I arrived to Hanoi on March the 1st without great expectations. In my eyes that place had the guilt of being a big city and I, with the typical presumption of the expert travelers, was convinced that big cities were all the same: noisy, dirty, busy and smelly.
I arrived to Hanoi late one evening while it was raining. I hadn’t seen the rain for a long time, it was thick, tireless, powerful. I smiled at her and she smiled back at me. We walked together from the bus station to the Old Quarter. When I arrived at the hostel, a miracle had happened: that rain had washed away all the prejudices, the irritations, even the tiredness of a long, complicated, sometimes bitter day. It was then that I realized that Hanoi was starting to call me by my own name.
Calling someone by their name is a really tricky matter. We feel right at home with our peers, friends and lovers. But informality is sometimes interpreted as bad manners: people tend to speak informally with those who they consider unworthy of formal dialogue. From Hanoi I received friendly and sincere words, but as time went by, those same words were used against me, making me understand that I was not welcome.
The next morning, I woke up very early and got out before 6.00 a.m. The asphalt was wet from the pouring rain of the previous night, but the morning light, shy and white, made me hope for a dry day. Scooters and cars glided on the already busy, but still, silent streets, composing a melody that meshed with the sounds of the city: the sound of the ladle against the ceramic bowls, a shutter being raised, the wheels of the carts full of fruit and vegetables, the inextricable high-pitched voices of the Vietnamese.
I furtively followed a woman who carried a bamboo stick on her shoulders to which two baskets were tied, one full of mandarins, the other of mangoes. I imitated the dance with which she crossed the intersections and I stopped only when she stopped – to have breakfast with Phở soup. We got lost in narrow streets, we paraded through discreet temples and daring shops and finally we reached the central market. It was a triumph of colors and smells: stands of flowers and spices, fish I had never seen before, sea turtles and eels; stands of dried shrimp, exotic vegetables, dried fruit; meat stalls with women that tirelessly waved rags to keep the flies away, while sitting on the hammocks hanging in the middle of the stand.
In those few hours I fell in love with Hanoi. I liked to look up and watch the tangle of electric cables that tied the houses to each other, producing a black jumble besides the large electric poles. Looking at those threads I thought: Hanoi is beautiful because it is frank, it shows itself for what it is. We hide the threads because they are unsightly, instead Hanoi made them part of its landscape.
Moreover, it is certainly a noisy city, but only because it is alive. On the wide sidewalks, sitting on blue plastic seats, young and old people pour out daily to drink filtered coffee with condensed milk, Saigon beer, or lemonade. They smile little and talk a lot.
However, when I was finally getting comfortable with the atmosphere of the city, Hanoi changed. At first imperceptibly, then furiously. The first sign arrived on that same first day when, back at the hostel, they informed me that I would have to leave it within an hour. Some days before, the Coronavirus had begun its massacre in Italy and they feared I could infect them. I tried to open the passport and show them the stamps that proved that my journey far from Italy had started long before the virus arrived. And yet, they were only interested in the first page: Italian passport. I felt humiliated mostly because it happened just when I chose to open my heart to Hanoi. Backpack on shoulders, passport in hand, I went out into the streets.
That day I learned that in Hanoi it starts to rain at 4.00 p.m. and the rain does not warn you. The sky darkens within instants, then, it brushes through the city. Thick. Tireless. Powerful. That day the rain watched me walk in search of a hostel, but it wasn’t the smiley rain of the day before: this time it was sneering. Once I finally found a place to sleep and dried myself, I easily regained the right spirit: it had been, I said to myself, an isolated event. And in fact, provided that I avoided revealing my nationality, Hanoi was more welcoming every day.
I found it a funny city: during mornings ruled by women busy in sales, in the afternoons crossed only by men, grouped around a high and wide pipe, smoking the Thuoc Lao.
I liked how everyone stopped to greet me while I was painting on the roadside and how many engaged in acrobatic hand gestures to explain me how to play at Xiangqi, their board game. As days passed I became able to distinguish the smells of the streets: fish sauce, beef soup, fried chicken legs, spring rolls. I felt welcomed and when a few days later I left the city to visit the rest of the country, I felt almost certain that the little accident in the hostel wasn’t real.
For two weeks I wandered through the rice fields of the north until I arrived in the warm and sunny lands of the south. I explored magical places, but something was out of tune, both inside and outside of me. Travelling became increasingly complicated, seeing entire cities in lockdown and many checkpoints for measuring people’s body temperature, became more and more frequent: it was time to return to Hanoi.
To welcome me there was a very different city. No longer the lively and passionate one of two weeks before, but an intimidated and hostile Hanoi. A city aware of not being privileged with the permission to get sick, as it is almost completely deprived of public health. Most of the hostels had closed and at the entrance of some restaurants it was written: “NO tourists”. In many others, before I could even get across the doorway, the whole room froze and the owners waved their hands into a big “X” adding: “Finish, finish!”.
That day I experienced what it really means to get cozy around a city. Hanoi was terrified of me but, paradoxically, it continued to treat me informally as a member of the family. But this time, it did so to order me to leave. Of course, I still heard the city breathe with me, we were still able to smile behind each other’s suspicious frowns and blue masks. But that city called me a foreigner and treated me as a stranger. How bad it was not to feel welcome in the country I had chosen to visit! So I thought how difficult it must be not to feel welcomed in the country someone has chosen to stay in.
Here is the lesson I drew from my journey: being on first name terms before the unknown, feeling comfortable around the unfamiliar, requires a great act of trust. It can be the beginning of a long friendship or the weapon that will wound you. Hanoi welcomed me and abandoned me. But when I packed my things, I greeted the city with a familiar smile which meant: I categorically refuse to return to the hypocrisy of informal language. I think Hanoi understood it, because it smiled back. After all, it is such an electrifying experience to be able to call a city by its own name!