The days surrounding the Lunar New Year hang like a held breath over Hanoi. The city, usually defined by the sounds of thousands of motorbikes casually disregarding all traffic laws, is for once eerily quiet. The garage-style doors of shops and restaurants are rolled all the way down and children play football and badminton on empty roads.
I had arrived in Vietnam a few days earlier, expecting to spend Tết (the New Year holiday) with a girl I had met here six months ago and fallen for, reluctantly at first, then helplessly. But now that I’m here it seems she has changed her mind about me in a way that is both predictable and somehow takes me by surprise.
I remember once hearing someone say that you should visit Paris twice in your life, once when you’re in love and once when you’re heartbroken. I don’t remember who said it but I think about that during my first few days in Hanoi, making pointless laps of a park, quietly practising the few Vietnamese phrases I know – ở đâu đay (where are you?) đi đâu đay (where are you going?) tôi không có tiền (I don’t have money). I notice how everything about a place can change along with a change of heart.
But I notice other things too. Walking in Hanoi’s old quarter usually requires the impossible task of looking in every direction for traffic while also keeping an eye on the uneven pavement and dodging the people peddling junk to tourists. But during Tết it’s possible for the first time to gaze up at the trees, with their branches intertwined in the tangled mess of power lines. If any place deserves the moniker ‘urban jungle’ it’s Hanoi. Half hidden behind the twisted trunks of Banyan trees lies the architecture that reveals the city’s complex colonial past under both Chinese and French rule.
On every corner there are new contradictions, evidence of a country changing fast with a rapidly growing economy. In front of a newly opened Starbucks a women butchers a chicken, its blood running into the road. Tiny pampered dogs with fur dyed pink and elaborately styled follow their owners around markets where other dogs are sold for meat. Late one night amid the holiday celebrations in the city centre I see a man hit his wife hard in the face. People pretend not to notice. A moment later two girls drag me into the street to dance with them and I forget all about the troubling scene a few moments ago.
With each day that passes after the New Year more people begin to trickle back to Hanoi from neighbouring provinces and I realise it’s hard to feel lonely in Hanoi for long. At Hoàn Kiếm Lake children stop to talk to me, excited to practise speaking English. One girl, about thirteen, asks me to teach her some English slang. I can’t help but laugh as she struggles to pronounce words like ‘knackered’, ‘lush’ and ‘banging’.
I visit the Temple of Literature, adorned with the pink and orange of peach blossom and kumquat trees. Outside its gates calligraphers gather to write the fortunes of visitors. As I watch them (wondering if it would be a waste of money to have my own fortune written in a language I don’t understand) a tiny old man with blackened teeth approaches me. His eyes are also strangely black, giving him a menacing appearance. Under one arm he carries a bundle of secondhand books written in English. When I tell him I don’t want to buy anything he comes even closer and mutters, “want weed?” I politely decline. “Want girls?” I refuse again, this time more forcefully and he turns his black eyes to the pavement, suddenly looking like a child afraid of being told off. I feel bad and buy a dog-eared copy of The Alchemist.
In a matter of days winter turns to spring and the days become warmer. I write, I take photographs, I teach some English classes. Sitting one morning in the sunshine at the edge at Hoàn Kiếm Lake I see the same young girl I had met here a few days earlier. When she recognises me she grins and runs over to greet me. “How are you enjoying Hanoi? Is it lush?”
I laugh. I had come to Hanoi mistakenly hoping to recreate a time and a feeling. Instead I found a city changed in winter from the place I had left in the 35 degree heat last August, but still full of strange surprises. Like the old man with black eyes Hanoi is a city with many faces. Some of them frightening and cruel, others welcoming, childlike, tender. There are worse places to be heartbroken.
Above the lake a bird hangs in the sky, waiting for a break in the wind. A new year is beginning. I take a deep breath and hold it.