The streets in Hanoi are not only thoroughfares but also the place where much of the city’s living is done. Much of their noise and activity can be attributed to this: very little seems to happen in private. One of our first challenges when we arrived was to learn how to negotiate the traffic here. There are traffic lights on the busier intersections, but drivers seem to treat them as guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. The thing to do as a pedestrian is simply to plunge into traffic: advancing slowly across the road, the cars and motorcycles veer to the left and right to avoid you. This is less intimidating than it sounds. Most of the vehicles on the road are motorbikes – they’re better scaled than cars to the narrow streets here – and they travel only a little more quickly than bicycles. It’s certainly easier to change tack on a motorbike than it is in a car, and I quickly learned to admire the intuitive way that their riders accommodate both pedestrians and other vehicles. (The few cars seem ungainly by comparison.) Drivers here are quick on the horn, but it’s more a friendly way of alerting others to their presence than the aggressive blare you hear on Australian roads. There’s an unspoken understanding that the street is a shared space, that room must be made for everyone. That this happens in the absence of regulation or enforcement only makes it more remarkable.
Very few people walk in Hanoi; walking is one of the things that marks you out as a tourist. The pavements (narrow in the Old Quarter, much wider in the French Quarter and in the official district around the Mausoleum) are parking spaces for the locals’ motorbikes. The bikes seem almost an extension of self; there’s one per person, and people take them everywhere. On errands, locals often pull up outside a shop and then sit on their bike while a passenger runs in to get what they’ve come for. People ride pillion with a casualness born of long practice: girls sit side-saddle checking their phones, barely holding on; children sleep against their parents’ backs as they’re driven to school. A street full of motorbikes is not divided into lanes so much as a series of mutable currents; watching them weave and eddy, the flow of energy through the city is made manifest.
There’s much more going on the street besides. Our room on the third floor has a balcony overlooking the street; in our fortnight here, we’ve come to know some of the rhythms of the neighbourhood. Women arrive early in the morning bearing fresh produce, carried in twin baskets slung over their shoulders; they take their places and squat in the gutter, awaiting customers. Walking along there’s an array of fresh fruit and fish gasping their last. Later in the morning the peddlers geared to the tourist market begin to arrive: the cyclo (a little covered cart pushed by a bicycle) drivers, the men selling pirated books. In the late afternoon, the garbage man does his rounds, beating a stick against a bell so that its metallic sound echoes down the street. Hanoi is a town that goes to sleep early: come ten o’clock at night, a recorded voice plays from a passing vehicle, sounding very much like a nanny ordering her charges to bed.
Most of the restaurants participate in this street life too: open spaces with low plastic stools spilling out onto the pavement. Often these places have a feeling of good-natured negotiation that’s reminiscent of Hanoi traffic. We sat at a food stand in the Old Quarter that springs up at night beneath a shop awning: the young men serving tables smiled and laughed with each other as they wove gracefully through the close-packed tables. Their skill and awareness of each other had the feeling of a well-played team sport; they seemed to be having fun. A man in military uniform sat on his motorbike on the other side of the alleyway: he seemed to be involved with the restaurant somehow, though it wasn’t quite clear what the relationship was. (It’s often that way in restaurants here: if there’s a problem with giving change, people who were apparently only fellow diners will open their wallets to see if they have the notes required. Each business supports a large number of people.) A fat kid, clearly a neighbourhood personality, walked by; the men waiting tables and the man on the bike all grinned at him. The knit of the place’s various inhabitants was obvious.
It’s late spring here, and the weather has been cool and wet, with a near-constant drizzle that mists over the middle distance and turns the dirt into a thick brown sludge. The street life persists even in this inclement weather. People still sit out on street corners, drinking beer and eating pumpkin seeds; people still throw open their houses so that it’s possible at night to see whole families sitting down to dinner on cleared shop floors. (People tend to live and work in the same space here. In restaurants, there’s often a flight of stairs leading to the proprietors’ living quarters, their shoes lined up on the steps; the family cat might wander down to forage on scraps from the tables. In shops, a grandparent sits quietly in the background while the younger people serve customers.) The buildings are narrow and tightly packed; walking along the street, each shopfront throws out its own powerful smell in quick succession, whether barbecued meat or coffee or Chinese medicine. It’s vibrant and dirty and loud, a place that quickens you with sensory impressions.