Vietnam’s capital city of Hanoi is awash with sights and sounds to fill the senses. There are times when it’s nice to do without the latter of the two.
HANOI, Vietnam — I’ve been in Hanoi for less than two hours and already I’m rattled. It’s Ho Chi Minh City all over again. The sights, the smells, the sounds. What was all there is all here, but this time I’m not in the mood.
It’s the sounds, really. I could, as I did in Ho Chi Minh, romanticize it as the melody of “progress,” the salutary resonance of the world’s 13th most populous nation ratcheting its way up the ladder from the 56th rung of the global economy. Now, it just feels like too much noise.
I suggest a game to my travelling companion. We need it. She and I have been visiting her homeland for just shy of three weeks, working our way north via train from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang to Da Nang to Hoi An to Haiphong and now here. Until this particular moment I adored Vietnam without question. At some point I loved her, too. Now it’s just cloudy skies, littered streets and the noise all around and between us.
The game I propose is to see how high we can count before the sound of another horn blares from the din of combustion and steel. A scooter, a car, a truck or if by chance a flock of geese passing overhead, let’s see how high we can go until we hear a honk.
One, two… honk!
She smiles, but doesn’t care to play.
The front desk clerk at the hotel was helpful. He suggested we first try a neighborhood nearby called the French Quarter; the area where the French colonial enterprise ruled from 1873 until 1954 when they were forcibly expelled by those they once conquered. In my bag I have a book containing a map demarcated with 20 notable spots to admire French architecture within a grid of quieter back streets. We take off walking hoping the rain holds.
Rounding the northern stretch of Hoan Kiem Lake, then south along its western shore, we enter the French Quarter. The wide streets are lined with large trees that serve like gauze to the noise now beginning to fade. We come first upon St. Joseph’s Cathedral, with its blue-and-white “1” on the map.
Built in 1886 on the grounds of a sacred temple demolished by the French, the cathedral was modeled after the Notre Dame de Paris in the neo-Gothic style of that period. I think I know what that means. I haven’t been inside a church in years, and today this one is closed to the public.
Walking around the side under the watchful eye of a towering Jesus and two children, we are approached by a shabbily-dressed old man whose few remaining teeth are colored like soot—like the unadorned mortar with which the cathedral was erected.
I ignore his “How are you?” fearing it will lead to “What change can you spare?” only to find he is now asking my companion, in Vietnamese, if we’d like to take a look inside. “Vang,” she replies, as he pulls a ring of keys from his overcoat.