Don Stefanovich's Blog

March 7, 2011

Little red welcome-wagon

Buildings in HanoiDuring the day, the buildings on the outskirts of Hanoi appear less menacing, but no less alien. Photo by Don Stefanovich

As we descended into Hanoi I could sense we were outsiders. We were the loud, obnoxious Americans. Hailing from California academia and led by he who had come to be known to us as “Admiral,” we drank, talked and joked. We were the only ones.

The plane was silent and still aside from our good times. No one seemed to notice aside the occasional sideways glances cast in our direction during the more uproarious moments of our levity. Deciphering whether they were inquisitive or annoyed would have been a task better left to someone else. But I couldn’t help but wonder what they thought of us – the overgrown, overfed and over-privileged Americans. As academic and altruistic as our endeavors intended to be, the truth was we would soon be gawking in odd amusement at what was for them a way of life.

From the moment we exited our plane in Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport, something felt different. Perhaps it was 12 hours on a plane coupled with a healthy dose of western misconceptions and the green-tea and whiskeys served with a smile by Tokyo’s porcelain doll flight attendants, but the second I stepped foot on communist soil, I knew it. I could feel it. I could smell it.

It was in solemn faces of the crowds clutching belongings, waiting listlessly in line to reenter their country. It was in the smudges and fingerprints no one bothered to wipe from every window pane and piece of plexiglass. It was in every bit of grime collected in the corners and the cracked tiles upon the floor. It was in the pressed, starched olive green jackets, visored-hats and grim faces of airline officials that looked more like military officers. These particular members of our welcome wagon looked on as equally pressed employees scrutinized our documents behind the greasy plexiglass cubicles. Upon having my documents returned I ventured a smile at the uniformed girl behind the glass. No makeup, and hair pulled back, the corners of her lips appeared to attempt to return the gesture, but her eyes didn’t comply.

Our bus rattles through the night along a two-lane highway toward Hanoi that seems to have no governing laws aside from a general direction. Tiny, strangely colored cars wantonly jaunt along, ignoring lanes. Tiny motorbikes and scooters burdened with enough freight to make a pack mule cringe whir and bounce along the shoulder, every joint in the pavement threatening to dislodge driver and cargo.

Only simple streetlights along the freeway burn in the blackness. The familiar, vast electric grid of most modern cities is noticeably absent. Beyond the glow, rising from the ink of night, jagged monoliths jut up into the smog. The haphazard shapes morph into buildings as my eyes adjust. Packed high and tight, the structures appear the wild fancy of architectural insanity. Rising six, seven, sometimes nine stories, most are no wider than a one car garage, balconies, railings, columns and roofs clawing toward the sky as if they grew organically. Some appear to be missing walls allowing a voyeuristic view of dimly lit dwellings, gypsy dens and hookah bars the only comparison my western brain is able to make. Some appear half built, some half demolished. Brick and mortar rises next to plaster and stucco; modern architecture clashes with French colonial; well appointed towers rise around and above tin-roof, patch-work shanties. Industrial buildings overlap neighborhoods and sometimes it is hard to distinguish between the two.

We’re not in California anymore.