Once the first week or so in a new city is over you’ve usually exhausted your guide book and followed up on all the recommendations you collected before you arrived; time to go. But it’s only after this first week is over, when the demands of the to-do list have been sated, that I feel like I can really see the city for what it is.
After the first week or so in Hanoi our days fell into a rhythm, similar to an unexpected day off at home. A leisurely pace is the only pace I have and so the mornings started slow. I showered, ate breakfast, read, sometimes we changed hotel to try out a new neighbourhood. Midday came so quickly it was always a surprise.
We went for coffee. At this point I have my favourite coffee shops and the type of establishments I seem to gravitate towards are the ones that most closely resemble a working man’s social club. Places that echo with the chatter of older men who have nowhere they need to be, laughing or arguing, I can never tell. Places where the air is thick with the exhaled smoke of Vietnamese lung-busting cigarettes, 50p a packet. Places without menus where whoever’s in charge makes you wait until they’re good and ready to bring you milky coffee, whether you wanted that or not.
When I’m finished with this tapping on my keyboard we planned what remained of the day. A museum, a gallery, a historical site, a particular place we want to eat or drink, a cinema, a lake, somehow a composition begins to emerge. I put together a list of places we visited to show myself, as well as you, how I filled these hours. It never really matters what time it is and it’s this disconnection from the demands of the clock that I truly love.
I’m all about the happy medium. I don’t want to miss out on experiencing the most iconic things about a place. That doesn’t mean I’m going to spend thirty quid on the London eye but it does mean I’m likely to consult a guidebook or two for inspiration on things that interest me.
In travel, as in life, time is of the essence which means most people find themselves tearing around trying to see all the sights. I travel slowly so that I don’t have to sacrifice spending a few hours wandering around the old town looking for a particular noodle place that’s been there for a hundred years or a morning in a second hand bookshop or a rainy afternoon at the mall playing arcade games with screaming seven year olds.
Because, for me, it’s only when you stop worrying about what time it is and what you’ve managed to squeeze your day that you can stumble into the experiences you remember and fall into the places you come to love.