The more I travel the more I wonder what defines our feelings about places. I loved Hanoi the instant I arrived and knew I was going to enjoy the next few days there. But why? Was it something about the city which I immediately connected with? Or more prosaically because I'd had a nap on the plane, wasn't hungry and it wasn't raining? And how much do these initial feelings mould the rest of our time there? As it happens I was right, I adored Hanoi and here's why...
I stayed in the old quarter which is a jumble of streets and houses piled on top of each other and often so built up that the streets are only a few inches wide at the top. It's a riot of activity, but not in an oppressive way like Ho Chi Minh. There are so many street food vendors that they spill over the pavements onto the streets and are constantly filled with people perched on children's plastic furniture chatting away and eating together. And they aren't just eating deep fried dog and chickens feet (although I believe these are on offer) but totally delicious spring rolls, barbecues, seafood, noodles, soups, baguettes and even donuts. The latter are sold by women who roam the streets with baskets laden with scrumptious looking pastries. I was lured in in an instant only to discover to my horror that they are fried in pig fat and have an over powering flavour of pork mingling with the chocolate and dough. There are other bakeries which are amazing though, a legacy left over from the French occupation and serving all sorts of amazing cakes and breads.
Although the overwhelming feeling is of 'bustling' no one actually ever seems to be in a hurry. The people are kind, helpful and relaxed. I wasn't hassled either. The staff at my shabby but cosy hotel were charming, when I arrived they were experiencing an all too frequent power cut and I was shown to my room by candlelight. The wifi all around Vietnam is surprisingly brilliant and accessible. In Hanoi I noticed all the passwords were phrases like 'haveagoodday, 'behappy,' 'eatgreatfood,' 'smilewithhanoi,' etc which is very telling of their outlook on life.
I attempted a couple of paintings although I wasn't there that long and the crammed streets made it hard to even find a little space for me and my easel let alone set about a painting. I'd really wanted to do more of the decaying colonial grandeur and toppling buildings covered with plants and wires and birdcages but I didn't have enough time. Hopefully I will spend a couple more days there before leaving for Japan. The first painting I did was of a dark wiggling, awning-clad alley way. I chose too big a canvas for how much I had to pack in and wasn't particularly pleased with my progress. But then a man stopped and said I was painting his hotel and he would like to buy it. I only realised he was serious when he returned with a cup of tea for me with his email address written on the paper cup. That was how I met Frank, a German social worker perhaps in his forties and on a sabbatical from his job in Frankfurt where he rehomes refugees and provides support to broken families. As it happened he was serious and has bought the painting. A welcome stroke of luck after beginning planning my trip to Japan where everything is horrifyingly expensive.
I had to pack Frank's painting in a box as it was still wet. Where could I find a cardboard box in Hanoi? Luckily, as with many Asian towns, the streets of Hanoi are delightfully organised into genres. For example you might go to cloth street to buy fabric, electrical street, plumbing supplies street, stationary street and so on. Fortunately I had got lost one morning (actually every morning, and evening for that matter) and had chanced upon cardboard box and packing supplies street. Every shop was piled high with cardboard boxes new and old, large and small. The bubble wrap shops and the packing tape shops are conveniently located next door. Despite the cornucopia of cardboard I couldn't find a box the perfect size and had to deliver the painting in an enormous package. We met for the exchange the following night as Frank sweetly insisted on buying me dinner so we spent a lovely evening delving into more of Hanoi's culinary delights.
Talking of culinary delights I cannot describe how delicious the street food is. From these humble little trollies with fires inside and make shift stoves come the most extraordinary dishes. One night I tried a DIY BBQ. You are given a little stove (a bit like a fondue but with a pan) and a pile of seafood and some noodles and veg and away you go. I'm no Nigella and found a couple of my calamari worryingly aldente but thank goodness, and touch wood, I woke up the next morning having STILL not been ill.
I was much more pleased with the other painting I did in Hanoi although unfortunately I don't think the street I chose represents Hanoi very accurately. It was a little way out of the old quarter and a bit cleaner and more open than most. However it was quiet, which is a rarity in The city but made painting a lot easier. Unlike at my first location I didn't have to keep moving my easel out of the way of passing motorbikes. The painting was a real struggle as some are but I felt satisfied once I'd finished.
I've really loved Hanoi so much that I think I may spend a few more days here after Cat Ba and Sapa. There is so much more to paint and I want to get to grips with the darkened alley ways and pavement restaurants. I'll see how I feel after a few days at sea and then in the wild hills of the North West.