The Many Faces of Hanoi


One of the great things about travelling is that you get to meet a lot of new people in a very short space of time. Remembering exactly who they all are and what they all look like, however, is not always easy. One consequence of this was discovered by my partner and I in Hanoi in 2008, and to this day the event eclipses all other memories of our visit to Vietnam.

Having been in Hanoi for a few weeks on a teaching placement at a local primary school, we were slowly adjusting to the frantic pace of life. We'd had trips to some of the major sights including the stunning (but foggy) Halong Bay, settled on our favourite eatery (a place we dubbed 'DIY' as the raw food was brought out along with our own personal hot plate), and we'd somehow managed to survive the daily challenge of crossing the roads as the locals sped past on their scooters, usually accompanied by an antique vase, a live goat or on occasion, their entire family.

One humid summer morning, having chatted to a small group of Vietnamese students who had approached us with a polite request to practice their English, we said goodbye and they headed off, our email addresses exchanged. A week later we made our way to a local bar where we'd arranged to meet up, and as we entered at the agreed time we spotted one of the girls from the group. She smiled and walked over, and we asked if she or any of the others (who we assumed to be upstairs) would like a drink. She frowned and said something to the bar staff who in-turn all shook their heads before she again smiled and refused the offer. We insisted and finally she agreed to have a coffee.

Drinks in hand we headed upstairs, but realised the girl was not following. We beckoned her and again frowning, she hesitantly followed.

Once upstairs we scanned the almost empty room and were surprised to find the rest of the group absent. We moved over to one of the large tables and sat, and still needing persuasion, the girl joined us. She took a sip from her coffee and after a few moments of silence, she casually asked us our names. We paused and were immediately confused by this, having firmly established each other’s names in our conversation a week hence, and again several times via email.

It was in this moment that the penny dropped, and the realisation that this wasn't the same girl hit me like a pint of the local 'Bia Hoi' lager.

This was quickly followed by a mental recreation of our entrance in to the bar from her perspective. Two tourists, complete and utter strangers confidently striding in and asking her and all the bar staff if they wanted a drink, and then for us to repeatedly insist that she followed us upstairs for a chat. I cringed at how arrogant we must have appeared.

And finally came the stark realisation that the real group of locals, one of which looked remarkably like this member of staff with whom we were now trading basic facts such as names with, would be arriving at any moment.

I turned to my partner and using my best ventriloquist skills mumbled the words "this isn't the same girl". What followed can only be described as the fastest turn-around in human behaviour in backpacking history. Our casual, welcoming, all embracing attitude turned instantly to a polite yet slightly manic effort to repel the girl at all costs. The details are lost in a haze of panic, but within 60 seconds she made an excuse to get back to work, and as she left, she moved to one side to allow her doppelganger and the rest of the group enter the room.

To this day, Hanoi is one of our favourite places on Earth. Vibrant, chaotic and alive, with the friendliest people you’re ever likely to encounter. Just try to keep tabs on who’s who.

R Harrand

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