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Hanoi is Wabi-Sabi

Hanoi for expats is definitely different from Hanoi for the locals.

“It’s hard to find someone here that stays long enough that you can really fall in love,” I said to Simone, with a lit Kent in my right hand. The smoke circled, hovered a bit before it disappeared in Ha Noi’s surprisingly blue summer sky. The day started gloomy, the sky the color of unpainted concrete walls. The faint fragrance of lộc vừng wafted through. It is a tree that takes winter with the fervors of autumn. Its leaves all turned the various hues of fall, they all fell onto the ground when winter finally left. In summer, its flowers adorned the air with the heady fragrance of freshly sliced green banana leaves. Aside from the sweat racing down on one’s scalp and back, nothing is clearer an indication of summer’s arrival in the city than the blooming of barringtonia acutangula, golden showers, and royal poinciana.

From Oriberry Coffee’s second-floor balcony, Westlake’s skin was smooth, like a mind that didn’t have any worries at all. For a moment, I wished my mind was exactly like that: smooth, linear, resting. 

“Gurl, you tell me! These days, I feel that I’m always in the ‘Lost in Translation’ phase,” Simone said. She looked gorgeous, her hair wrapped in a boho turban. Brass mermaid earrings adorned her ears. Her brownness was a beautiful contrast to the white walls behind her, the afternoon light resting on her left cheek. She was doodling before I arrived. 

Our first meeting was a typical one here in a city of ESL teachers. She needed a cover for her kindergarten class while she was away for Christmas holidays. Our meetings thereon were always serendipitous. There she was, ordering a takeaway at Che Huyen’s fried chicken outside Rastaman. There I was waiting for my past-midnight humans. This was the year I was hungry for personal anecdotes and stories from people who found themselves staying in Hanoi longer than planned. I wanted to understand my decision through strangers’ choices.

At first, I see Hanoi as a city of transitions, of transience. A city of lost, confused souls grappling with many options laid before them. 

People arrive in Ha Noi to leave. We have no intention to stay. We arrive with questions on what to do with our lives, weigh some options, and earn a living while doing so. Most likely we leave with most questions unanswered and perhaps with more questions found and packed upon departure. 

I arrived here with the hope Hanoi would help me finish my almost unfinishable second poetry collection with the faulty reasoning that I was the most prolific during my first two trips in the country. A city as a muse does not sound too bad.

So I kept postponing my departure.  Three months could easily turn three years. This much was true. In my first year, a visiting poet friend commented that it was surprising not to see books towering every available space in my tiny place.  I had no plans of staying any longer. One year was long enough. Owning books in a city you don’t intend to call home is a heartbreak biding its time. I had, at most, twenty. Now, they are as palpable, as visible as my indoor plants. 

“Hanoi is weird,” Simone said. 

Hanoi doesn’t love me back,” Sarah whined. 

“I dunno, man, I’m just here to make money,” another friend, exasperated with the occasional shortcomings of the city, fumed. 

The first month I Grab-biked around the city, I shrieked at the sight of the traffic. Hanoi is a city that does not believe in personal spaces, and this is the most visible during rush hour when vehicles compete with the limited space available. Every inch counts. Already learned with the language of the road, I became the driver I despised: hurried, hurrying, selfish. Perpetually competing against time, I rushed like a raging young xe ôm driver. 

But it is this very reason that I find the city likeable, charming even. It has a fascinating, symbiotic, almost paradoxical, relationship with spaces. A xôi breakfast nook will be a phở by lunch and a shoe repair shop by afternoon. When I gushed about it, an Algerian-French architect I randomly met named it Hanoi’s immediate space. Everything has their rightful place. There is a rightful space for everything. And I hold on to this belief, stubbornly, foolishly romantic it may seem. 

The pandemic rocked and forever altered the world. And this hard, breathing fact changed the way I see the city I called Point A. From a city of transience, Hanoi becomes a city of choice. I had the choice to go back home, build my dream tiny house by the beach, grow an edible outdoor garden, rebuild my library, and be reunited with my five cats. 

I chose to stay. 

The telltale signs are there. I share my apartment with more than two hundred pots of plants. I got a cat under my name that would cost $2000 to transport outside the country. And another one. Hoang Hoa Tham and its people grew on me. I learned to haggle. With my almost non-existing Vietnamese, I learned to banter with my favorite chịs in the market. Hanoi has different ways of cutting its meat; the ladies have different hairstyles depending on the season. I now have my favorite streets I tread on the dead of the night: To Hieu, Hoang Quoc Viet, Thuy Khue, Tran Dang Ninh. 

But I still have this midnight conversation with the self: Why, Hanoi, why?

So here I am, three years later, still answering the same question. 

I arrive at different answers. Yesterday, for example, it dawned on me how the everyday, the broken, the ordinary, the old is celebrated and displayed in the city. This is most evident in the café culture. Broken fan, broken cassette, broken thermos, broken everything displayed on the wall. 

Mechelle, my newly found accountability buddy on content creation, said that Hanoi is wabi-sabi.

“Its imperfections and impermanence. That’s what I love about Hanoi. There is no demand, no pressure to create something all the time. The acceptance to just be.”

While the city strives to meet the demands of the modern world, it remains loyal to its old ways. Hanoi celebrates the old. Hanoi clings to them. 

Without asking permission, Hanoi decides on its own that it is home. And I had to take my word back. I stayed long enough to fall in love with Hanoi, flaws and all. 


All photos used here are unedited, straight from my analog baby Canon AutoboyS.

Jona of Backpacking with a Book

Hi there, I’m Jona, originally from Cebu, Philippines, had live in Hanoi, Vietnam, and now currently based in Munich, Germany. This blog used to house thoughts on life and books, but eventually it morphed into a travel blog. For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at backpackingwithabook@gmail.com. For essays, creative nonfiction, and others, find me elsewhere.

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  1. […] I want to avoid as many Hanoi faces as possible, I either go to Quy Nhon, Tuy Hoa for an affordable escape. This part of […]

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