“How much?” Bretha, pointing at a windbreaker, asked the middle-aged woman dusting a row of jackets on display.

The reply, in Vietnamese, was curt, and with a wave of a hand, she drove us out of the shop holed up in one of the many tube houses that lined up the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

Half-terrified and half-amused, we scurried out the door. “What was that all about?” I queried, my tropical teeth chattering in the 14-degree subtropical January air. “Ambot uroy. Must be the weather,” said the wife, who was doing better with a scarf in dealing with the cold.

We arrived in Hanoi the night before aboard a flight from Saigon. I ignored warnings that it can get chilly in the capital (we left our jacket behind to shave weight off our bags as we opted to pack light). The moment we stepped out of the No Bai airport, I knew what the first order of the day tomorrow would be.

So there we were looking for a jacket on Luong Van Can St. – or was it Hang Dao? – just a few strides from the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake, shooed away like strays by a cantankerous saleslady who might have well been the proprietor with a thing or two against tourists. We checked out other shops, and after getting the cold shoulder a number of times – not to mention bearing witness to a local crime drama an arm’s breadth away, the frenzied arrest of a petty criminal – we found dirt-cheap windbreakers, perhaps overruns from a factory near Hanoi, from a shopkeeper who actually smiled the whole time.

With jacket-hunting out of the way, we were finally at liberty to explore the Old Quarter in the Hoan Kiem District, which was a lot more quaint than expected. The streets were “zoned” according to particular merchant and artisan shops.

One street would be lined with clothing stores, another with hardware shops, then in the next alley, a row of flower stalls.

Each corner, bustling with activity, offered a glimpse of the Hanoian’s way of life, which by the way includes looking good. Whether they’re keeping shop or enjoying artisanal brew while sitting on the miniature chairs propped on sidewalks, the locals here are one fashionable lot. As we walked around in our brand new sports jackets, the Hanoi women went about their daily tasks in trench coats and platform pumps, the berets tilted ever so slightly on their heads. The men didn’t look too shabby either.


Hanoi has a strong case why the title of Paris of the East – claimed by many of its neighbors – should be the city’s alone. The stylish locals complement the interesting mix of Vietnamese and French colonial architecture of the Old Quarter and the rest of the Hoan Kiem District. The well-maintained tree-lined sidewalks – whether ones that lead to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum or to an obscure pho eatery – are said to be as wide as those in Paris. With all the museums and heritage sites, one could say there’s sophistication to the Hanoians’ cultural, artistic and historical sensibility.

Yet the vibrant, picturesque streets of Hanoi could not conceal an uneasy demeanor brewing among the locals. I am reminded of our guide in Saigon the day before when he said the Vietnamese smile was harder to come by nowadays. Why, he didn’t elaborate. And I brushed aside this bit of information the way I did when a friend back home told me about the Vietnamese having a short temper, a trait that occasionally resulted in shouting matches on the streets.


And we did witness three of these shouting matches on the streets of Hanoi, all in one day. Yet they were just that, benign shouting matches with a lot of posturing, arms on hips, a finger inches away from the other’s face, spit flying everywhere. One shouting match right across the century-old French-built Dong Xuan Market involved two women screaming like crazy until they grew tired of their pointless argument – over what I had no clue. As one walked away, the other turned around and managed a wry smile, perhaps of someone pleased and relieved to have let off steam, but a rare smile nevertheless.

Should outbursts like these be reason enough for us to dislike Hanoi? Bretha and I didn’t think so. Being outsiders, we saw each incident as a mere spectacle, as real life drama set in a stunning backdrop, in a language we can’t understand in the absence of subtitles.

All the while we never felt threatened (except for the part where the shopkeeper shooed us away). We merely had to keep our distance, but not too detached as to act as if the locals were mere objects of interest (asking the subjects for permission when taking their photographs, for instance).

Having done that, we enjoyed our short stay in Hanoi all the more, and we no longer felt unwelcome. Besides, the Vietnamese aren’t really intent on throwing outsiders like us out. The last time they did – and that was decades ago – it was for a pretty compelling reason.