I once took an early xe om (motorbike taxi) ride at about at 4.15 in the morning to catch a 5.15am bus out of Hanoi, and was surprised at how many people were up and about at that hour. By the time the bus was travelling out of the city the roads were already crowded with motorbikes and cars.
People in Hanoi go to sleep early, and wake up early. Despite the size of this city of 6.5 million people, many still live much closer to the traditional early to rise, early to bed pattern of the countryside. A lot of people are in bed by 9pm. By 11pm most streets are quiet.
And become noisy early. Even if you do not live on a street that’s crowded with tooting motorbikes by 6am, there are also the chickens to contend with. In my first home in Hanoi I lived in a street well away from through traffic. However crowing roosters woke me up at dawn, all of a couple of kilometres from the centre of town.
Then there is construction work. According to official statistics Vietnam’s GDP is growing at the second fastest rate in the world. after China, and in Hanoi buildings are springing up everywhere. Some foreigners complain about how their sleep is disrupted by construction work that starts at 6 in the morning and finishes at 10 or later at night, but stops in the middle of the day, when the relative peace and quiet is of no use to anyone.
Personally I thank my lucky stars that at 6 in the morning I am tucked up in bed in a clean, quiet dark room. It’s a much better deal than the construction workers get. They are already working at 6am, rest during the hottest part of the day, then go back to work, sometimes well into the evening: some construction sites are still hives of activity at 10pm. The workers eat their evening meal and sleep on the building site itself, in the temporary lean-tos that are their homes during that job, their laundry hanging up nearby.
Indeed, it’s not only construction workers who sleep in very different surrounds from what westerners expect at night, and have trouble sleeping without: a quiet, dark purpose-built room, warm in winter and cool in summer, curtains drawn, a comfy bed.
Glimpses into homes in Hanoi through open doorways often reveal wooden beds in the living room, covered by nothing more than a mat. People live and sleep in the same space.
Some of the flats I looked at when searching for a place to live had room configurations reflecting this pattern of living and sleeping. They had a larger combined living room and bedroom and a separate small kitchen, rather than the western combination of a kitchen-living room with a separate bedroom.
People also sleep where they work.
Lunchtime cat naps are standard. In most offices, including mine, workers eat their lunch and then retire to a quiet room or back to their desks to sleep for an hour or so. Many offices close between 11.30 am and 1.30pm. Lunch restaurants do a roaring trade between 11.30am and 12.30pm, but staff are packing up by 12.30pm or 1pm, before, I presume, their own naps.
People in other occupations snatch sleep where they can. At night I have seen people stretched out on the pavement, using their thin rubber sandals to cushion their heads. My guess is that they are night workers rather than homeless, as they don’t have any belongings with them. During the day market stallholders sleep in hammocks above their wares. Xe om drivers doze precariously on their motorbikes – usually head on the pillion and feet on the handlebars. Taxi drivers snooze in the driver’s seat of their cabs, ready for the next fare.
I often book taxi rides with an English-speaking cabbie named Quan. He starts his shift at 10 in the morning and finishes at 2 the next morning, six days a week – a 96-hour week (for which he makes 5,000,000 dong a month – about A$250). So it’s not surprising that when I go to meet him near my home at a pre-arranged time I often find him napping. I have also woken up other taxi drivers on occasion. I feel mean, figure they would rather have the fare than the shut-eye.