Electric wires — enormous bundles of electric wires. Ominously looming overhead, as if they’re powering the city at will, capriciously, capable of bringing about a dazzling, sparkling catastrophe at any moment. Swinging gently to and fro, solitary birds in cages dangle from the wires outside store fronts, their song lost to the hum of the city: human voices, engines, hooters. In the early evening under gun metal grey skies, store owners hoist their gaffes into the air to unhook the cages and bring the birds in for the night, away from the wires. A man carries the last of his wares in from the street. He reaches above his head and grabs a handle. He hangs on it with all of his weight, dislodging the rolled-up metal door. As it unravels, the door thunders toward the ground and crashes into concrete. Padlocks click shut: it’s closing time in Hanoi. But the streets are just getting started.
As the night unfolds, people gather on sidewalks in small groups on tiny blue plastic stools to eat street food. Street food: perhaps nowhere in Southeast Asia is the term more apt than here in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Food is washed, cut, prepared, cooked, served and eaten right on the streets. Indeed, much of the food has lived (and died) right here on the streets of Hanoi. Locals and brave tourists sit side-by-side, a community of eaters unable to converse but united in their need for sustenance, sitting not as a group, unified by a lack of space nonetheless.
In a small theatre a traditional water puppet show plays several times throughout the night, drawing crowds from all walks of life.
On the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake between the Old Quarter and the French Quarter, young couples steal away into darkness, hidden by the shadows of trees, away from the prying eyes of their elders. Restaurants light up. Late-night stalls offer knock-off goods to bargain-hunting tourists.
In the early morning of the next day, the lake becomes a locus of restoration as dozens of joggers lap it, again and again, before the daily smog descends thick and heavy over the city. People practice tai chi; some in solitude, some in small groups.
Gradually the hum of the Old Quarter grows louder. Mourners pay their respects at a makeshift blue tent adorned with yellow flowers. From a crackling speaker within the tent, a man’s voice announces funeral details. Scooters whizz by. Ladies wearing conical sun hats peddle goods from balance beams slung over their shoulders. Rolling metal doors open. Wares of all kinds — statues and postcards, paintings and clothes, handbags and cameras — are shuffled onto sidewalks. And above, hoisted and hooked onto masses of hovering wires for the day, solitary songbirds sway in their cages, chirping and squawking into the noise of Hanoi, their voices unheard.