This morning dawned wet and misty. Despite my scepticism back in November, winter really does come to Hanoi and while it may not be below fifteen degrees celcius there is a definite chill in the air that isn’t helped by the perpetual greyness that hangs over the city. But today it isn’t so bad, I believe that the hazy sky is the damp fog and not the thick cloud of pollution that it seemed yesterday. Setting out for the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient in the morning drizzle – they have some English books on colonialism I find interesting – I was reminded of what is so charming and so irritating about this city.
The pavement is slick with the built up grime that had turned mucky in the wet air and my foot slips continually on the uneven pavement. I’m blocked at corners by the crowds of people, men who spend their days drinking at cafes and smoking are scattered on small stools across the footpath and women hawk fruit, fried dough, and steaming bowls of some variation of the millions of noodle soups that staple the diet. I’m heading for the old French quarter and the sight of the decaying buildings intrigue me; the fading glory just visible beneath the black layers of dirt, broken shutters and lines of laundry hanging from the windows. I deliberately walk a certain way so as to visit my favourite buildings. I wonder who lived in them when they were new and who lives in them now. I also walk a certain way so as to avoid streets I know to be a mass of scooters, garbage, and the inevitable rat. This morning is a ratty morning and I don’t enjoy the way the scamper through the gutters, an occasional dead one washed up in the rain water. On mornings such as these, in the streets less frequented by tourists, all modernity slips from the city and it seems to go on as it must have a hundred years ago. Then I’m catapulted back into the present by a scooter tearing down the footpath.
I arrive at library to find it closed. They had changed their hours again and I stand in the small back street wondering where to go next. My computer hangs heavily from my shoulder and I’m reluctant to go back to my study now that I’ve made the effort to go out. I make my way to a café up the road and am reminded of what is so unfavourable about walking Hanoi’s streets. I dash across the road to avoid the bus hurtling around the corner against a red light. A scooter backs onto the footpath, narrowly avoiding my foot. The driver gives me an unapologetic stare, surprised anyway is actually usually the pavement to walk on. A man pisses in front of me and a woman sweeping rubbish throws it into the street without looking. All within the space of two blocks. Hanoi looses is charm at this moment and I long to walk, on the clean uninterrupted streets of home. Then I smell the sweet tangy scent of the kumquat fruit that has been squashed as people remove their Tet decorations and see the colourful Buddhist flags fluttering along the street and I am again reminded of what is so special about the city. If it wasn’t for the bad, the good would not be so sweet.