Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hanoi: A Beautiful Chaos, A Breathing History

Published by AsianTraveler Magazine, 2009

Hanoi is a contradiction of grandiosity and simplicity.

It was early evening, and at 14 degrees Celsius, the air nipped at my fingers. Still, I decided to venture out on my own. The streets appeared crowded, packed with little stores and narrow tall buildings, none of which had English signs on them. Whizzing by were motorcycles from every direction, oblivious to a petrified pedestrian like me. I was lost, a little bit daunted, but I was also excited by the idea of an adventure, out on my own in Hanoi, Vietnam. Since literacy had no use for me, I used my sense of smell, instead. With my nose, I followed the delicious smell of spices and herbs which eventually led me to an inner street, an obscure alley which opened to an inviting establishment awash with soft lights.

Alone in Hanoi, I rely on kind strangers to take my picture.

A serving of sunshine under a full moon

Entering Hai San Ngon, a Vietnamese seafood restaurant that served cuisine from the country areas, I decided to dine alfresco beside an infinity pool. Although the Hanoi traffic was visible from where I sat, it was a relief to be watching it from a distance, to be away from the delightful chaos of Hanoi.   Inside the restaurant, a big group cheered, celebrating a milestone perhaps. They laughed and chattered about over a table laden with food. Their room, visible through the glass doors, seemed warm compared to where I sat. Alone, I watched them with bitter sweet nostalgia.

Bicycles are recurring haunting images all around the villages.

With much difficulty, a Vietnamese waitress helped me with the menu. In halting English and a thick accent, she recommended the new dish of snails on a medley of vegetables. I always believed that a salad is a serving of sunshine.  I looked up at the cold silver moon, a perfect circle, and decided sunshine was exactly what I needed that night.

Dining alone in a strange place, out in the cold, can be a very enlightening experience.

I only had the moon and a few tea lights to give me light, not enough to take a good photo of the dish, but I hope my words would paint a more enticing picture. It was not only a delicious dish, it was also entertaining as the fish cracklings crackled and popped lightly when I topped them with a heap of tomatoes, peppers, nuts, and cilantro. If salad is a plateful of sunshine, cilantro for me is a burst of light. On some bites, I got a burst of flames. The salad was spicy, biting into my tongue. It took me about four waiters, most of them giggling, to figure out what I wanted: water.

With my tongue still smarting, I sat under the full Hanoi moon, thinking that my choice of seating would probably cause me pneumonia, but I didn’t care.  The theme of the Godfather movie (an odd musical backdrop in this little secluded place) floated through the sharp air as I stuffed my stiff fingers inside my coat (the fourth layer aside from the scarf I tied around my neck), and prayed that the butter prawns I ordered wouldn’t be as hot. 

This timid kitten needed a friend too.

The prawn platter was easy on the tongue. After a few creamy mouthfuls, the waitress insisted on ginger tea. Good to wash down the sea food, she said. I happily obliged. She looked much younger than me, yet she doted, reaching over with a fork and knife, cutting my prawns into bite sized pieces. After the meal, I walked home in the cold feeling nurtured and filled.

Living a millionaire’s life

I’ve never had a million in my pocket before, until I came to Vietnam. The currency is happily confusing. I’m still finding it difficult to get used to the fact that a bottle of water would cost 8,000 dongs or VND (Vietnamese dong) - too many zeros for a bottle of water. But I figured, water, after all, is a life essential. I am also tickled pink that a hand-embroidered  silk wallet is worth 10,000 dong.  That’s roughly 48 pesos. 

Shopping for trinkets in Hanoi is a joy, knowing that your currency can get you an army.

I’ve always wanted to get an ao dai  or a traditional Vietnamese flowing tunic, and at the Old Quarter, they tailor dresses, most of the time, while you wait. The Old Quarter in Hanoi is a bargain shopper’s paradise and a historical vestige with a 1,000-year old history. With about 36 old streets, the Old Quarter is home to countless buildings that have kept their 15th century architecture intact. Each street specializes on a specific industry or product from silk to silver and powders to paper.

I was looking for the Old Quarter and found myself delightfully lost in this busy street of commerce instead.

At the silk street, I bought a flowing silk tunic. The almost diaphanous olive green material was embroidered with delicate gold tinged dragonflies.  The first asking price was 786,000 dong, about 45 American dollars. A veteran bargain shopper, I negotiated around the amount of 400,000, an amount I knew to be ridiculously low, but I was feeling lucky. Too cheap, she cried with a smile. “700,000,” she offered hopefully.  We played around with the numbers some more until I turned my back and shook my head, my fingers crossed under my scarf. As always, it worked like a charm as she ran after me with a very agreeable price. After a few minutes of waiting, I left with a tailored fit tunic for 560,000 dong. 

I ended up getting this beautifully tailored silk ao dai.(Image by Winston Baltasar)  

Haggling is difficult because the Vietnamese hardly speak English. Even the simplest terms like “How much” could elicit blank faces. Either that or they fire back with a barrage of unintelligible syllables and phrases. Other times, they simply turn their back on you. Sometimes, I swear they pretend they don’t understand, especially the word “discount.” It would help if you had a calculator with you. Most often they simply punch in the numbers. I find it amusing that for a non-English speaking country, they can understand the language of dollars. Yes, ask how much, and they’ll automatically throw out a price in green currency.

Vendors,  used to haggling tourists, always have a calculator ready to convert your dollar to theirs.

Asking around for directions can be just as frustrating. Nobody seemed to know where the Old Quarter was when the taxi mistakenly dropped me off at the local mall. I ended up asking a couple of Caucasians who looked at me sympathetically, understanding my predicament. Don’t even dare venturing without a map or a guide. Asking directions will more than likely lead you to the wrong destination and a few thousands less in your pocket. Taxi rates can be quite pricey. Avoid the small cabs, their meters run as fast as the racing motorbikes. The safe taxi liners to flag are Hanoi, Mai Lyn, ABC. I learned this the hard way, or more appropriately, the expensive way. 

Blissfully lost along the brick walls of the city.

Literary pilgrimage

After the frenetic energy of the city, the cramped crowded buildings choked by the crisscrossing electric and phone lines, the narrow streets clogged by a tangle of motorcycles, the Temple of Literature was a welcome retreat. I was on a literary pilgrimage, if there was such a thing, for my novel which I had just completed. I figured a blessing from the masters of the art would not do me any harm, especially since I was in the midst of shopping for the right publisher.

Entering the gates of the Temple of Literature.

Located at the heart of central Hanoi, the Temple of Literature housed the first university in the country where the administrative and warrior class were instructed. It was dedicated to Confucius and founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong.

Taking a breather and just taking it all in.

The complex is sprawling with side passages between courtyards and open pavilions dotted with ancient trees and surrounded with manicured lawns where students could sit and study, paint, or meditate. Great halls contain stone turtles that represent the men of letters and scholarly artefacts from students who had passed between these walls. Following one of the locals, I ran my hand over one of the turtle’s smooth head for good luck. In one of the pavilions, I whispered a prayer to the statue of Confucius and his disciples. 

A student reveals  a secret garden, using charcoal to sketch out the map.

Outside, I found a couple of students on the grass, earnestly bent over watercolor paintings, copying the likeness of the temple’s ancient architecture in fine strokes and delicate colors. Inside the gift shop, I found several paintings for sale made by the students. I bought a picture of a couple in red tunics, harvesting an abundance of yellow bananas. It represents happiness and luck to a couple, said the madam in the shop. With my 15 US dollar painting, I left the gates of the temple with a twinge of regret.  I loathed going back to the beautiful mess of Hanoi.

Children are dressed colorfully in Hanoi.

Red brick road

A sampan ride along rice paddies reveals another side of Hanoi.

Although I extremely enjoyed the frenetic energy of the city, I needed to get out even for a few hours, so I took the few hours ride to the outskirts of Hanoi, to the former capital of Hoa Lu. At the Thung Nang-Ninh Binh province, I took a sampan ride along the stream to enjoy the breathtaking view of limestone mountains. While the small boat glided through the still stream, I watched the vista of the mountains mirrored on the flat water surface, lined by green rice paddies. The boatwoman behind me paddled silently, allowing me the quiet that I needed. At the end of the stream the boatwoman motioned for me to duck my head as we entered a limestone cave. She must have gone through the same path a hundred times because she deftly led the sampan through the dark narrow path, limestone jutting low over our heads, leading us safely through the other end of the cave.

The ride through the narrow caves can be scary and exciting at the same time.

After the rejuvenating ride, I was treated to a simple Vietnamese lunch at a local restaurant nearby, a treat of steamed vegetables, pork, and beef, blanketed by a thick creamy serving of pumpkin soup.

Edible art

The last stop was the Viet ancient Village tour at the Duong Lam, the homeland of two national heroes in Vietnamese history. The village is characterized by houses of ancient architecture made of lateritic brick built three or four centuries ago.  Laterite is made of red clay weathered basalt found in northern Vietnam.

Why, hello, Hanoi!

Although a national relic, the village is alive, where farmers open their homes and welcome you with a steaming hot kettle of green tea. Children, bundled up in brightly colored coats, their small faces smudged with dirt, play by the door. Their squeals of laughter are music to the ears. Along the ancient narrow alleys, locals ride quietly through on their bicycles, vegetables and flowers tied snugly at the back. You could hear the ghosts of the temples and pagodas, whispering nuggets of wisdom from a simple but honorable life lived. Here, two kings once lived; they had long past but their memory still reigns. This is what Hanoi is all about, a confusing but charming medley of culture, history and lifestyle.

Another adventure awaits at the corner.


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