Sunday, January 26, 2014

Hanoi--the Most Asian City in Southeast Asia

                                                               by Jim Goodman

    Southeast Asia's major cities have always been centers of congestion, with people and vehicles constantly vying for space.  The more developed they get the greater the traffic jams become.  And as the urban core undergoes its inevitable transformation to cope with the demands of modern commerce, people abdicate the streets to the vehicles and retreat within cavernous restaurants, multi-story shopping malls and high-rise office and residential buildings.  As Asia's big cities grow and modernize, everyday life retreats behind doors and walls.  Everywhere except Hanoi.
Much craft work takes place on the street.
    In downtown Hanoi the greater part of a resident's daily life is conducted in public, on the streets and sidewalks of the city.  Instead of high-rise apartments and shopping malls or department stores, the characteristic city building is a 3- or 4-story shop-house.  The ground floor is for commerce, the upper floors for domestic life.  Such shop-houses are small, so much of the ground-floor merchandise is displayed on the outside walls and the doors, as well as on counters just inside the entrance.  Transactions often take place on the sidewalk or at the doorway.  And since the living space is restricted, people often do their craft work on the steps or the sidewalk
    Most Asian metropolises feature multi-level shopping centers, equipped with restaurants and places of entertainment, such as movie theatres, to persuade potential consumers that all desires can be met within a single set of walls.  Hanoi, however, is still organized in the traditional way.  Rather than a centralized venue for a variety of products, like the modern department store, shoppers go to certain streets for particular items, for entire streets in Hanoi are markets for a single type of merchandise.  Thus one lane will be lined with shops selling herbal medicine, another full of locksmiths, at the next turn it's stacks of votive objects, down a side street textiles and clothing, around the bend a street full of children’s toys.
tin workshop on Hàng Thiếc
     In fact, the preponderance of street names in Hanoi's Old Quarter, west and north of  Hoàn Kiếm Lake, begin with Hàng, which is Vietnamese for "merchandise," following a system that began in the early centuries of the city’s thousand-year history.  Guilds set up in the wards of the commoners’ city and each street was named after the item produced there.  Some streets still specialize in the original product.  Hàng Thếc (tin) is lined with tin workshops.  Hàng Bặc (silver) is full of jewelry shops and money-changers.  Others have just a few shops selling the original product, with most offering other goods, such as Hàng Chiếu (reed mats) and Hàng Mành (bamboo blinds).
    Other streets no longer sill the product they were named after, but are instead dominated by another single product.  Every shop on Hàng Dầu (cooking oil) sells shoes.  The upper half of Hàng Giấy (paper) features shops offering packaged foods, like instant noodles.  In short, the system still works largely the old way   People buy their products street by street.  
Shady streets are characteristic of the Old Quarter.
    Guilds in the Old Quarter used to have gates at both entrances, locked at night, like the gates of the city’s former walls.  Nowadays the city walls and all but the eastern gate have long been removed, but the general layout has persisted.  Leafy trees line most streets, providing shade in the hot season, shelter from late winter drizzles and some protection against the downpours of the monsoon.  And along the sidewalks, in between the spaces occupied by rows of parked motorcycles, individual vendors set up sandwich stalls, fruit stands, barber stools, chairs to sit in while having the ears cleaned and shin-high stools to squat upon while eating noodles, having tea, a mug of fresh beer or enjoying a smoke with a bamboo water-bong.
    Because so much of the sidewalk space is already occupied, pedestrians for the most part use the same road as the cars and motorbikes.  The latter also are popular as short-distance taxis.  Groups of them collect at nearly every street corner, badgering every pedestrian.  Hanoi residents don't like to walk very far and will employ them regularly if they don't have their own wheels.  The  third option, after car and motorcycle, is the cycle-taxi (xích lô).  The passenger sits in front and the driver cycles at a much less frenetic pace.  Hanoi folks only use these when they have packages too big to carry on a motorbike taxi.  But visitors like them for their more leisurely ride through the back streets.
 snack stand beside an ancient tree 
mobile sellers, mobile buyer

    Some of Hanoi's commercial transactions are mobile.  Individual entrepreneurs mount their wares on huge frames attached to the front and back of their bicycles. Others push barrows full of ceramics or carry baskets, fruits, vegetables, cosmetics, toiletries, sunglasses or dozens of various other items on two trays suspended from a shoulder-pole. Passing motorcyclists stop, purchase something and drive off.  Mobile vendors used to be a feature of every Asian city, but it has all but disappeared elsewhere.  But in Hanoi, they are still a very visible and integral part of the city’s economy.
    A few of the more enterprising snack vendors bring along a stool for customers to sit and eat their noodle soup, fruits or whatever at their leisure.  Refreshments of one kind or another are available in every neighborhood, often from individual stands on the sidewalk.  The city
typical old town coffee shop
abounds in tiny coffee shops and residents have their favorites, where they meet with a small group of friends, sipping strong coffee while they converse, perhaps with a baguette sandwich of paté and cheese from a separate vendor on the same street.  Other cafés are fancier, especially in the French Quarter, with elegant interiors, attached gardens, and a wide selection of coffees, cakes and pastries.
    Besides the coffee and the bakery products, the most visible French legacy is the architecture.  The most outstanding examples are government buildings, like the Presidential Palace and the former Governor of Tonkin's residence, and cultural palaces such as the grand Opera House in the French Quarter and the History Museum a block east.  Many of the city's colonial mansions have been turned into administrative offices or rented out to foreign governments for use as embassies.
    French architectural influence, however, is by no means confined to the French Quarter. The Vietnamese have adapted its features and made it their own.  Characteristic of the style are arched windows, small balconies with railings, and occasional turreted roofs.  Examples can be found anywhere, even in the less affluent neighborhoods.  New housing erected in the suburbs, and dwellings of richer folks in the countryside, employ these motifs as well.  The Franco-Vietnamese architectural style thus pervades the whole city, unlike other ex-colonial metropolises, where the European influence was confined to the Europeans' own buildings.
Franco-Viet architecture
    After they took control of Hanoi in the 1880's the French remade part of the city to give themselves a more Parisian atmosphere in which to live and govern.   In some cases to erect new, French-style buildings they demolished the old ones, like the venerable Báo Thiên Pagoda, formerly used for royal rites to Heaven on behalf of the nation, leveled to construct St. Joseph's Cathedral.  But many parts of the city, particularly the Old Quarter, the French left intact and Hanoi today is replete with old Chinese-style temples and half-hidden pagodas. 
    Many of the temples are again active places of worship.  In the old days some temples also served as a đình, or communal house, for neighborhood meetings and worship of the guild's protective spirit. In recent decades many have been revived to play the same role today.
    Northern Vietnam became a Chinese province in the 2nd century B.C.  Except for brief interludes it remained under Chinese rule until 939, when the Vietnamese re-established the country's independence.  Chinese cultural influence had by then been thoroughly absorbed into the indigenous tradition.  Hence Hanoi's old religious buildings, unlike those of Vietnam's neighbors, resemble those of southeast China.
Chùa Trấn Quốc
    While most are modest neighborhood temples tucked away in the Old Quarter, a few are housed in fair-sized compounds and attract worshipers from all over the city.  Chùa Quán Sứ in the French Quarter, originally part of a guesthouse for ambassadors, is full on the 1st and 15th days of the lunar month.  The 11th century Daoist Quan Thánh Temple, at the edge of West Lake, still draws devotees.  So does Hanoi's oldest pagoda, the 6th century Trấn Quốc Pagoda, originally on the Red River bank, but in the early 17th century moved to a block north on the shore of West Lake, an attractive pale red, 11-tiered monument quite unlike any other in the region.
    The most unusual of the city's religious buildings is the One Pillar Pagoda in the western part of the city.  This small wooden shrine sits atop a single pillar rising from the middle of a lotus pond.  Built in the 11th century, it originally stood on a much higher pillar, but the French blew up the pagoda when they departed Hanoi in 1954 and the rebuilt version is more modest.  The structure itself is designed to resemble a lotus blossom, the symbol of enlightenment in Buddhism.  It is one of Hanoi's best-known monuments and draws virtually every tourist who comes to the city.  But it is also popular with local residents and on holidays girls in their flowing áo dài--long-sleeved, shin-length tunic, slit both sides at the waist and worn over trousers--come in groups to pay respects.
Chùa Một Côt, the One Pillar Pagoda
    Adoption of Confucian traditions in education and government led to the creation of the Temple of Literature in 1077.  Here young men studied Chinese classics and prepared for government service.  In the western part of town, this spacious walled compound has several courtyards, the last of which holds the ceremonial hall, its red pillars and exterior walls embellished with gold-painted carvings.  A traditional Vietnamese music troupe performs here periodically during the day.
    A few of Hanoi's swankier restaurants have similar ensembles, featuring stringed, bamboo and percussion instruments, plus the monochord đàn bầu--a single string across a long wooden sounding box.  Local businessmen often take their foreign clients to such restaurants.  The menus list traditional Vietnamese preparations of fish, seafood and meat dishes, and as likely as not more exotic fare such as eel, frog, rabbit and pigeon.  After dinner they may take their guests to one of Hanoi's nightclubs, to have drinks while entertained by live singers, or to a very modern disco, which will be packed on weekends.
typical back alley retaurant
    Ordinary city residents go for less flashy venues for their evening's leisure.  Men like to drink in the small bia hơi bars, which serve home-brewed beer on tap and offer a more intimate environment for social chat.  Some of these are larger establishments with a full menu of meals and snacks.  Outdoor restaurants where customers dine on the sidewalk abound in the Old Quarter as well, especially at night.  Others simply take a walk along Hoàn Kiém Lake, ringed by trees and parks, away form the traffic noise and smell.  This body of water lies in the middle of the downtown area, acting as the city's lung, neatly dividing the jumble of lanes in the Old Quarter from the wide, straight boulevards of the French Quarter.  In late afternoons small groups of men play board games in the parks and a few cafés offer pastries and refreshments to enjoy with the view.
    On a small island in the southern part of the lake stands the three-tiered Tortoise Tower, one of Hanoi's most famous buildings.  Supposedly giant turtles still live in this lake and one captured specimen, over two meters long, is on display in a glass cage in Đền Ngọc Sơn Temple, on another island on the lake's northeast side.  This island is connected to the shore by a beautiful red wooden bridge and both it and the Tortoise Tower are illuminated at night.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake, the Tortoise Tower
    In the old days, when Hanoi was even more of a farmers' city, the most popular form of entertainment was a performance of the water puppets.  Unique to the Red River Delta area, this tradition is perhaps a thousand years old.  The painted wooden puppets--of peasants, fishermen, dragons, phoenixes, buffaloes, boatmen, soldiers, etc.--are mounted on long poles hidden beneath the surface of the water. Puppeteers stand waist-deep in the water and manipulate them while concealed behind a screen.  An orchestra provides the music and the skits are of fishing, boating, planting rice and other rural activities, interspersed with vignettes of history and legend, religious processions, splashing dragons and leaping tigers.
    Television, cinema, discos and karaoke bars have reduced the proliferation of most other traditional forms of entertainment, but this very Vietnamese art still thrives in two dozen Red River Delta villages.  And for foreign visitors a water-puppet show is an essential part of the Hanoi experience.  Now a special theatre, right at the top of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, stages highly imaginative, professionally skilled performances several times a day.  In this most Asian of cities, the show makes a fitting climax to a fascinating urban exploration.
water-puppets boat race
                                                                       * * *
                  Hanoi is one of the sites on my cultural-historical tour program for Vietnam.
                                      For more information see

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