A walk though Hanoi


Hanoi millennium

A friend has just returned from Vietnam with hundreds (literally!) amazing pictures and memories that made me think back to my own trip there in October 2010. My first stop was Hanoi and it was a very special time to be there since that month the city celebrated the millennium of its founding. That anniversary was really hard to miss given signs and banners hanging all around to proclaim Hanoi’s 1000 years – 1000 năm. From these signs I also learned the Vietnamese spelling of the city’s name: Hà Nội, which means “between rivers” i.e. in the Red River delta, and its former name Thăng Long, or “Rising Dragon.” Before this trip my image of Hanoi was rather bleak. I didn’t really know anything about it but pictured a drab, gray, repressed, somewhat sinister Stalinist-style place. Nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, the first thing that struck me was Hanoi’s intimate, human scale.

The Old Quarter in particular is a compact jumble of ancient narrow streets and colonial architecture that really makes you feel the weight of a thousand-year long history in which the last century with all its turbulent upheavals was just a brief chapter. The Old Quarter is most visibly shaped architecture-wise by the French influences when it was the capital of French Indochina from 1887 until 1954. Fading hues of yellow walls and peeling blue shutters dominate house facades, and ornate balconies bring to mind images of Victorian dames peaking from their upstairs apartments down onto the busy streets…

Hanoi in my experience is best explored by foot. Other options include touring in a human-powered rickshaw, but that somehow felt wrong on several levels, or hopping on the back of a motorcycle taxi, but I’m just not that brave. So walking it is. That said, strolling around Hanoi is not exactly a walk in the park. The city is buzzing with gazillion motorbikes and it’s man vs. machine out there pretty much at every step. Until you get used to the fact that traffic never fully stops and gain enough trust in your motorized fellow human beings to step right in front of them hoping that they will safely maneuver around you, you won’t ever cross a street. And that would be a shame because there is a lot to see!

Bamboo ladders at Hang Vai

How to describe old Hanoi? CNNGo editor Chris Anderson got it right, “Hectic, noisy, chaotic, adjective, adjective. Describing Hanoi’s oldest district is somewhat of a waste of breath. No need to ramble on about where exactly to go in the Old Quarter either, as the weaving and winding streets are best explored by aimless wandering. No destination. No pre-planned route. Just left, right, or straight ahead.” Fully agreed.

The Old Quarter is a grid of 36 narrow streets that traditionally housed guilds specializing in particular trades or products. Most of their names start with “hang” meaning merchandise. To this day each street bears the name representing its origin, although few still stick exclusively to their namesake craft. Others acquired a new niche, like Hang Vai. Historically known for selling fabrics, today its focus is on making bamboo ladders. The fun of it is: you never know what’s around the corner.

The Old Quarter is shoppers’ paradise where you can find anything from cheap fruit sold from somebody’s bicycle to luxurious boutiques with expensive silk scarves. My most intriguing shopping expedition, though, was not by choice. When I arrived in Hanoi I noticed that I grabbed the wrong power cord for my laptop so unless I found a new one, I had no way of charging the battery. That’s easier said than done. The hotel was able to direct me to the general area of town known for selling electronics but let’s just say most stores there are not authorized dealers. Add to it language difficulties in explaining what I needed, and the fact that the first power cord I bought caught on fire, and the whole experience was quite memorable but not necessarily something I’d care to repeat =)

When it comes to electronics, buyer beware!

The old and the new mix here at every step. One of my favorite spots was Quan Chuong, Hanoi’s last remaining city gate originally built in 1749 and restored many times.

Quan Chuong gate once upon a time (image: http://dtinews.vn)

Quan Chuong gate today

In the shade of historic sites, Hanoi streets are teeming with life. The sidewalks serve as outdoor kitchens with people sitting around on small plastic stools or simply squatting over pots of deliciously scented meals in making. Navigating among those impromptu eateries and ubiquitous street vendors can be a challenge when combined with the ever-present scooters haphazardly parked everywhere around.

Street food can be a risky endeavor in many countries and Vietnam is no exception but you should try some in Hanoi to complete the experience. One place I can highly recommend is Bun Bo Nam Bo (67 Hang Dieu), a hole-in-the-wall outfit that makes only one dish: delicious bun bo (noodles with beef).

Another part of the Old Quarter not to miss is Ma May street, and especially the house at number 87. It was built in late 19th century in a traditional form of a tube, long and narrow, with the front and back parts of the house separated by a yard to get wind and light. The reason for the development of this architectural style had to do with taxes, or more specifically an attempt to minimize them, given that each property was taxed according to the width of the street-facing facade. The two-story house, although unassuming from the outside, has a beautifully restored interior including period furnishings and art. It also has a great (but not bargain) gift store with items made by local artist such as traditional lacquer paintings and embroidery.

Lacquer art in particular is worth a closer look since it’s a famous ancient trade of Vietnam. Brightly colored and sparkling with mother of pearl and sea shell inlay, laquer paintings are truly beautiful. They are done on wood covered with a piece of cloth glued to it with the sap of the lacquer tree, coated with a layer of the sap mixed with earth, and polished to produce a smooth black surface on which the painter draws a picture outline with hot lacquer and then applies colors in layers to an amazing end effect.

Inner courtyard of 87 Ma May house

When the chaos of Hanoi streets gets to you, 87 Ma May can be a perfect escape. So are the temples scattered across the city. They are often hidden behind a wall discreetly separating them from the street. Walking through the gate into a temple courtyard can be like stepping into a different dimension: from rush to stillness, from noise to silence.

Temples are apparently also popular spots for socializing in small circles

An awesome selection of offerings to make sure ancestors are well taken care of in the afterlife =)

As the evening falls, the streets of Hanoi breathe with a new life. Hip-looking locals take to their bikes and explore Hanoi by night. Considering that 65% of the population is under the age of 30 and that many young people from rural areas are attracted to the promise of the capital, the youthful vibe and energy all around me are not surprising.

And romance is in the air, especially on the legend-shrouded shores of beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake just a few steps from the Old Quarter. Hoan Kiem, or Lake of the Restored Sword, is a backdrop for the Vietnamese equivalent of the Arthurian legend except here king Le Loi returned the sacred sword to a lake-dwelling turtle after defeating Chinese invaders in the 15th century. A great place to see the re-enactment of the legend and experience a unique local art form is a show at the nearby Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. Water puppetry (roi nuoc) is performed in a chest-deep pool of water where the water is a stage and puppeteers manipulate their figures from behind a curtain to live music. The tradition of water puppetry in Hanoi is as old as the city itself, first performed by farmers on the surface of flooded rice fields of the Red River Delta. And the tradition remains alive and well today, ready for the next thousand years just like Hanoi.

Water puppet theater

Hanoi is for lovers (Hoan Kiem Lake)

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