my first day alone here, my mother messages me to ask why the weather report for Hanoi (she checks daily, she tells me) does not say sunny or cloudy or chance of rain. instead it says “smoke.”
what does smoke mean? she asks. is Hanoi on fire? after a little research, I find out that it is, in a way: farmers on the outskirts of Hanoi are burning stacks of straw after the rice harvest. as I read the article I see images of many little puffs of smoke rising out of the fields. it’s affected the air quality, which explains the weather report, and why I woke up with a sore throat and stuffed nose.
so my first day is smoky. when I step outside I realize how spoiled I’ve been on the motorbike. I have forgotten how difficult walking can be in this city. the sidewalks are constantly filled with little street food stalls, plastic tables and chairs, and parked motorbikes. the streets are filled with motorbikes, many of them ignoring traffic lights (in Hanoi yellow and red mean “go,” too) and going the wrong way down one-way streets. along the curb are little bags of trash waiting to be picked up by sanitation workers. I am alert, admittedly a little tense.
there are small victories: a freshly baked baguette from the baker around the corner, still warm when it’s placed in my hands. a productive writing day. the time to read four short stories from my best american anthology (2002 edition). not too bad at all.
when Bradford and I step out of our studio apartment in Hanoi, we are wearing the tourist uniform: teva sandals and fanny packs. comfort and utility. even if we weren’t dressed this way, there is no hiding that we are tourists, no way of getting around it.
After 24 hours of traveling, 7 of them spent in the airport in Hong Kong, where we look out the windows and marvel at the mountains and watch the republican debate and eat congee, we get to Hanoi. we shower and we head out. right away we are struggling, underprepared. we want things we don’t have the words for yet. we decide to sit at sidewalk table next to a woman grilling skewers of meat and see what happens. another woman comes over with a tray of fresh herbs, rice paper wraps, fish sauce, chopsticks, napkins, a pair of scissors. we watch the family at the table next to us cut the meat off the skewers with a pair of scissors, put it in the wrap, top it with herbs, dip it in the sauce, and we do the same. we know that they know we are doing everything wrong and paying the wrong price, but it’s so delicious that it’s worth the self-consciousness, the embarrassment.
we keep walking and we wonder: how do we cross the street? it seems impossible. there are motorbikes zipping everywhere. we watch two motorbikes almost collide head on, only to swerve at the last minute. both continue on their way, unfazed. the traffic rule seems to be do whatever you have to do to get to where you’re going. the flow of traffic never slows. motorbikes are parked on the sidewalks, in alleys, in homes.
we see a vendor selling rain ponchos in all kinds of prints and colors. we see these ponchos on motorbike drivers: polka-dotted, plaid, bright blue, orange, striped. this is next on the list. it hasn’t stopped raining since we got here.