I arrived in Hanoi at the worst possible time, late at night in the middle of the Full Moon celebrations. My taxi got as far as Hoan Kiem Lake, which was a miracle in itself, then became hopelessly enmeshed in a loud chaotic crush of people and cars and motorbikes and mopeds, so many mopeds, a tightly woven net of mechanised humanity which closed in all around us.
The taxi driver bore it quite cheerfully for a while. He added his own contribution to the cacophonous revelry by blasting out a techno track with sampled parts of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech over a pneumatic drill of a beat. I stared out of the window as the song battered my eardrums and thought ‘I Have A Nightmare.’
Then the driver’s mood switched, and he snapped off the music and kicked us out of the car, myself and two young German boys, ejecting us into the middle of a multi-lane street jammed rigid with people and cars and more motorbikes and mopeds than I have ever seen in my life nor ever wish to see again.
I don’t have any photos of this as I was too preoccupied at the time by questions of my immediate survival. The Germans were two of the four people with whom I’d spent the last 26 hours lying flat on a claustrophobic shelf of dentist-chair-like contraptions as we were flung around at the back of the sleeper bus (don’t ask me about the sleeper bus). They got out the other side of the cab and edged round to the back to get their backpacks. I already had mine in hand. By the time they got round the back of the car, mere metres away, they were already entirely cut off from me by a tight group of mopeds. We waved goodbye and the traffic swallowed them up. I never saw them again.
I shouldered my bag and limped stiffly through any available gap in the traffic, weaving my way towards the curb, though it was itself so blocked by parked mopeds I fared little better when I got there. I had instantly given up the idea of finding the hotel the taxi was supposed to take us to; instead my mind was occupied by a single atavistic urge to find somewhere to hide and hide there. I worked my way from hotel to guesthouse until I found something I could afford that wasn’t fully booked, then followed a tiny lady up four flights of steep stairs to a small bare room and locked myself away.
The next morning I woke up feeling a lot better, though I was still tired, bruised and achey from the battering horror of the bus (never shall I speak of it). Google Maps showed me that I was only about ten minutes away from the Box Hotel, the one I wanted to be in, so I checked out and steeled myself for another sortie into the streets.
Mopeds! Mopeds! Nightmare of Mopeds! The whole city charging on mopeds! Motorbikes carrying families of four! Mopeds mounting the pavement to drive into shops! Pavements crusted with mopeds, forcing you to walk in streets of screaming mopeds! Motorbikes that want to take you for a ride! Hello Lady! Moto!
I managed to make it first to the travel agency where I booked a boat trip to Ha Long Bay, and then round the corner to the Box Hotel. The volume of traffic and level of mayhem wasn’t nearly as bad as the night before, but I was far from comfortable in the streets. By the time I got to the Box the desire to hide was back in force.
The Box Hotel is ideal in this respect. It’s a cross between a hostel and a capsule hotel. They have dorm rooms, but you can also have your own private box, which I did: a wood-lined, high-ceilinged miniature room a lot like a sleeping compartment on a train, with two bunks, a couple of small cupboards and blissful air conditioning. After the chaos of the streets it felt as calm and safe as a sensory deprivation tank. I loved it.
“You go for walk now?” asked the lady who showed me my room. She had the haunted, blank look of the profoundly sleep-deprived.
“I think I’ll unpack first,” I said, not wanting to face the chaos again just yet.
“Okay, but first you go. Room not ready. We clean.”
“I see.” I left reluctantly.
“Not taking long.” She spoke in a toneless way that matched the blank sleepwalking look on her face. I suspected she had been at the front desk all night.
“It’s fine, I’ll go for a coffee.”
“Coffee here. Free tea coffee, you take.”
“You are beautiful.”
She was behind me as we went back downstairs. I glanced round uncertainly. “Sorry?”
“I think you are beautiful,” she repeated, her voice as flat as ever. Then she smiled, and her tired face lit up with life.
“Well,” I said, being English.
She showed me to the coffee pot and disappeared back upstairs.
I had gone to sleep the night before with wet unbrushed hair and woken up with an extravagantly strange cowlick hairstyle. My arms and legs were spotted with bruises from the bus and the short perilous walk from one hotel to the next had already poached me in sweat. Never in my life have I felt less beautiful. And yet never have I felt better for hearing it said. I drank a coffee in the lobby, and then, because it was overbrewed and awful, and because I was full of newfound confidence, I strode back out into the streets in search of a better cup.