I’m standing in a forest of scooters at the edge of a level crossing. The roar of their revving is deafening and the exhaust fumes are leaving me light-headed. Suddenly, one impatient biker darts across the track and snakes through the opposing crowd. I breathe in sharply as, seconds later, the cantankerous train hurtles by, carving its way through the thin concrete townhouses. In its wake, life spills back onto the tracks, as washing lines, bowls of fresh herbs and plastic stools pepper the scene once more.
Having just emerged from a five-day wellness retreat, the frenzy of the centre has been doing all kinds of wrong to my Zen. So I’ve decided to get out and head north, beyond the bikes. Hanoi’s swathes of tourists are not much in evidence in these northern neighbourhoods; nor are its scooters quite as intense. An estimated four million of them noisily traverse the city, but up here they pootle by relatively quietly.
A wrinkled face squints and nods to me from behind a counter in a makeshift green tea shop as I pass by. Indiscriminate bags of the dried green leaves pile up around the entrance and I’ve not got a clue what’s what. He gestures to his young son, who serves me in broken English. Unless we’ve both got it wrong, the tea here is a third of the price its sells for back in the centre.
Up ahead, a faded yellow gateway leads me through to a wet market where a tangy seafood smell wafts out from behind a sheet of tarpaulin, broken free from its pegs. The wind lifts it up and lures me in. Stretching back behind the street, the market is positively rammed with locals and I stick out like a sore thumb. I smile back at the staring faces and they join me in wide-grinned appreciation.
The sun glints in the mirrors of the street barbers that fringe the streets along Pho Yen Phu as I near the West Lake, and my destination. Arriving, I step into a French colonial-era villa, and am cheerily greeted by an Australian named Pete, who tells me the story of his Hanoian haven: Maison de Tet Decor. Here he roasts his own coffee, makes his own furniture, cooks his own food, sells the handiwork of the Hmong tribes and helps the local community, ably assisted by his troupe of local workers.
We follow him upstairs to a nook in the attic, where throws adorn dark mahogany furniture, each one taking the Hmong people around two years to complete. I examine the intricate cross-stitch and the vivid colours of the hemp and silk cloth. The yellow, Pete tells me, is created from turmeric, purple from the indigo plant and pink from pomegranate. His relationships with the indigenous northern groups were first forged in Sa Pa, in northwest Vietnam — somehow he’s managed to bring the calm of the countryside to Hanoi. Hidden away up here, the chaos of the capital seems a distant memory.
As I leave, hours later, an elderly woman trundles by carrying bundles of sugarcanes twice her height on a dilapidated bicycle. She wheels it alongside her with trepidation as it balances on its two spindly wheels. Everything’s slower up here — even the bikes.