In the corner of the room, close to the window was an armchair. It was black, adorned with metal end-caps on the armrests, and a large pillow decorated with gold embroidery which was slightly too large to be useful. I sat in the chair, letting the pillow land elsewhere in the room, and let the exhaustion of the flights slowly fade away. In front of me was a small, round table decorated and arranged to compliment the chair, the bed, and the room. As is always the case, I found the luxury uncomfortable. Large, high-end hotels like this never really put me at ease – regardless of the lengths they go to in decorated and appointing the space. All efforts seem to fail to mask the feeling that I am sitting in one of hundreds of identical cement boxes, all painted, stacked, and arranged to store profits. This particular box sat 18 floors above a busy road leading into the centre of the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.
There is something really special about the first few hours in a new city (as I’m sure I’ve said before), with new sights, sounds and smells that mix in the air to build images of potential exploration, excitement, and adventure. I love the bus of taxi ride from airport to hotel, watching the city unfold itself around you. Each traveler is a single window, a portal into an environment that can never truly be seen as a whole. Today I had clenched my teeth as I smiled and pretended to listen to the guide who came with the bus as he waffled on, trying to find something to keep the attention of the weary passengers, all of whom were tired and impatient from many hours in transit. This unavoidable dance continued. He spouted facts we all read on Wikipedia before we left home, we smiled and nodded as though we were enthralled, and then let our attention slide to other places. My focus was outwards – projected into the streets and houses that flickered by like books spines on the shelf of a massive library.
Two hours later, checked in, unpacked, and finally alone with my thoughts, I gazed back out the window at the maze of cement and steel that sprawled out below me and committed the image to memory.
60 metres below mw, a four-lane dual carriageway spewed scooters and busses into the centre of Hanoi, and even through the glass I could hear the muffled sound of Vietnam getting along without my presence. A think green line separated the lanes, and across river of transport, rose a sprawling labyrinth of buildings rising – seemingly without structure – into the afternoon haze. Most of them were between three and six floors and few were wider than four metres. Tiny laneways separated the rows at random intervals and they were almost obscured by power lines, signs and the ever-present greenery that belied the city’s location in the tropics. The blocks stretched off almost endlessly, punctuated occasionally by an office tower or hotel which soared above the clutter. Elsewhere were the scars of construction yet to come, open spaces where future towers would rise into the humid sky. Some distance away, along the edge of the cacophony of houses, businesses restaurants and who knows what else, I could see a tiny graveyard clinging to a large cleared area. The space lay fallow, ready to be sowed with the seeds of the human forest that spread into the distance. The tropical green almost glowed against the darkening skies and slowly, I closed my eyes.
Welcome to Vietnam, I thought.