I walked past them, glancing at their thin frames, delicate bones and small hands closed around the handle of their Kalashnikovs. They wore green shoes more akin to those Superga favoured by indie kids than to combat boots.
In Hanoi everyone seemed, to my eyes, either extremely young or frail. In this city of slender shopkeepers, thin soldiers and minute ladies wearing nón lá hats I felt big, disproportionate and utterly uncoordinated, an oaf elephant treading down the proverbial China shop. I found myself walking carefully, almost on tiptoe, trying to avoid bumping into other erratic pedestrians, afraid of what my big Western limbs could do by hitting their bird-like bodies. Then I stumbled into the large garden of the Vietnam Military History Museum, where a few relics of the American war – a few planes, a Chinook helicopter – were on display. There, looking at those old machines, tossed to a side as a forgotten gift, I remembered how many foreign powers – Chinese emperors, Mongol warlords, French and American democracies, Communist China – imagined the Vietnamese to be weak and an easy prey. The fact that, eventually, Vietnam always won proved them – and me –wrong.
A few moments later, as I was still contemplating the ancient Chinook helicopter, it started to rain.