Returning to Hanoi

 (and Giving a City Another Chance)

It’s nearly three in the morning in Hanoi, and I’ve awoken not from the random calls on the street below, or the occasional strange noise coming from the toilet in my bathroom, but the thoughts in my head, vivid and ripe from jetlag. These dark hours at the beginning of my travels are inevitable, and while annoying, I’ve decided to try and take advantage of them . . . and write.

Those rare two-hour windows of magic, when I’m not quite here nor there, and when the rest of the world sleeps.


It’s my second night in Hanoi, my body feeling a bit more confused. It’s also my first time in Southeast Asia in nearly ten years. I lived and taught in Thailand for most of 2004, and at the end of that trip I stopped in Hanoi, mainly to tick Vietnam off my list, but in four quick days I didn’t experience much. I got lost — intimidated by the ebb and flow of traffic — and barely scratched the surface. I came here just because I could, which isn’t a great reason to visit a place.


I remember feeling defeated — “done” with teaching and tired from my stay in Southeast Asia. And so I shouldn’t have come to Hanoi. That’s just not fair to a city — to come and expect to get something out of a place quickly and cleanly, and to come already frustrated.

So for ten years I’ve shaped that mere four-day experience into a certain kind of Hanoi, and when I learned that my team from work was going to meet here, I was at once excited but skeptical: I looked forward to exploring, to meeting them, and to eating — oh god, how we’ve already been eating! — but curious about the place I was to encounter, knowing that returning to places can very much be like revisiting ghosts.

Yesterday, our first day, we wandered around Hoan Kiem Lake. The weather is currently lovely and mild, and while I know it can be hot and humid, the pleasant air has already erased some of the Hanoi I’d created in my mind. It’s a little and meaningless thing, perhaps, yet it’s amazing how weather can shape your idea of a place.

I remember meandering the streets in 2004, by myself. Crossing the street was stressful, and yet yesterday, within our pack, it was manageable. We just crossed as one organism, weaving through and part of this flow on the streets. I think back to last time, on my own, when I never felt part of anything, but felt rather lost. I remember then feeling I had to rise against it, that Hanoi was something to be conquered. Maybe I wasn’t in the right place; maybe it wasn’t the right time.

You never really know with cities. They’re like people, and you don’t always hit it off.

And so I have the opportunity to relearn this city, and reshape what I thought I knew: transforming largely negative memories into new and fresh ones. I look at street corners and food stalls and cute cafes, picturing me here and there, sitting on a plastic stool slurping a bowl of pho; lounging at a table with a book and a cafe sua da with my husband, who smokes a cigarette and smiles at the delicious chaos of these streets. I imagine strolling alleys for nooks and crannies — and corners I would not have turned ten years ago.

I picture us exploring different parts of the city, playing cards with old men on the street, or drinking beers while talking about our plans to live in a hammock, or spend our mornings in kayaks, somewhere else in the world. I imagine us people-watching on a rooftop, watching motorbikes and pedestrians down below, listening to roosters and birds and horns.

So I’m happy to be here again. To think of possibilities and paths. To fuel the mind with that wanderlust — with all those dreams — we conjure when we explore. To feel this place begin to reshape in my head.

And to give Hanoi another chance.

But it’s not that I’m looking for these things — a new place to live, another city I could say I’ve fallen for — because I’m not. It’s just nice to breathe life into a place, and to see how it fits into the mental map — the tapestry of my travels — I’ve built over the years.

    Cheri Lucas Rowlands

    Written by

    Story wrangler and editor at @Automattic | @wordpressdotcom | @Longreads