There are two Hanois: one where you’re not on a bike and another where you are. In the first Hanoi, it’s a still city built on crumbling stones, sewn together by telephone wire and tree vines that menacingly curl their way outward. In the second, it’s just a wave of bikes like blood cells in a vessel, and it becomes a labyrinth to be negotiated with expert pace and maneuvering and the chaos of the sidewalks – the people walking, working, eating, welding, cleaning, smoking, laughing – becomes an incoherent blur with the wind hitting your face and you wondering why you haven’t done this before.
Arguably, not all newcomers ever experience Moving Hanoi. It becomes a tough world to penetrate psychologically, and the reliability and safety of walking and taxis are favored. My first few days, I walked everywhere under the pretense of “getting to know the city,” but the reality is I didn’t yet know how to enter Moving Hanoi. How to summon a xe ôm, motorbike taxi, and what to pay? Where do I get a helmet – a good helmet, not just a plastic skullcap that becomes shards in the event of collision? When and where should I start searching for my own bike, so that I can toggle the twin cities at my leisure and convenience?
My first xe ôm was the first time I felt part of a new world, a Hanoi defined by its movement, not just a person standing in it as fixed as a tree, watching the current come and go. I felt like an insider, like I had upgraded my existence here: I found a spare helmet in my house, I walked up to one the guys who lean against their bikes on street corners, and we indulged talk of place and price. We soon set off; I held on to the bar behind me but I soon realized I didn’t need it. I was stable, I was sailing, I was part of the seamless blur of light that electrified this place, and I was watching the first Hanoi, the still Hanoi of tree tendrils and telephone wires, go wistfully by, like a friend of the distant past. ∗