“Safe travels,” I said as I waved goodbye to the Swede who I’d shared coffee with for the last hour while we had waited in a café on Train Street, a small corridor in Hanoi where a train track actually runs along the front doors of houses and shops. There, the bellowing of the whistle signals a mad dash to move tables, chairs, and vases of flowers off the tracks and out of the way so that the metal stampede can proceed unimpeded.
But the train had come and gone. The show was over now, and just like that I was on my own again, on a walk by myself through the streets of Hanoi. In new cities I go on these walks often. Often alone, sometimes with others. When you wander without a plan, you never know what unexpected surprise lies around the corner. Sometimes I leave my route entirely up to chance, flipping a coin each time I get to a fork in the road. And that’s exactly how I’ve spent my time the last two days, just wandering the city. Really, there’s been nothing else to do.
When I first arrived here on the 4th of February the town was bracing for the lunar new year and a celebration known as Tet. It was almost the year of the pig. The garage doors on store fronts were all pulled shut as I made my way from the bus station to my hostel. It was a strange landscape. The city was ominously silent as it braced for the celebration yet to come. It started that night, as the whole city gathered to watch fireworks illuminate the skies over Lake Hoan Kiem. After the show the previously spellbound crowd came to life as they dispersed into the streets of the Old Quarter for a raucous night of merriment. People flooded bars and clubs, and vendors walked through crowded streets with armadas of pig shaped balloons floated through the air behind them. The cities walkways we’re illuminated by thousands of little fires where locals burned incense, fake money, paper iPhones, and horse sculptures as tributes to their ancestors awaiting supplies in the afterlife. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could transfer gifts to the living in the same way?
Tet has been going strong since I got here and it officially lasts until the 10th. Families throw parties every day, each day hosted by a different family member while businesses, museums, and tourist attractions all remain closed. Though I haven’t had much opportunity to see the local attractions, It’s given me a chance to see a less chaotic side of Hanoi, the city at its most tranquil.
After saying goodbye to my Swedish friend the first place of note that I happened upon was an enormous park adorned with lanterns, lights, and decorations. Greeting me at the entrance was an enormous topiary of a Pig, flanked by a squad of other horticultural sculptures: rooster, dog, rat, ox, tiger, and more. I spent a few hours wandering through this park, and around its lake. At one point, I stopped to sit and watch some fisherman tend their lines. About twelve minutes in, I was joined by two fathers and their four children on a family outing to do some fishing themselves. I smiled, and said “xin cháo” as the kids danced around and waved to me.
I watched the fathers show both the boys and the girls how to bait the hook and cast properly. And I laughed as I watched the oldest girl pull up four fish in the first 3 minutes, while her younger brother stomped around in joy. When the boys finally got their turn, I noticed that they were a bit more aggressive in pulling the lines out of the water, their hooks and lures flying back over their head. I rested my backpack in my lap and slipped my arms through the straps to prop it up on my chest. At the time I was wearing a ball cap. Whenever I anticipated an overexaggerated motion on the children’s part, I just looked down. The bill of the cap connected with my bag, and I had a makeshift hook shield ready to go. It actually came in handy a couple of times.
They didn’t seem to mind my presence and would even laugh with me when something humorous occurred. At one point one of the fathers even asked to me take a picture of them all and send it to his email. I happily obliged.
It was nice to witness something so transcendent of culture and of language. I some ways, I even felt connected to home, having seen similar scenes in Michigan and remembering fishing at a young age with my own father.
It wasn’t a big moment. It wasn’t a 150 dollar day tour. It wasn’t an experience designed with my comfort in mind. But it was real. And it was simple. It was a genuine moment of human interaction.
And I have my walks to thank for it.