There's an expression that backpackers like to quote, "the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it." I think they quote it because it's in Lonely Planet, and nearly all of us carry LP. Stepping from Laos into Vietnam is sort of like stepping away from your towel and book on the beach onto a high speed roller coaster. I used to be very relaxed, but that's evaporated in the Vietnamese intensity. The Vietnamese don't know the meaning of "taking it easy" and the Lao are incapable of doing anything else. The day after I arrived in Vietnam I was waiting in a cafe for a bus when one of the employees came at me, "Bus is here! Hurry! Hurry!" I moved, but not fast enough, so she clapped her hands sharply, scowled, and said "Quick! Quick!" After a month in Laos, I simply can't picture anyone there doing this, but here it's just the way things are.
I've taken up residence in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, an incredibly energetic section of an incredibly energetic city. The drivers use their horns like the end of the world is right around the corner. Conversations are carried on across rooms at a volume only slightly below a yell. People bump and push by you on the sidewalk if you're not moving fast enough for their taste. Crossing the road is like getting religion - you do it purely on faith, walking across as the thousands of scooters drive around you. People sit on the sidewalk with a heap of pig parts, a block of wood, and a cleaver - that's the butcher store. Speaking of sidewalks ... they're in good repair here, but you still can't use them in the Old Quarter: they're used for scooter parking, and any leftover space is taken up by vendors. Walk on the road like everyone else. Around major intersections outside the Old Quarter, especially at rush hour, scooters will drive at dangerous speeds on any unblocked sidewalk.
The Old Quarter is (and has been, for centuries) home to many specialty streets. One has the alcohol and chocolate stores, another has food. Then there's the shoe area, the bags, lanterns, or jewelry. And my personal favourite that says so much about the city, the scooter seat upholstery block. Not one or two stores, but about thirty.
I wanted to buy a loaf of bread one morning, just a small loaf from one of a hundred street vendors selling very similar baguettes. I asked how much, and she said "Five thousand!" I just snorted at her, because a friend had bought one for 1000 dong two days before. She said "two thousand," holding up two fingers. I held up one finger, and 1000 dong is what I paid (about $0.08US). In Laos, they double the price for foreigners. Here, the starting price is five or ten times as much as the local price. It's the usual bind: the principle of it, why am I charged more? But they're poor and I'm not - at least I'm not poor in their terms.
When I was younger, one of my favourite places in Toronto was Chinatown. Especially on a weekend afternoon, when traffic is completely stalled and the people are packed shoulder to shoulder pressing around the fruit and vegetable vendors on the street. Most people do their best to stay away from Chinatown at these times, but I loved it then, and still do. I don't know what it is - the energy and vibrancy I suppose. I feel it here, and, despite the tension, I'm really liking the place. Which is good, because I have a list of about 20 more places I want to visit in and around Hanoi and I expect that to take several more days.