My last sights of Vietnam are from the humming nadirs of Saigon’s scraped skies, gazing up at this city in marvel with that flat smoky jungle Hanoi forever the backdrop of my mind. How different these cities are. There are even cutesy illustrations about how Vietnam’s pair of beating hearts differ in their consumption of pho, preferred altar fruits, work relationships with superiors and general communication patterns (the rough translation: Saigon’s talk is straightforward and efficient, Hanoi’s calls for finesse and indirectness).
I ask young locals here about their perceptions of Hanoi. Most answers implicate backwardness and a lack of excitement in Vietnam’s capital city, half the size of Saigon at around seven million people.
“I wouldn’t be able to live in Hanoi,” says 23-year-old Linda, manager of the popular nightclub Lush. “There is nothing to do there. I’d get soooo bored!”
A few nights ago I found myself among the audience of a hip-hop dance battle in a small dark venue. The performances were infectious, filling the room with a tension only alleviated by our own crude movements, and the crowd screamed at the end of each round when the announcer asked us which dancer we thought should win.
As I howled in support of one contestant named Small Lee (and he was indeed small but never challenge him to a break-dancing duel), I thought how such an occasion would never exist in Hanoi. We had a loosely enforced curfew in the north, you see, and beyond that the nighttime culture was smaller and more conservative, people tending to get up at the butt crack of dawn to wiggle around in parks to light techno.
Furthermore, the sleek glamour of Saigon is as foreign to Vietnam’s capital as a papaya to Siberia. Designer shops abound, a newly constructed and buzzing walking street in District One lies below lux complexes reaching for churning clouds, a froofy coffee culture where each cafe is at once quirky and modern and displays artwork reading “You are in the place you dreamed.” In Hanoi the fronts of shops are blocked by small commercial enterprises like drink stands and vendors of all varieties, and endless barrages of ill-parked motorbikes; any similar attempt at such a wide and long walking street would immediately be usurped in totality by amateur badminton players and toddlers driving and crashing small battery cars. And a cafe in Hanoi sometimes means sitting among sunflower seed shells and crumpled napkins in someone’s dark living room as they list all the things that aren’t available that day. Many Saigon youth dye their hair bleach blonde and pull it off, whereas in Hanoi I’ve never seen a successful attempt (they’d tend to stop the dying process at the bright orange stage).
In Saigon the people smile more – how many gap-toothed grins I’ve seen! The weather is better with usual sunny skies, tepid summer nights and the absence of a grim Hanoian winter with near-constant side-ways rain. Saigon streets may be foreign to me but the traffic is calmer, more predictable, plus most people obey traffic lights. This gives me opportunity and means to look up at a deep blue sky with huge frosty clouds crisp and low. In Hanoi the atmosphere is frequently of the “bleh” persuasion, and you tend to come home at the end of each day actively thinking about your lifespan and how you’re curtailing it. A day where you can actually see the far-off mountains is the day you go on that jog you’ve been putting off – though unlike Saigon’s clean riverside sidewalks, Hanoi is the world’s toughest obstacle course, obstruction-wise and poison-air-wise, and most days running and breathing heavily in that place conjures up images of putting your mouth straight onto the exhaust pipe of a local bus that has been running nonstop since 1996.
While Saigon locals don’t dream of Hanoi, the opposite isn’t true, which underscores Vietnamese and International notions of progress. Here, it is said, there are jobs and opportunities, New Money to be Made, fulfillment of dreams ever a capitalist promise. There’s also fun: “Here they don’t think about yesterday — or tomorrow. They live in the moment,” says one ex-Hanoi transplant, while young Hanoians are considered sensible and future-oriented.
It’s widely said among expats how Saigon offers ease and diversity and openness, an active music scene and hobby-life, how here they’ve access to the tangible comforts of Home and even cheaper flights to destinations near and far. In comparison, they say, Hanoi is obscure and isolated and wrapped up in its own ideology. It’s where ‘things’ are harder to find and come at a higher cost, where everyday life is riddled with mindless convolutions and absurdities, and great, someone is pissing in West Lake, again.
In short: if there is a life in this country, it’s in Saigon.
My last sights of Vietnam are from the humming nadirs of Saigon’s scraped skies, gazing up at this city in marvel with that flat smoky jungle Hanoi forever the backdrop of my mind. After a collective year in Vietnam, I’m leaving very soon and I don’t know when I’ll be back. But let me be clear: when I am back I’m going straight to Hanoi.*