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French Architecture: Narrow and Tall

Far outside of downtown Hanoi, in the industrial districts and rolling suburbs and even into Ha Long, the plots of land seemed to be as narrow as the most central downtown neighbourhoods. Buildings on small slices of land go up 4-5 stories and many seem to follow the French colonial style of 15-20 foot high ceilings and winding wooden staircases at the back of the building.

As we wandered around Ha Long, many store fronts for the most mundane pharmaceuticals, alcohol, or house supplies looked very out of place, set in the beautiful high ceiling buildings and toque wood back staircases to storage or the store owner’s private residence.

Our Airbnb in Hanoi turned out to be a beautiful century old French style town house with tall 20 foot arching ceilings, elaborate crown moulding, a rooftop twinkly lights lit patio, and cherry wood staircase and wooden furniture throughout the 4 floors of the mansion. We had no complaints and felt like we were living in the Casa Loma of Hanoi.

Tall French style townhouses, stores, malls, and old homes, some turned into Embassies, line the long main boulevards into the city. A large Central Park and nearby Old Quarters filled with restaurants, bars, and hostels seemed to be teeming with tourists and locals out to enjoy the city.

From the parts of the city we saw, there didn’t seem to be too many very tall office towers but the city felt sufficiently dense from the tall imposing French architecture that lined the boulevards and alleys.

A different flow

The traffic darts by, a chaos like I had never seen. Hundreds upon hundreds of motorbikes and scooters weaving between each other and the few cars, few people signalling or even seeming to pay attention with drastic head turns to the hundreds of moving parts around them. Honking was frequent and seemed to be more for echolocation or as a reminder of one’s presence to other drivers than any exclamation of anger as horns are used in North America.

Cars and bikes would cut each other off, occasionally even go in different directions, go through red lights that weren’t very busy, ride on sidewalks, and generally break most of the socially expected traffic patterns of the Western world.

Yet, there was no anger, no yelling when they were cut off, drivers would simply swerve out of the way or slow down and keep driving. They held no expectation that anyone else would follow a strict set of traffic rules. They simply assumed that whoever was in front of them could always do something unexpected, always stayed alert and ready to avoid, and entrusted their safety to the people behind who consistently extended them the same courtesy.

After watching the chaos for a few days, I would posit that drivers here are better, more alert, and there likely are less crashes than in Western countries where everyone expects other drivers to adhere to a traffic code and doesn’t stay alert enough to avoid any deviation from the code.

A bustling city

The city seemed to keep to itself. There was minimal accosting from street vendors or anyone, people carried on to and from school, work, and everyday life.