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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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 http://deltatoursvietnam.com.