Stepping out of Hanoi International Airport feels like falling face-first into a volcano. In contrast to the freezing airports and air-conditioned airplanes we’ve been trapped in for the past 20 hours, everything has become humid, muggy, and intense.
Shattered from sleeplessness, wrapped up in hoodies, and loaded with backpacks, we — Karen, Dominique and I — are slicked in sweat in seconds. But the breezeless Vietnamese night fills us with adrenaline, and the slog of the journey is immediately forgotten.
Hanoi, it turns out, is absolute chaos.
We wake up to a perpetual din of honks, horns, and squawks that rise up from the teeming pavements and mingle with a thick, sticky cloud of September heat that hangs over the city like kneaded dough.
Showers are made hastily, since a rogue hole in our bathroom wall opens onto the two-star hotel stairwell. We attack Karen with birthday hugs (after presenting her with a somewhat cringe birthday card owing to WHSmith’s lack of choice), douse ourselves in mosquito repellent, and head out into town.
Simple actions in Hanoi, like crossing the street, suddenly become a fight for our lives.
Motorcycle armies with a terrifying preference for dodging pedestrians whizz around at breakneck speed instead of actually slowing down. My toes twitch fearfully in my flip-flops every time a motorbike rips past.
Between the three of us, our knowledge of Vietnam—beyond quoting Apocalypse Now and knowing a little about the war—is abysmal. But Hanoi lets us dip our toes into the country gently, and we ease gradually into its culture as the days go by.
That first morning, we have birthday brunch at a little café where a couple of backpacking westerners are pilfering the free wifi. We revive ourselves with fresh coconuts and try our first ever freshly-brewed Vietnamese coffee, toasting to Karen’s new age.
Then, buzzing from the copious amounts of glorious sweetened caffeine coursing through our underslept bodies, we scour a Lonely Planet Vietnam in an attempt to make a rough plan for Hanoi.
In the end, Hanoi makes a rough plan for us.
We roam the city, taking everything in.
Long, narrow streets abound in Hanoi, filled with conga lines of haphazardly-parked scooters, tapering off into even narrower alleys. Sugarcane machines purr loudly in shops as sweet green juice is expelled from fresh stalks straight into plastic cups. We sip it tentatively. Tastes like sugar, and grass, and something nostalgic.
Crinkle-eyed women with faces hidden beneath rice-hats pass us frequently, peddling from carts filled with suspicious and delicious street food. Some carts offer whole and sliced fruits, with fuchsia coloured dragonfruits so violently neon they almost look radioactive.
Gourmet delights like fresh pho and sticky garlic rice blow our minds.
The flavours are so fragrant, so more-ish. Egg coffee, more caphe sua da (coffee with condensed milk), freshly fried sweet doughnut pastries; everything we try, we love.
Our first real bowl of pho is sensational, enjoyed in a dingy little kitchenette around the corner from our hostel, each metal table littered with chopsticks, herbs, and hot sauce bottles. We rave about the flavour as we eat, planning to come back for dinner.
Dom, our resident vegetarian, gags when we unwrap some banana leaf rolls to reveal tubes of pink steamed pork inside.
Stomachs tender, we steer clear.
Far too soon, it’s our last night in Hanoi.
We watch the sun sink down beautifully beyond the West Lake, beside the Trấn Quốc Pagoda. The water is so tranquil. The sky is brilliantly pastel. The mosquitos are starting to attack our legs.
We wave down a taxi, whose driver rips us off royally. Back in the centre of town, passionfruit cocktails calm our enraged nerves and empty purses in the quirky communist-inspired Cong Caphe.
Later, merry again, after stumbling across a rooftop alleyway bar called Cafe Nola, we find ourselves drinking neon 2-for-1 cocktails beneath a sea of multicoloured hanging umbrellas, singing gaily along to Coldplay and U2.
Minus the super-sized mutant cockroaches scuttling around nearby, which make me jump up and cling to Karen’s back like a fearful koala, the night is utterly magical.
It’s past midnight when we finally collapse into bed at our hostel and set our alarms for 4am, ready to catch a 12-hour bus to SaPa, where the mountains await.