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.

Hoam Kiem Lake

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.

bike blur

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.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

I am an editor at Longreads. For over a decade, I've worked on curation, editing, and storytelling projects across Automattic, including

25 thoughts on “Returning to Hanoi (and Giving a City Another Chance)

  1. Sadly, whenever I come across a reference to Vietnam I see the pictures by Philip Jones Griffiths in my head..and the terribly frightening legacy of Agent Orange that still continues from generation to generation. I guess I need a fresh start with Vietnam, just as you did with Hanoi.

  2. Cheri, isn’t it amazing what happens when you give a place a second chance? The visit seems to either confirm earlier conclusions … or open up new possibilities. You captured the essence beautifully. I had a similar experience with Bangkok – falling in love with the city when I gave it a second chance. So glad I did. All the best, Terri

  3. I love this post Cheri, it makes me miss Hanoi so much. The city has a crazy manic vibe but its also kinda chilled at the same time … strange. Your photographs are beautiful also, isnt the food phenomenal !

  4. I just got back from a short stay in Hanoi, and a bit more of Northern Vietnam a month ago. I teach in Thailand now, I travel, much on my own and know the shiny faced frustration of making your way across an unknown intersection. But a place is always only a place (t.s. eliot) and we are the organism that consumes it whole with our eyes and wants for decisive recollection. It is nice when as a traveler you can become transient as the traffic you move among. When you can slip into the motion.

    Thank you for writing beautiful words, it is lovely to see what may come through another’s eyes.

  5. I really enjoyed your post. Vietnam is on my list and you made it feel alive. I loved the photos. Thank you. I also tweeted your post. It was amazing.

  6. The “delicious chaos of these streets” – that describes it perfectly. Hanoi definitely deserves another chance, and you’ve come here at the best time of year. I’ve recently returned to Hanoi too, after a year living in the south and several months travelling, and it feels like coming home. It can be an awkward, frustrating city at times, but there’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now.

    If you’d like to meet up for a coffee or a beer while you’re here, then get in touch! (you can DM me on twitter)

    1. “Delicious chaos” was the name of my husband’s former blog (about Cairo), and I feel it fits well for Hanoi, too. Didn’t realize you’re here — welcome back. From walking the streets and being back in Vietnam, I truly do see now how well your photographs bring the streets and people of Vietnam (and SE Asia) to life.

      Don’t have much free time so not sure I can meet — but happy to see a message from you here. I’d love to return!

      1. No worries, hope you enjoyed your visit. I’ve been back in Hanoi for about three months now, but have only just started posting pictures, as I had a big backlog of pictures from my summer travels to clear. Hope to be photographing and posting more in the next few weeks.

  7. Have fun! You’re lucky you have the opportunity to go back and with the right group. I love the photos and the way that you’ve described it all. Enjoy!

  8. I felt and saw the city of Hanoi through your writing. I love to travel so this is one way to do so. Thank you and looking forward to hearing more about your trip when I see you.

  9. This is the reason I went back to Paris this year. My first tryst was not as fulfilling as I would have like, and I knew I had to try again. The jury is still out. 🙂

    1. I have this sort of relationship with Rome as well. Went when I was 16 or so, and was not impressed, and I don’t recall much. But I know from others, and images I’ve seen, that it’s supposed to be such a beautiful place, and I’d like to return to experience it again.

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