I’ve been in Hanoi about twenty-four hours now & am mostly recovered from the flight, except for a slightly stiff neck from all that sitting while sleeping. Driving in from the airport yesterday, I was struck by how ordinary it seemed to me. I’ve now made that drive a dozen times or so & though the driver–you didn’t think I was driving did you?–was still weaving in & out of traffic & horns were blaring & buses belching & . motorbikes merging from every direction, it all felt pretty normal. Not that I’m jaded, but Vietnam no longer feels exotic to me. Even an historically informed & culturally sensitive Western intellectual–& I’m not necessarily claiming those attributes–cannot help feeling a sense of pleasurable cultural disorientation on first coming to Vietnam. The place is different. It looks different. It smells different. People behave differently. Nothing wrong, I think, with noticing & even enjoying the differences; but one probably should not let the differences define the place, even to celebrate them. Exoticism chooses a few such differences & aestheticizes them; inevitably, this involves a form of condescension.
On a trip several years ago, it struck me that I ought to do the Vietnamese the favor of letting them irritate me, when appropriate. That was a first step away from treating the places as an exotic outpost from my own middle class American life. Yesterday, it just felt normal to be here, an interesting & pleasing part of my life & this morning, jet-lagged, I walked around the city with a big smile plastered on my face because this is a place I really love. More than just about any place on the planet except my tiny little patch of riverfront back in rural New York. Why? It makes sense to me–not that I’m claiming any profound insights into the national character or anything. It’s just that I’ve spent enough time walking around Hanoi that I know where I am most of the time. This city is alive.
It has been a long time since I’v read Jane Jacobs’ The Economy of Cities, but I remember that she emphasized the importance of many cross-streets & short blocks in American cities; presumably, that can be generalized to cities in other parts of the world as well. Hanoi not only has short blocks with many intersections, the oldest & to my mind most vital part of the city has narrow streets & some alleys that only pedestrians, bicycles, & motorbikes can fit through. There are no right angles in this part of the city, either. When the French came, they build a new part of the city on a Cartesian grid, but the Vietnamese have been chipping away at that arrangement for better than 100 hears, enlivening what must have originally a sterile neighborhood of offices & private villas. The French did build wide sidewalks, which the Vietnamese have successfully converted into outdoor living space.This morning, my friend Giang asked me whether I thought much had changed since my last visit. Well, there is the new KFC out toward West Lake & more automobiles, though there are also a lot more traffic lights & people seem to be getting in the habit of (mostly) obeying them, though traffic is still anarchic by Western standards. Giang said she thought there was not so much change in the older parts of the city, where traditional ways are preserved, but that on the outer edges of the city there is a lot more modern development. People who can afford to have moved over to the other side of the Red River where land is cheap and built large houses. I’ll be spending a couple of days later in the month with a friend who has done exactly this, so I’ll get to see for myself.
Of course the surface features of the city will continue to change & while I’m pretty romantic in many respects, I can’t insist that the Vietnamese preserve the Hanoi I first knew fifteen years ago for my pleasure. It’s their city & however much I have come to feel at home, I’m never going to be Vietnamese–though how I envied the young American I saw this evening sitting on his motorbike and bargaining in fluent Vietnamese with a woman selling fruit from baskets on the sidewalk! Nostalgia for an old, traditional, “authentic” city is another form of exoticism, orientalism. Though Hanoi now feels normal to me, this is the normality of a visitor. Even that American kid remains an outsider. The anthropologist Jean Paul Dumont writes that citizens of a place unconsciously or perhaps half-consciously “stage” their culture for visitors, which is not such a surprising insight, but Dumont pushes his point further by arguing that no matter how many times the visitor goes through the stage curtain or even goes back stage, there is always something further back that remains unrevealed.
Perhaps, though, once can eventually become a comfortable sort of stranger in a place. Both from one’s own point of view & from that of the people whose city this is. That was the feeling I began to have this morning–that by coming back repeatedly for a decade & a half, by living here for extended periods, by struggling for basic competence in the language, I have learned a little about how to be in this place & this place has learned to accommodate the smiling old guy walking slowly through the rowdy, honking traffic.