Sometimes You Just Need to Get the Hell Outta Dodge



The French had a word for those long grim grey drizzly damp Hanoi winters. Le crachin, they called it, which also applied to similarly grim, grey, drizzly damp French places like Bretagne. They probably attached a grumbled maudit to it, shrugged their shoulders, lit up an unfiltered cigarette, slugged back a swig of tannic Dalat wine and smacked a stray dog with a stale banh mi.  The early colonists in these parts of old Indochine reportedly felt ever so glum for much of the year, waiting for the sun to reappear and remind them that they were indeed in South East Asia.

If it wasn’t the drizzle, it was the grey. If it wasn’t the grey, it was the bone-chilling unexpected cold and the draughty, unheated, uninsulated homes better suited for the other, hotter season. If it wasn’t that, it was the unexpected, unseasonal heat that popped up occasionally. Or the humidity. Or the grey humid heat and drizzle.

Or all of the above plus mosquitoes from the lakes dotted around the city. Or those weird tiny moths that erupt from diamond shaped cocoons made out of our detritus- it’s unnerving seeing your clothes lint and baby’s hair poking out of a chrysalid’s temporary home. Or the mold, everywhere. Walls, clothes, cupboards all reeking of stale mildew and must; clothes and cloths lightly discolored by lightly damp grey splashes. Electronics hesitating. Clammy bedding. Fuzzy bananas. February and March are, I’ve come to understand, the Mouldy Months.




Add to all that the disturbingly crunchy smog levels (cough cough), the pre-Tet madness of the honking, weaving motorbikes and the unwarrented smugness and self-assurance of the monstrous black SUV drivers (why are so many poorly driven SUVs black? Why not, say, blue or grey or white?) and a whole lot of personal options that were increasingly far from optimal and luck that wasn’t lucky, our Hanoi burnout was on the horizon as Tet approached two weeks ago.




A fresh perspective was needed.

So we ran off to Saigon. Or Ho Chi Minh City. Or whatever it’s supposed to be called. Everyone calls it by one or the other name and I’m trying to detect a pattern.

Saigon/HCMC is lovely.

It’s pretty much the opposite of Hanoi, for better or for worse.  It plays the role of Shanghai to Hanoi’s Beijing in the general Asian dialectic.

Hanoi is small and tight and crunchy and villagey, with winding lanes, tall and narrow houses and snaking vines and lakes and ponds and lotus farms and kumquat orchards and cock fights and haphazard bia hois and a dearth of sidewalks. It’s heavily umami, heavy, dusty, darker inside. It has seasons that smack you across the head. It’s home to expats who work for NGOs, embassies, fancy hotels, cowboy language schools.

It feels at times like it’s still fifty years ago. Yellow painted walls surrounding stately old homes, tucked away from the alleyway, mildewing and crumbly. Bakeries sell excellent loaves fashioned from an old skool poolish. Once a month, older men with wizardy mustaches and wizardy costumes install themselves at tables by the lake temple, amongst the stalls selling goodies for the ancestors (Orion pies, Coke, cigarettes), and write out meaningful words or phrases in beautiful calligraphy on scrolls. The locals make very earnest use of their services. There are little ancestral shrines (with the Orion pies, Cokes and cigarettes) in back corners of supermarkets, clothes shops, restaurants, hotels.  During lunar calendar monthly festivals, you can buy your shiny gold pinwheel ornaments all over.




Saigon, at least during Tet and a few days after, is so sunny and bright and hot that our SAD UV-depleted bodies suddenly realized how grey and grim and tired we had been feeling up north. Yes, it was hot and Thwack was a slippery, sweaty, temperamental baby and we had to hastily sort out sunglasses and sunscreen and sandals and drinking water. But it was pleasantly hot and dry and very open, with breezes and a sense of space. The traffic was slightly mad (less mad during Tet, as expected, but also after) but the roads were wider and there were sidewalks and the driving was less aggressive. It was just that little bit easier to manage. Food was lighter, brighter, more varied.  Apartments and houses let in bright, bright sunlight and cooling breezes.  There was a sense of space. It was newer, shinier, taller, more polished.

Oddly,  we already seem to have more established friends in Saigon now than we’ve managed to find in Hanoi in the last 5 months. It’s tricky with a baby and a family and being ever so slightly older than we were the last time around. The old EFL approach to socializing doesn’t really work anymore- going for beers after the 9pm classes finish, staying out til all hours, whiling away gentle morning hours in cafes. A different approach is needed. We are neither the affluent embassy/corporate affiliated foreigners, with huge houses and drivers and nannies and a western salary, nor are we the young, super-flexible backpackers who are happy to live in a rented room on a busy street in the old quarter. We’re a bit of both, and yet neither. It’s an odd place to be.

Coming back after five days, I feel I can deal with Hanoi a little more rationally. I don’t feel angry at the stupid big SUVs clogging the top road or the bikes that barrel down crooked alleys at top speed. Instead of dwelling on the dust and dearth of sidewalks, I cart Thwack around in the back streets and along the lake’s edge where it’s calmer. I’m appreciating the moods of the skies. Sometimes grey is okay.



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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.