Hanoi means “the city in the bend of the river”. It has over 6 million people and old quarter is Hanoi’s beating heart of commerce, as old as the city itself. Beneath a canopy of banyan trees dripping with Spanish moss, the pavements were full of people washing clothes, men welding metal, and makeshift barber shops. This made it necessary to walk in the road, amid the moped madness.
Women in coolie hats weaved past bearing vast loads of cassavas and dried fish in baskets at either end of a flexing bamboo yoke, tiptoeing under the strain as if wearing shoes two sizes too small. If there was ever a place to feed western fantasies of the Orient, here it was.
Every street has a designated purpose, the legacy of the 13th-century guildsmen who divided up the Old Quarter into 36 areas, so the prefix “Hang” on street signs means “merchandise”. We turned into Hang Ma, where the Hanoians go for their paper votive offerings to be burned on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. The votives are a reflection of their interests, so there were paper cars, stereos and life-sized bicycles.
Most shops had altars with burning incense and flowers – bought on the 1st and 15th of the Chinese lunar month for luck – at their entrance, Casablanca lilies and orchids: Vietnam is blessed with more than 1,000 varieties.
On to Hang Dong (copper bells and gongs), Hang Cot (bamboo) and Hang Non (hats). It was like the ultimate department store. On Thuoc Bac (herbal medicine), the shops were crammed with lotus seeds, huge cinnamon sticks and jars of rice wine full of snakes and scorpions. The sweet smell was quite overpowering
We then visit Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university, founded in 1076, a maze of beautiful formal gardens framed by fig trees, with low-slung pagodas with sinuous roofs. Young women in dazzling white and yellow silk ao dai dresses, embroidered with delicate silk roses and gerberas, prayed to a statue of Confucius for good exam marks.
In the middle of the city we walked around the most famous of Hanoi’s many lakes, Hoan Kiem, which glittered like mercury under the sun. We weaved through games of badminton being played on makeshift courts on the pavements, the nets strung between flame trees festooned with red paper lanterns that hang like pendulous fruit.
We then visited the, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by US air crew downed during their ferocious bombing of the city. One room was full of dummies of emaciated Vietnamese prisoners shackled by the French colonial authorities to their beds, the next contained the prison’s grisly original iron guillotine. Then there were photographs of smiling GIs playing table tennis, which illustrated either a more benign captivity or the fact that it’s the victors who write the history books.
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