I touched down in Hanoi sometime around 11, and it took half an hour to clear customs. After being waved through the gate I found a taxi waiting for me, and I took the half hour ride to downtown Hanoi. I was surprised to arrive at the hostel because the area seemed so quiet. The hostel description said I would be staying downtown in the heat of it all, but the roads were empty.
Grabbing my three day old backpack, I headed inside. The cramped common room was stuffed with scooters and boxes, and I felt like I had made a mistake in coming. I did my best to reserve judgments, handing over my passport in exchange for a room key. Unlike the paltry common area, my room turned out to be large, and decorated with an inviting purple color scheme. I had a king sized bed, air conditioning, a bathroom, and a flat screen TV that mostly showed fuzzy Vietnamese soap operas.
The whole process, from airport to hostel, turned out to be less eventful than I had expected. Dubai, with it’s 90 degree heat, had prepared me for the weather. Coming off the flight and finding a taxi waiting for me had made the journey to a brand new city easier, and the deserted streets had lowered my expectations.
The City Explodes to Life
The next morning I woke up to the sounds of horns. I didn’t know what to make of it, last I knew I was in the suburbs where city noises didn’t exist. Nothing could have been farther from the truth, as I discovered when I pulled open the frosted glass pane covering my only window. Outside I saw a stream of scooters flowing past, going around the distant roundabout, the way water goes around a bend in the river.
I quickly dressed, stuffed my wallet into the back pocket of my shorts, and came down the steep narrow staircase. Giving a brief nod to the woman sitting behind the counter, I went onto the street and stood transfixed. I had never seen anything in my life that could prepare me for this. Dozens of rainbow colored scooters driving past every minute. Loud ones, quiet ones, new ones, ancient ones. Some scooters drove past with a single driver, some had four people on them.
It took me a minute to overcome the initial culture shock, and it took me longer than a minute to walk to the end of the block and wait for the crosswalk indicator to turn green. On my first day in Hanoi I still had a lot to learn about crossing the road in Asia. Walking down a street vertical to the one I had just crossed, I soon found out the real meaning of traffic. Where on the other street there had been dozens of scooters zipping past every minute, here there were hundreds. Nor were there any breaks in traffic. I saw the popular Hanoi lake across this seemingly insurmountable street, and I knew that I needed to get across.
There were no crosswalks, nor any breaks in the traffic. The scooters came in merciless onslaughts, leaving no room for pedestrians to run across even if they wanted to. I leaned against a tree, equal parts frustrated and amazed, before I began to sense the solution. I started seeing local people wade fearlessly into the river of scooters without batting an eye. When they did this, instead of getting gored by plastic fenders and brake levers, the scooters moved around them the way water in a fast river moves around a large rock.
I needed to see a few people try this before I worked up the courage to do it myself. I’ve been conditioned my whole life to wait for a break in traffic before I ran across the street, and it was terribly difficult to overcome a lifetime of training.
After making a series of half-assed attempts, I decided to take Tyler Durden’s advice, gave up on everything, and pushed my way out into the fray. The scooters parted ways, and with an exhilarating feeling I made it across the street. The experience was burned into my memory, and it’s something that I think I’ll tell my kids about one day. Later on I recorded a video of me crossing that same street at night, and you can watch it here.
Although I now had the skills I needed to cross the street, I was still alone in a foreign country, and I didn’t know anyone on the entire continent. At first this was exciting, and I reveled in the new experience of being completely alone. After a few days I had had enough of the slow days and boring nights, and I knew it was time to make a change.
What’s the Right Decision?
I had been walking around in the crowded nightlife of Hanoi for nearly and hour, and there was only one place left in the city that I still wanted to visit. It was a modern looking club with loud house music leaking onto the street, and I had just walked thirty feet past it. The rest of the night had held little excitement. After the initial wonder of the crowded streets and jammed bars wore off, I’d decided that tonight wasn’t meant to be and I’d started walking home. The problem I now faced was an intense inner battle between the side of me that loves adventure and new things, and my lethargic brain that wants to sit in an air conditioned room and watch Netflix.
Standing thirty feet past the club I felt lost in turmoil. I knew that if I went back to my room I would regret it almost instantly, but in the moment my feet felt rooted to the ground and I wasn’t prepared to turn around and dive back into the lights and crescendoing music. I took out my phone and looked at it lamely, then put it back into my pocket when it didn’t provide any relief. If something is scary, is that a reason not to do it? I pondered this a moment, thought about the words of Tyler, and then decided that I had little choice. Back to the music, back to the lights, walk back towards the laughter and the singing. If you feel self conscious, that’s nothing a beer can’t take care of.
Going to the Club
The first thing I did was order a beer. A Tiger, the national beer of Vietnam for all I’m concerned. I drank a third of it down before I looked around. The club was conspicuously trendy. It had recently been renovated, and there was a live DJ who looked like he was young enough to still grounded. The lights were flashing the types of colors you tend to see on acid. Walking the length of the bar, selling liquor, were the two most beautiful Vietnamese girls I’ve ever seen. Dragging my eyes off of them, I turned to my left and introduced myself to the only other non-Vietnamese person in the bar. That’s how I met Joe.
He was several inches shorter than my six feet, and had the first traces of wrinkles on his forehead, and around his mouth. On top was a forest of dirty blonde hair that went well with his Aussie accent. Joe gave me a firm handshake and I liked him immediately.
“So what are you doing in Vietnam?” I asked.
“I work in a bank in Saigon and I’m in Hanoi for a week to chill out. Sort of a vacation.”
“That’s cool. How do you know about this club, is it your first time here?”
Joe took a pull of his Marlboro Light before answering with a smile. “Nah it’s not my first time here, I know about this place because I own it.”
“No shit.” I said with a grin. “Cheers!”
Thanks to Joe’s easy generosity, my first drink was the last night drink that I paid for. The night progressed, the rum and cokes went down easy, and my tongue got looser. An hour later if you had stumbled into this bar you would have seen me and Joe, smoking hookah at a table with the two gorgeous girls, surrounded by a sea of young Vietnamese party goers. At the height of relaxation and enjoyment I could do little but thank myself for making the right decision, turning around, and going back into the trenches.
It wasn’t an easy decision in the moment, but it turned out to be the one that set the tune for the entire five month trip to come. When in doubt, don’t let the fear take over. Go back and do what’s right. I thought about this as I schmoozed out of the club, lazily walking the two blocks back to my hostel.
Paying for My Sins
The next two days I spent in bed, my health shattered like a wine glass on tile. The night before was the first time I had drank in two and a half months. My body quickly rebelled, and I had plenty of time to think about Joe’s bar as I lay in my air conditioned room. I certainly didn’t regret the evening, but I did learn that if I’m going to go sober for a while, I should ease back into the hedonism.
After three days I was better, and I felt good enough to get out of the hostel and explore Hanoi. I saw Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the oldest Buddhist temple in Vietnam, and the Vietnam War museum, decorated with all sorts of relics left behind by my countryman.
Hanoi turned out to be a beautiful city and I enjoyed my two weeks there. Later on it would be my tendency to embrace the unknown, and fight against my natural inclination to stay in that would give me some of my best memories from my months in Asia.