The Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, is bisected by the winding Red River. There are now six roads that cross that river. But when the French completed the Long Biên Bridge in 1902, it was the only one. That same bridge still stands today, and its a unique local site that my new friend Dee wanted to show me.
Friends are made in Vietnam by sharing drinks — either the local bia hơi (draft beer sold on the sidewalk) or any flavour of cà phê. The price of a coffee cup is at most two bucks, and the street beer half of that, so friends aren’t hard to find. Dee tossed me a helmet earlier today and said we were going to grab a cà phê trứng. Literally: egg coffee — made with sugar, cream, condensed milk, and egg yolks — it’s more dessert than caffeine. But he was offering a lift to a place that he knew brewed it well, so who was I to argue?
We gingerly sipped our tiny coffees and exchanged banter — family, work, weather — small-talk is universal. At one point, I pulled up a map on my phone so he could show me his family’s village. But instead, he stopped on Long Biên Bridge. “Have you been here?”, he asked, and his eyes showed a flicker I hadn’t seen before. He said it was his favourite spot in Vietnam — he loved how peaceful it was. After I twisted his arm, he agreed to take me there (the conversation went: Me: “Sounds like a cool place”, Him: “Okay, we’ll go now!”).
We rode to the middle of the bridge and stopped on the shoulder. There was no sidewalk, but there were a few motorbikes parked already — others enjoying the scenery. The old bridge underneath us rumbled with the motorbike hoards moving atop it. And soon, a train quaked across the rusted (and I had assumed unused) tracks down its middle. The wide, slow moving river below carried colourful asian cargo ships, with enough ballast to look like submarines. A dense thicket of trees lined either side of the river. Beyond those, lay the city in the twilight — lights from the old one- or two-story buildings, and the few glass towers of the future. Dee breathed deep and looked across the purple and orange sky. He focussed on the sky, on the river, and on the trees. It was a small paradise in the middle of the city. And he loved it.
And I was beginning to love it too. But not for its idyllic qualities. I loved it as a beautiful microcosm of Vietnam itself. The perfect analogy to everything I’ve seen in this country. Busy, messy, but still not entirely removed from nature. Ancient motorbikes and crumbling bridges and rusted railways contrasting the giant liquid smooth skyscrapers.
I’m glad he showed it to me. And I look forward to coming back.