There’s something in the air that makes joyful in Vietnam’s cute capital, writes Uday k Chakraborty
I knew this trip was going to be different and as soon as I walked out of the train station I wasn’t disappointed. My guide introduced himself and rather sheepishly admitted that there was no ‘real’ vehicle to take me to town. Would I mind, instead, riding with him on his motorbike? I readily accepted the exciting opportunity to travel like a local. Our bike-borne ride took us down wide boulevards, winding streets and narrow alleys, before ending in front of a tiny hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarters.
Traditional and cultural capital
During that introductory ride, Hanoi’s contrast with Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) was obvious. Here was a city more traditional than its bustling sister in the south. Naturally as a political capital it has it’s newly constructed modern buildings and other infrastructure, the city roads are lined with rows of shady trees, large parks and a number of lakes. But then it is also the cultural capital of the nation. Hanoi has preserved almost 600 pagodas and temples as well as numerous old-world dwellings. All these provide a kind of quaint and cosy charm to the city.
Here is a city, where one can take a break, walk aimlessly and relax while watching the world go by. The core of Old Quarter consists of a labyrinth of 32 narrow lanes, on both sides of which once flourished artisans of different trades. Nowadays, tiny cafes, family-run micro hotels, shops, painter’s studios, Buddhist temples and Communist Party’s local offices jostle for space.
I often hanged in front of an old painter’s studio cum shop, watching portraits of Vietnamese revolutionary leaders and American Wild Westerners like John Wayne and other Hollywood actors hanging on the same wall. In some afternoon, I would walk up to the Hoa Kiem Lake, where in the evening locals hang around and socialize. Here, tourists also appreciate the red-painted wooden bridge connecting to a small temple on an island or watch a small pagoda at the centre of the lake.
Beyond the Old Quarters lies the Temple of Literature, one of the cities remnants from the past. This interesting and eye pleasing complex is arranged in a series of linked gated courtyards, one inside the other. Termed as the first University of Vietnam, in historic times the nation’s elite came here for education, particularly to clear rigorous examination for certification. With pond and temples the environment looks peaceful and spirituals but during the local school leaving exams the place buzzes with young students and some of their teachers. They come to receive their God’s blessings and to take group photos of their outgoing class.
While more energetic can walk or hire a bicycle to explore the city, cycloes (pedaled three-wheelers) and motor cycles taxis, are other interesting options. We walked along the city’s main boulevard and are amazed by a series of bright yellow painted colonial mansions, churches and parks. During the French rules, this area was the administrative centre of the city, where colonial bosses also lived. Here we marveled at the iconic buildings like the Opera House, St. Joseph’s Cathedral and the building that currently houses Hanoi Hilton hotel.
The massive Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is located on the square at the upper end of the boulevard where grateful citizens and inquisitive tourists queue up for a detail dekko. We enjoyed the view from outside and then turned towards the Presidential Palace, as the area contained more of beautiful colonial buildings. The walk led us to West Lake, a much bigger lake on which the Tran Quoc Pagoda is located. This is one of the most beautiful pagoda complexes in the Far East. While not crowded, it is usually active with locals visiting to offer their God fruits, fake money and light perfumed incense sticks. Amidst the religious offerings we also noticed cans of beer and cigarettes!
In Hanoi, among many museums on Vietnamese history, life and culture, two are more popular with tourists and locals alike – The Vietnam National Museum and Hoa Lo Citadel and Prison. Later was used by the French rulers to imprison, torture and guillotine Vietnamese freedom fighters.
Puppets and People
While we could not enjoy an Opera show, the famous Water Puppet Show was a worthwhile alternative. Inside the purpose-built auditorium one can see Vietnamese puppet-play in a small pond, with music and commentary. The deft handy-work of the puppet masters is amazing and the production finesse is of highest quality. Everyone smiled, when at the end of the show, puppets reappeared to thank the audience.
Apart from various sites, people-watching in this resurging nation is a fascinating pastime. And, nowhere else the pulse of the scene is livelier than at the Old Quarters during the evening. On weekends, tens of thousands of locals, particularly the young ones, swooped in the area’s pavement cafes and occupied every square inch of the place. Everyone – young and old, single and family – was eating Vietnamese food, drinking fresh local beer and merry making to their heart’s content. Words can neither describe the din around the place nor the jolly vitality of the society it represents. It is to be experienced to be understood. Naturally every tourist joins in, including President Obama, who did it during his official visit. Indeed, people in such places clearly exemplify Vietnam’s high rank in the official global list of the happiest countries in the world.
Text: Uday K Chakraborty
Photos: Uday K Chakraborty