The above shot is Casey, my brother-in-law, Scott, and our nephew, Kalin on our way to do a little exploring.
I should fill in the gap a little: we loved Vietnam the first time around and knew we would come back but I don’t think either of us thought it would be this soon. The reason we made the jump to get back now, however, is because my sister, brother-in-law, and two nephews moved to Hanoi last summer to teach at an international school. We didn’t make it to visit when they lived for two years in Venezuela teaching at another school so we were overdue for some lego spaceship building and monkey-in-the-middle anyway, but the fact that they live in a place in which we had such a good experience made it that much easier.
All this on its own is enough to offer up a pretty different view of the city. Where last time we were in a hotel that cost $8 per night including breakfast, private bathroom, and wifi, this time we were staying with family, chaperoning a second grade field trip to the art museum and attending Saturday soccer. Last time we were eating every meal out and about (for better and worse) because we had no kitchen - this time we were much more at our leisure for meals. Last time we were venturing out from the tourist hotbed of the wonderful Old Quarter, almost exclusively by foot and this time, well…tucked away on the northwest side of the city we made the leap and got ourselves acquainted with the city traffic on the back of a borrowed motorbike.
This is no big deal for a lot of people but as someone who has driven a motorbike all of two times (both the last time we were in Vietnam) it was a little daunting. The rules, such as they are, are different in Southeast Asia and they make no bones about it. They’re different when you cross the street as a pedestrian wading out into traffic where slow and steady wins the race, but it’s a different beast when you’re the one driving amongst the thousands of others. Red lights and lane designations are mostly just suggestions and which way you drive down a one way street seems to be answered by answering the question of which way your destination is. As a westerner who didn’t grow up casually munching a snack between the arms of an adult driving a moto, it’s fantastically thrilling and frightening and overwhelming all at once.
It started to click more when I began to equate it more to my time as a bicycle commuter in Boston and Seattle. This makes sense as a progression and it’s easy to see the transition on the streets anywhere you look: babies riding on a lap between two adults on a moto then become kids riding bicycles to and from school on the same streets, one sitting on the back rack checking their cell phone. Those kids then get a little older and trade up for an electric bicycle that then becomes a full fledged motorbike carrying any number of people and things. Riding through the city is all about moving forward and, in my opinion, it’s a very human centered form of mobility. Scott made the comparison to it being like a school of fish. This is pretty dead on. As a group of motos approaches an intersection there’s an almost imperceptible pause as people check what may or may not be coming from any direction. A moto is crossing from the right and the school splits - some at the front continue on crossing in front of the intersecting predator, the ones further back veer to the other side behind it and everyone keeps going, including the (slow and steady) predator. Everyone moving forward.
As we got more comfortable with driving, we ventured further out and the city - which, last time, was basically just wherever we could comfortably walk round trip in a day - completely opened up. New neighborhoods, new personalities, new parks and restaurants and shops lined with overhanging trees and all the tendril-like vines that hang down from them all revealed themselves to us and made me realize how, even though we saw a lot last time, we barely scratched the surface. Being on a motorbike, again, similar to my experience cycling in cities, also changes your relationship with a place the same way being in a car vs. on foot vs. in a subway does. In Hanoi, motorbikes are (despite a noticeable increase in cars) still definitely The Way, and becoming a part of that made things make just a little more sense. It made going back sooner than expected exponentially better. Suddenly it didn’t feel like we were on a repeat visit but instead a whole new pool with a nice familiar diving board.