Stepping off the Curb


Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore….Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz

I woke up this morning on the other side of the world. After 22 hours of travel, I arrived in Hanoi late at night and rode to my hotel in the back of a dark, air-conditioned mini-van, so my first glimpse of Vietnam came as stepped outside the doors of my hotel this morning.

Living in a tourist destination, I think of myself as prepared for cars stopping randomly, people stepping out into traffic, and generally slow going. Nothing could have prepared me for Hanoi…a seething mass of motor bikes, goods for sale, people, and the ever-present honking. Crossing the street, while a necessity, seemed part dance and part blind faith that some unfathomable system was at work.

I had the inevitable moment of “What have I gotten myself into?” and “Can I do this?”, but I stepped off the curb, dodged several motorbikes and started to wander the streets of the Old Quarter.

This central area of Hanoi, is a one of the oldest parts of a city that was named the capital in 1010AD. There are no Walmarts or big box stores in the Old Quarter. Each alley or street is dedicated to a particular type of good being sold or merchant…tin boxes, blacksmiths, toys, gravestones, herbs, altars, shoes, rope, straw mats, silk, jewelry…every street has a purpose.

While this ancient grid of streets is the foundation, everywhere the new is pushing up against the old - crumbling clay tile roofs and brick alley ways surrounded by soviet-era block buildings, women carrying baskets with produce and a motorbike loaded with knock-off Beats headphones; traditional straw hats and young Vietnamese in fedoras; handmade wooden toys and plastic Hello Kitty dolls, faded communist party posters and pirated DVDs.

I wandered this maze of alley ways for several hours finally coming out on the other side at Hoan Kiem Lake. A brief moment of quiet at the temple on the edge of the lake and then I took a deep breath and threaded my way back through the streets to my hotel. While I didn’t travel far today, I did learn to cross the street…