Hanoi is noisy, pungent, and sweltering hot: a coursing, palpable energy that is quite disorientating, at least initially, as if the city is in a constant, headying tension between motion and stasis – ceaseless hordes of motorbikes relentlessly circling and driving through the streets, whole families; babies haphardazly placed in front of handlebars, people manoeuvering themselves quite effortlessly even when travelling in opposite directions on the same path; curving and adapting, endlessly moving forward in an energy that is quite dizzying as shopkeepers, families, shirtless men sleep sprawling and open-mouthed in front of their stores or on mats and women in coolie hats listlessly fan themselves by their glistening mounds of lychees, lemongrass, and unnamable fruits. At first, the sheer volume of noise – from the bikes, the clamour, the percussive, dipthonged language (and everyone speaks in very loud voices, it seems, so different from Japan or Indonesia), gave us culture shock. Duncan certainly seemed almost destabilized, not quite steady on his feet, and we would find ourselves returning hastily to the relative sanctuary of our hotel room: a quiet, windowless, air-conditioned room at the back of The Hanoi Pearl where we could regroup and exhale.
The Old Quarter of Hanoi, where we are staying, has been a place of commerce for a thousand years: fascinating, exquisitely ramshackle Chinese-influenced houses with courtyards out back where you see elderly people sleeping in front of flickering televisions and singing birds confined in cages; shadowy, cool interiors, plants dangled haphazardly, the low thrum of air-conditioners; succulents, tropical flowers, the night a perfect balance of dark, light and colour; red tassled lamps casting a soft warm glow; the smells – the herbs and chicken broth of pho, which crowds of people gather to eat crouched down or on low plastic stools, the vendors boiling their poultry, lemongrass, coriander, the all permeating smell of fermented Vietnamese fish sauce that I both love and hate, an almost sexual attraction repulsion to its rich, bodily intimacy, lacing the dishes that make eating here such a ritual pleasure but which when isolated and smelled in its undressed intensity can come across to the uninitiated as quite a challenge.
The food, though. Wonderful. After a welcome respite from the heat in the environs of the Museum of Ethnology, we settled down at the restaurant there, run as a centre for disadvantaged youth who were training to be waiters around the country, and yes, they got our order wrong and were all sweet, embarrassed smiles but the pork cooked in a coconut gravy was just delectable, and Duncan’s grilled chicken cooked with lemon leaves, tiny, minutely cut strips of the citronnier tree decorating the soy roasted meat perfumed its tastiness perfectly. I had never thought that you could cook with lemon leaves. I have picked them from the tree in our garden in Kitakamakura before (and the taste and flavour of these were identical), but have previously only thought of them in terms of perfume: how they smell so fresh and fragrant in the top notes of Monsieur Grès and Quiproquo, or in the original, beautifully orchestrated O de Lancôme, but now I think I will also try using them myself in cooking, as I will with fresh mint as well, used so delicately but decisively in Vietnamese food along with other herbs I don’t recognize or know the names of ( a deliciously gratifying banana leaf salad last night at a beautiful restaurant with live traditional music combined sweet and sour flavours deftly with a stimulating variety of textures, and looking at the presentation of the dish and listening to the music, I felt as if I were entering a magical grotto.)
The Swedish singer Stina Nordenstam once made an unusual covers album – People Are Strange – the central concept of being that she had to actively dislike the songs included. That she would select, and transform, hand-waving stadium standards like Prince’s Purple Rain or Rod Stewart’s Sailing, and transform them, in her intimitable style, into gossamer-intricate, string-laden heartbreakers, internalizing the songs and revealing nuances and depths that you would not have suspected existed. I wouldn’t say that my feelings about Vietnam or Laos were like Nordenstam’s attitude towards those songs, but I will say that I had no real interest in coming to this country before coming here, as I didn’t, really, with Japan either, at all. It is a rather perverse method of choosing a holiday destination, I will admit – go somewhere you don’t really want to go to – but am now very happy that we did it. Throwing caution to the wind. Just going to a place you would never have considered visiting.
But the place is exuberant: never have I been to a place with so much energy. As I write this, we are on a train to Haiphong, and there are kids running up and down the train laughing, screeching and playing games. One girl has put a veil over her head and is catwalking the aisle way like a fashion bride, giggling her head off with her cousins. The whole care is thronging and jostling. What normally might be irritating, though, somehow isn’t; there is a party-like atmosphere, a positive feeling in the air it I find quite uplifting. The throngs on the streets, congregating everywhere, seem effortlessly sociable, shockingly so for a space-preserving, sociophobic Japanese English person like myself, arms draped over each shoulder, shouting to make themselves heard (the kids are now singing).
Last night we went to the most electrically atmosphered gay bar – ironically, directly across from our hotel, and the only one in Hanoi – we had no idea – and the buzz in the place, was unstoppable, heartpounding- you just had to surrender to it and dance, to the ear-splitting music. Even at the Temple Of Literature earlier in the day, the relative tranquillity of the ancient sanctuary, where sages and Confucianist were trained from the eleventh century onwards, was shattered by the strident sermons set through loud speakers that were barking and decibelled to the point of discomfort and fingers-in-ears, like the announcements right now through the tannoys on this train I am sitting in that make you start with directness, suddenness and sheer volume. They seem to like it loud and expressed, and it makes a refreshing change from Japan, where the profound neurosis at the centre of that culture permeates every stratum of social interaction – just compare the suicide rate – all that multi-layered origami-infolding worrying and repression, the destructive perfectionism that, while making the country more ‘sophisticated’ and withheld than this one, is also, in some sexless, contact-withdrawing way, eroding it from the inside. Where the youth in Tokyo are now embracing ‘shizu-kissa’, or cafés where talking is prohibited, where you sit in silence, and where celibacy is hugely on the increase and a disturbingly large proportion of the population has either given up sex altogether or has no urge to try, there was a bustling, brimming sensuality in GC Bar last night, a healthy, youthful horniness that felt juiced up and hot; eager for something, alive. Perhaps the fact that Japan finds itself on the wane, all the endless, woeful conversations about the ageing society and decline of the birthrate, its slipping position in the world’s economies (though if you ask me, it is perfectly rich enough as it is and the ‘bubble’ was just that, in fact, a bubble), its superiority complex in regard to the rest of Asia, all of this makes Japan seem so tight-lipped and prevented: airless; despite the incredible commotion here in Hanoi, I find myself now relaxing into it, more at ease with the bustle surrounding me. And we would never have know that all this even existed, what Vietnam is really like, had we not just thought to ourselves ‘Shall we? Go on then’, and come here on a perverse, semi-reckless whim.
Laos will be even more revealing I think, quite possibly, because in that country’s case we have done zero research. With Hanoi we have the Lonely Planet guide, like every other white, backpacking tourist here – you see people, in the same tank top and shorts, clutching the same book and ending up in exactly the same places, although we are avoiding the tours to picture postcard perfect Halong Bay, and even the Perfume Pagoda, we couldn’t, somehow, quite face being herded into boats and buses and kayaks and all the rest, nor in the case of the ‘goda, having to trek up and down hills in this heat which is rather phenomenal- 36 or 37 and very high humidity. Instead we are going to Haiphong, the equivalent of coming to England and rather than visiting only London, The Cotswalds and The Lake District and other typically scenic spots, going up to Leeds or Birmingham instead – just cities, but we don’t care, and already, being on this train, feeling the mood and spirit of the other people headed in that direction, I feel steeped in a more genuine Vietnamese soup.
Vientiane will be different. We have looked at no pictures, read nothing about it, just have the hotel booked. The same with Luang Prabang, which is supposedly some kind of Buddhist paradise (though I have seen no pictures) set on the Mekong River. We might like it or not, but I love the fact that we just don’t know anything. It is a total mystery, a total canvas waiting to be filled, and after we arrive at Dhavara Hotel we will just check in; put down our things; a change of clothes, and be going out into a world we know nothing at all about, to wander the streets, watch the people, absorb its differences.