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What Three Days in Hanoi Taught Me about Navigating Chaos

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

I’d been warned about Hanoi. Warned by folks I met in Bangkok and my tour guide in Laos that it was incredibly crowded, filled with honking horns and speeding bicycles. But twelve days into my tour, I was ready for it. I had had all the serenity and fun of Southeast Asia. I was ready for the chaos.

My tour group was staying in the Old Quarter which is amazing for its colonial architecture and narrow streets, but also has to be navigated in a very specific way. Let me explain. In the Old Quarter of Hanoi there are no stoplights, crosswalks, or indications of any kind who has the right of way. And that would be challenging enough, but the sheer volume of people who move through this area by foot, bicycle, motorbike, and car each day turns what would be a simple walk into a feat.

We first ventured out on a group street food tour. I was glad we had our guide who called “Ok, sticky rice family!” and put out her hand to traffic to indicate we were coming. But she didn’t put her hand out like a policeman stopping traffic; instead it was like she was petting a large dog—low to the ground, palm facing down, and gently. A gesture that seemed perfectly Asian in both its subtly and assertiveness. Using this gesture is the only way to cross a street. But because we had a guide who paved the way, it wasn't too hard. The next day, however, would be different.

After spending the morning with the group, and having a guide lead us through the Old Quarter, I wanted to venture out on my own. If I was going to be in chaos, I wanted to be able to focus. I didn’t want to just follow someone else. I wanted to figure it out. And I learned very quickly what was necessary to move through this chaos. As much as I wanted to gaze up at the colonial architecture—the pastel facades, iron balconies, and plants and birdcages dangling onto the roofs—I couldn’t. When walking in the Old Quarter you can only look at what’s a few feet in front of you. Is there a pedestrian, bicycle, motorbike, or car? And if there isn’t an obstruction, could there be? Is something coming or is a store clerk, say, about to pour a bucket of water into the street? It would go on like this whether I was walking for one block or twenty. Meaning that a two-block stroll is like a fun, little game, while a twenty block mission is exhausting, and worthy of a good lie-down. But I kept at it—the shopping and the coffee were that good.

The Old Quarter is laid out in streets specializing in different products, just as it was a thousand years ago. Our hotel was around the corner from metal and fixture streets (borrrrring) but also from party supplies and cheap Christmas decorations streets. And that was where I lost it. Not because I had trouble walking through the streets, but because I had arrived at the dangerous intersection of over-caffeinated and shopping. Vietnamese coffee is a delightfully sweet, powerfully potent, creamy blend of condensed milk and brewed coffee. And it is really good iced. So good that that day I had four cups, bought two pink paper lanterns, cards and party supplies, and a fake Fjall Raven bag. That was also the day I discovered one way to handle the chaos.

That night my tour group and I went to a water paper puppet show. This 11th century tradition is basically a puppet show in a swimming pool. The viewer sees puppets moving on top of the water, but behind the back curtain are puppeteers holding long rods that extend into the water, beneath the surface and beyond the curtain. At first, I couldn’t tell where the puppeteers were. Underneath the water in scuba gear? Or if they were behind the curtain, how did the puppets move so far in front of the curtain? And while some members of my tour group were falling asleep to the trance-inducing sounds of traditional Vietnamese music, these questions seemed to be the most important questions in the world to me. Why so important? I was on drugs. The coffee had kicked in to an unprecedented state of jittery sedation. A highly-charged, psychedelic trip. My mind was way out there, so I decided to go deep. I started thinking about how in any activity, like the puppet show, there is something going on beneath the surface—and we can choose to wonder about it, or ignore it. I started thinking about how the chaotic streets of the Old Quarter kept me so focused on the getting from one step to the next that I couldn’t really think about the street scenes I was passing or look up at the beautiful balconies. I started thinking about what it would feel like to be a puppeteer moving beneath the surface. I started thinking about if I would ever be able to get to sleep that night.

I did get some sleep (thanks, Unisom!). I also greeted the next day with my new theory: In any situation, we can go deep or we can float above. That day I went to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, and the following day, Hoa Lo Prison—sometimes called Hanoi Hilton. In both museums, though my sleep deprivation was catching up with me, I tried to understand as much as I could. I tried to go deep, beneath the surface. In the Women’s Museum I learned about varying traditions of courtship, marriage, and birth. I learned about Mother Goddesses, like the Third Dame deity who wears a white robe and represents the falsely accused, “To whom can I tell the story of my sorrow? Only Heaven knows that my heart is pure.” I learned about resistance fighters, some as young as 14. I tried, despite my exhaustion, to understand these women’s fights for their causes and their country. And although I couldn’t tell you much more about these women now, I remember being impressed upon at the time. I had gone beneath the surface, as best I could.

Hoa Lo Prison Museum is in fact a prison turned museum. Most of the museum addresses the space used a prison for the Vietnamese during the French colonization from the early 1900s until the 1950s. Guillotines and stark gray cells. Sewer gates that the prisoners used to escape. But there’s another part of the museum dedicated to the American POWs during the Vietnam War. Now I will fully admit that most of what I know about the Vietnam War, I learned from Jane Fonda’s autobiography (an excellent read, btw), but this part of the museum was very strange to me. In the same space, the same actual prison, the POWs are depicted having a pretty good time. Enlarged photographs showed smiling men playing cards and pool, and enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with a beer in hand. So was it a prison or did it live up to its nickname “Hanoi Hilton?” I was skeptical of the latter, especially after I read this plaque:

Inside the stone walls of ‘Ha Noi Hilton’ was the daily life of American pilots. No more flights on B-52s and carpet bombings, only a serene time for these American pilots to think about what happened and feel the beauty of peaceful life and warm humanity in Hoa Lo Prison.

A “serene time?” “…the beauty of peaceful life?” Was it a prison or a yoga retreat? Were those same stark cells used for both torture and recreation? I was dubious. And while I saw John McCain’s flight suit and parachute, I knew I didn’t have all the facts. But I was trying, at least, to learn. The museum finishes in a courtyard meant to be a place of peace and reflection. There was a guest book I flipped through, curious what international visitors had to say. The very last entry read “Shame on France and America. Time to get them back.” I was shocked. I paused, and looked around. Being the last entry, the writer, “Kit,” had to be nearby. Where was she from? And, really? After all the artifacts and photos, gaunt wax figures and guillotines, that’s your take way? “Get them back?” It was infuriating and sad. But it was also the last entry. So I made sure no one was looking and turned to a blank page. I had tried to look deeply at the situation, and now it was time for a new perspective. It was time for a blank page. It was time to get out of the depth and rise above the sorrow. It was time to float above the great what happened.

Because that’s the other way to handle chaos. The second day in Hanoi my group decided to try a rooftop bar after dinner. When we walked onto the roof, everything was different. The air was different. Instead of buckets and bikes and stools and boxes, there was space. I could breathe. I felt like Mary Poppins, about to dance among the chimney tops of London. And finally I could look across at those beautiful colonial balconies. I could dream about what it would be like to put my feet up and have Vietnamese coffee, watching the world go by. I could remove myself from the chaos. The next night we went to a different rooftop bar and had gin and tonics, toasting to our travels and friendship. It was one of the most relaxing times in Hanoi.

So what did three days in Hanoi teach me about navigating chaos? They taught me that like walking even one block in the insanely busy Old Quarter, in any burst of chaos, in any busy, emotion-filled, intense situation, after simply “getting through it” one has two choices: go deep or rise high. Ask questions or float above. Neither is good or bad, in fact each carries both wisdom and danger: the thoughtful analysis though perhaps over-thinking of depth and the serenity and possible apathy of removal. They can lead to both awareness and crazy-making, peace and alcoholism.

But the cool thing is, we get to choose. To drink the coffee and ask the questions or drink the gin and float above it. And in this marvelously manic season packed with secret elves and secret Santas, white elephants and white Christmases, my wish for you is to stay cool. Get through it, one step at a time like the streets of the Old Quarter. Ask the questions. Fully process your family of origin issues. And then, dear ones, have a drink and let it go.

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