Teeming, Tranquil Hanoi


Hanoi’s ancient history and modern history live side by side. Ho Chi Minh is remembered alongside old emperors; a roundabout lake is circled by polluting cars; the booming economy is tempered by high prices; and public spaces provide respite from the adventure of crossing a street. Hanoi may be a transit point, but it has enough to hold anyone’s interest.

When you first wake up in the morning, you might not see Hanoi, but you can definitely hear it. This non-stop beep beep beep of motorbikes and cars accompanies the lifting of the nocturnal veil for this city of 6.4 million people. The typical daily grind is best epitomised by the endless flow of traffic around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, located in the centre of the city. This “Lake of the returned sword” is immortalised in legend where Emperor Lê Lợi lost his magic sword to a “Golden Turtle God” who emerged from these waters. The emperor concluded that the sword, which had been instrumental in his victory against the Ming Dynasty, had been reclaimed by the Turtle God, hence the name. A Turtle Tower (Thap Rùa) standing in the middle of the lake is a reminder of this story.

Giant turtles aside, Hoàn Kiếm Lake retains its iconoclast status amidst Hanoi’s buzzing city life. Citizens take to their daily exercise routines; the young bury their noses deep in their smartphones while waiting for their dates’ tourists throng the walks with the vigour of vacationers; photography buffs and their girlfriends in elegant ao dais spend an afternoon shooting; and fishermen test their luck in the greenish waters. The swirl of traffic around the lake – effectively making it a large roundabout for the on-way streets around it – reminded me of the feng shui practice of strengthening circulation around a particularly good spot where qi can accumulate.

In the Old Quarter nearby, daily life is undisturbed by the high tourist traffic. Food stalls on pavements, clothes, cheap art, mobile phone cards and budget hotels huddle cheek by jowl on the narrow streets, punctuated by ubiquitous coffee stalls serving thick black Vietnamese coffee and spaces to gather and gossip. Itinerant food sellers carry their wares on their shoulders with a Quang gánh (akin to a “kandar”); theses double as tourist traps when the sellers clap their conical straw hats and baskets on an unsuspecting tourist, who would soon discover they have to pay for the pleasure.

Hanoi is densely populated. Anywhere you look, thousands swarm at you. Public spaces are fully utilised: badminton courts drawn on pavements in front of elegant colonial buildings are jarring. That said, a visitor ca still find moments of idle tranquillity in gardens, parks and even compounds of museums, to regain that bit of sanity after undergoing a unique Vietnamese experience: crossing a very busy street.

One of my first destinations was Văn Miếu, or the Temple of Literature (entry 20,000 VND), off Quốc Tử Giám street. Build in 1070 during the reign of King Lý Nhân Tông, it hosted Vietnam’s first national university. The different sections of the compound are marked with elegant courtyards, imposing stone stelae of doctorate graduates and shrines to great scholars and scholar-kings. Modern-day graduates still congregate here to venerate them and use the temples as backdrops for their graduation photo shots.

Opposite Văn Miếu’s back wall, at the corner of Nguyễn Thái Học Streets and Hoàng Diệu Street, is the Fine Arts Museum (entry 20,000 VND). Housing a world-class collection of Vietnamese traditional art – such as lacquer paintings, silk paintings, wood carvings, etc. – it also has a collection of striking and political modern art pieces. The museum was empty when I visited, much to my delight! There were many depiction of Bac Ho or “Uncle Ho (Chi Minh)”, offering a history lesson into the social and political past of Socialist Vietnam. At the other wing of the museum were folk art and cultural artefacts from the various ethnic groups.

The imposing Ho Chi Minh Museum.

The next day, I visited the Ho Chi Minh Museum in the Ba Dinh district, one of the more surreal places you will ever visit. From acrylic “waters” depicting the waves in Ho Chi Minh’s brain to awkward installations of war, bloodshed and political strife translated into large plastic fruits, twisting plastic board representing advancement of science and a replica of Picasso’s Guernica – this larger than life narration of Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh’s personal history is at best storytelling suspended in disbelief, then translated into a museum.

When night fell, I was fortunate to have a local friend who guided me to Quán Ăn Ngon at 18 Phan Boi Chau Street for a sumptuous meal. The hawker-style setting provides a market-like atmostphere where the best of Vietnam’s cuisines are served. After dinner, we headed back into the Old Quarter to the night market on Hàng Đào and Hàng Ngang Street, which only operates from Friday to Sunday.

The local economy seems to be booming, but my friend Lưu Minh Thuclarified: “Hanoi is quite expensive, even for the locals. Many people here are from rural areas who came for the promise of employment. But the job market is competitive and they have little education. They end up working multiple unskilled jobs, even taking on as many as three jobs perday.”

Most tourists use Hanoi as a transit point to head to nearby desitnations such as Halong Bay, Perfume Pagoda, Sapa, Bac Ha and so on, but the city has enough nooks and corners for the curious to explore for at least a week. Skip the guided tours and arm yourself with a good waterproof map or GPS – lots of hotels and restaurants have free WiFi – to truly experience the city as the locals do. Eat where they eat, even if you cannot identify the ingredients. Walk where they walk, even if you cannot find it on the map.  And finally, slow down like they do, especially at Hoàn Kiếm Lake, and watch the night lights flutter.

Veronica Liew is a communications consultant based in KL (and occasionally Penang). A hobbyist photographer, freelance writer and bona fide Facebook addict, her favorite things to do while travelling are car-spotting, sitting beside large bodies of water and eating.

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