‘Hotels have always been social ideas, flawless mirrors to the particular societies they service.’
Joan Didion, American Writer
We thanked and paid the driver for taking us to the guesthouse we had requested. His aged face was an honest register of local geographical knowledge. I asked him where to eat and he gave me the name of a place we passed, his recommendation finishing with the Confucian-like ‘The best place around...but not too good’.
Before we had even set foot in downtown Hanoi a man jumped up to me and began chattering with an insistence that was hard to ignore, proclaiming: ‘Hotel is shut, Hotel is shut, Hotel is shut’.
He undermined his case by then informing us that the guesthouse we intended staying in which was apparently shut, was also expensive, and had burnt down. On top of the previous three reasons, it was also dirty.
Yet his patter, although persistent was not aggressive, but more ironic and humorous. As if he knew the joke was on him by the fact he realised he was doomed to a futile exercise in attempting to change our minds - but was going to give it his best shot anyway.
He certainly had an adhesive pluck about him that made me admire and initial dislike him in equal measure. In other words he simply couldn’t leave us alone.
After one last exhortation explaining to me that the hotel which he told us was closed, expensive, had burnt down and was dirty was now actually just a restaurant. Unfortunately as we were standing outside the hotel in question that had a big neon sign that read ‘Hotel’ it was difficult to believe him. Our young new friend with a face of reddened cheeks, seeing us looking up at the sign then smiled and said: ‘Ok, you go. Enjoy Vietnam’.
If you were being cynical of course, you could say the smile was a disciplined one that constantly renewed itself despite having no reason to do so.
We checked into the hotel.
Surrounded by such wasted elegance in Hanoi’s Old Quarter it was inevitable that we would end up residing in dreary and uninviting lodgings.
The quality of the accommodation when travelling is so uneven that what used to be the bare minimum often becomes the grand objective.
We were met by a shuffling old man with a watchful expression and grey wisps of hair falling haphazardly. His teeth were like dishevelled tombstones in an ancient churchyard, randomly surviving but at various stages of collapse.
He had ink on his cuffs, chipped shirt buttons and a hacking cough that was nicotine stained. As were the walls.
His bluff manner was rude enough to be likeable but not contemptuous enough to be unpleasant. He led us up stairs without bannisters through a lifeless hallway, to an under furnished room starved of domesticity.
An ancient clock ticked loudly on worn sideboard, and I wondered if I could prise the batteries out without the aid of a screwdriver. The walls were dour, bare and brown as the chocolate coloured cockroaches that sped around the waste bin with such intensity they reminded me of the traffic outside.
Inured to such scuttling after nearly a year on the road, and too tired to face a hunt for another hotel I nodded to the man that we would take it, not inquisitive enough to question the forlorn wattage that acted as further protection for the disgusting scurrying creatures that served as room-mates.
As he closed the door I spotted a collection of nail clippings in the cramped bathroom on the rim of the chipped sink, and I thought to myself, first thing tomorrow I am going to leave this building and never come back.
This is an excerpt taken from Layth’s book on his time in Vietnam called “Hanoi Autobahn”.
Follow Layth on twitter @laythy29