Millennium Post

Hanoi: Of timeless charm

Historic with a blend of the modern, Hanoi is timeless in its aura that has enchanted many a traveller from across Europe & Asia

Hanoi, the historic capital city of Vietnam, the oldest capital in Southeast Asia, founded in 1010 CE, is seductively charming – approachable and aloof at the same time. The cradle of Vietnamese civilisation is a tangle of the ancient and modern, a quaint blend of enchanting Europe and chaotic Asia. Nestled in a great bend of the Red River, Hanoi, a city with a dozen lakes and narrow congested streets, still carries the flavour of its colonialists, with its tree-lined French-style boulevards and amber villas.

We are overwhelmed by the timelessness of the place as we walk its catacomb of bustling streets and feel ourselves passing through millennia-old history, tangible in its environment and sights. Its saga of struggle against the various forces – Russians, French, Chinese and Americans at various periods – is palpably ingrained in its character. Vietnam's turbulent past and the vivacity of its present are inimitably reflected in Hanoi, the city which the French imperialists held as the capital of all of Indochina from 1902 to 1953.

We take a leisurely cycle ride through ribbon-broad labyrinthine streets. The alleyways and narrow streets of its Old Quarter are still named for the crafts and trade that migrants from villages once practiced. It was here, in the Red River Delta, that several traditional arts and crafts including lacquer ware and silk crafts flourished. 'Tube-houses' with narrow fronts flank the streets that sell everything from eats to inexpensive souvenirs and merchandise. While we see well-to-do locals relax in trendy restaurants and coffee shops that dot the Old Quarter, the city's pavements or sidewalks, we observe, are the happening places in Hanoi. They double up as kitchens and living rooms where cooking and entertaining happen routinely. People huddle together in low seats at street corners and engage in leisurely banter over steaming bowls of 'pho', the local noodle soup.

The traffic scene in Hanoi is mind-boggling as it swarms with zig-zagging two-wheelers and the popular mobile taxis or 'xe om' as they are locally called. Vietnamese women donning conical hats, hawking flowers, fruits, vegetables and cooked food from deftly balanced shoulder poles, worm their way through this chaotic maze of vehicles. My heart skips several beats as we stand at the swarming intersections to cross over. However, I am forced to admire the manner in which the motorists adjust their course to pedestrians crossing the roads as long as they continue to walk slowly and calmly, unruffled by the gaggles of motor scooters.

A few hundred metres away from the Old Quarter, we come upon Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, the 'Lake of the Restored Sword', the centre of downtown Hanoi, it is a spiritual and sociocultural hub, a tourists' and shoppers' paradise. If it throbs with joggers and exercise buffs in the early hours of dawn, its verdant precincts attract tourists and local picnickers during the day. According to legend, Le Loi, a 15th century emperor, received a sword from a magic turtle at the lake's edge which he later used to drive away the Chinese from Vietnam. A little away, a red-hued wooden bridge brings us to the majestic Ngoc Son Temple.

The trademark Vietnamese Water Puppet Show in the evening, serves as grand finale to our first day in Hanoi that sees us explore the Old Quarter. The Thang Long Water Puppet show with its characters, resplendent in colorful traditional attires, encapsulates Vietnamese life in an interesting way. The performance is done on an underwater stage, accompanied by native music. The spellbinding show narrates the origins of Vietnamese people, beginning with the marriage of Lac Long Quan, the dragon King, and the fairy Au Co.

Compelled by curiosity, we head first to the city's Presidential Palace area in Ba Dinh district, on the second day of our stay in Hanoi. The broad square is dominated by an imposing granite edifice where the legendary "Bac Ho" or "Uncle Ho" as Ho Chi Minh was fondly referred to, lies embalmed. We take our place in the serpentine queue to see in flesh, the national hero who led communist Vietnam's fight against the US forces. He is on display in a glass sarcophagus at this mausoleum. It is evident that he is idolised by his people, venerated next only to God.

The One Pillar Pagoda built on a lake in the Presidential Palace area, catches our attention as we see hordes of tourists proceed towards it. Considered the most unique pagoda in Asia, the structure, designed to resemble an open lotus, symbolising purity, was built in the 11th century CE by the then emperor, Ly Thai Tong. According to legend, the heirless emperor dreamt of being handed over a male infant by the Goddess of Mercy. When he did beget a male child, he built the pagoda as an act of gratitude. The original shrine, built of wood on a single stone pillar, was destroyed by the French in 1954. It was rebuilt by the Vietnamese government.

The political and cultural capital of Vietnam, often termed as the city of poets, Hanoi is very much viewed as a bastion of Confucian values and Communist doctrines. Perhaps, nowhere is this better reflected than in the 1,000-year old Temple of Literature, Vietnam's oldest university. Built in 1070 CE, dedicated to Confucius, the Temple of Literature was constructed as a place of learning rather than religion. While the university closed in 1779, it still contains vestiges of the eras gone by. It is a fine example of traditional Vietnamese architecture, set in lush and picturesque environs. It is laid out in a sequence of five courtyards and spanned by a trio of pathways that run the length of the Temple. Expansive gardens with a plethora of foliaceous trees, topiary animal sculptures and small ponds attract visitors to it.

We wind our Hanoi trip with a visit to its infamous Hoa Lo Prison, also called Maison Centrale. Only a fraction of the sprawling complex which was originally built by the French in 1896, is now preserved as a museum. Nothing prepares us for what we see at this French-built hell-hole, Hoa Lo, literally meaning "stove", and sardonically named Hanoi Hilton by the American POWs. We are overwhelmed by a sense of revulsion as we see the dank cells where Vietnamese revolutionaries were held captive and subsequently guillotined, various grisly exhibits showing acts of gore and the torturous suffering of prisoners.

Swathes of the city witnessed complete destruction, especially during the US bombing rom 1965 to 1973. Scars of embittered wars doubtlessly remain, poignant, yet well-masked as Hanoi continues to develop and forges ahead with economic reconstruction. Tourists throng the city, the multicultural fabric of which points towards its openness as people from diverse cultures, religions and nationalities coexist in harmony.

Chitra Ramaswamy

Chitra Ramaswamy

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