The guy told me five dollars. I said, I know the fare is two, no more than three. He smiled widely, his gold caps shimmering in the light, and brought it down to four.
I ended up walking to Ngoc Ha. It was only forty minutes, and I could watch the Old Quarter disappear to become long stately avenues, lined by gates with statements and fig tree shadows.
Despite my incessant drowsiness – a mixture of jet lag, genuine fatigue, and the surreality of being brand new in a place as demanding and bustling as Hanoi – I was continuing the search for my apartment. I had already seen an elegant place in Tay Ho, a clean northern district known for being the most Western. Expats gather there above the lake to escape the center’s smog and the seamless tune of honking and that indescribable urban hum.
I was then in Ba Dinh, a little less chaotic than the Old Quarter but it still makes you feel alive. I saw another beautiful house with tall ceilings and a cat named Pepito; four French guys lived there. It would be material for a sitcom. This place didn’t click, though, despite the amazing location. I didn’t feel like being an outsider in my own home.
I then navigated the labyrinth of alleyways that make up much of Hanoi’s residential areas. I had another showing with a place not five minutes from Pepito. Along the tangled wires I walked, passing women cutting up fresh liver, sorting eggs in baskets, cutting flowers, men shining shoes and lighting fires and smoking with their mates.
I rang the bell and an Irish guy with brown shaggy hair answered. He and a Colombian girl gave me a tour. Their third roommate, a French girl, was at work.
What struck me was the light, the openness, the grand curved staircase that practically invited me to climb it. And then the room – my room. A simple room with a large window and a door to a balcony with flowers and chairs. It was more than I needed and everything I wanted.
I woke up in the middle of the night. I thought it was the roosters next door, but it was something else, more lyrical. It was an intoxicating tune, almost like a muffled jazz ensemble, and I realized it was Edith Piaf’s voice that echoed through the labyrinth. She crooned La Vie en Rose with the hum of Hanoi as her chorus, singing me back to sleep.∗