x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Take a pause to take in Hanoi

Vietnam's busy capital still has pockets of calm which make it one of Asia's most atmospheric cities.

As the rain begins to fall hard outside the small grimy restaurant located down a small side alley in Hanoi's Old Quarter, elderly women selling cheap plastic coats hit the streets, hoping to benefit from those tourists with only a day or two to see the delights of the Vietnamese capital and who are therefore in a hurry to keep moving.

The rest of us, mostly residents and a few relaxed visitors, simply smile knowingly at one another, order another iced coffee and wait out the obligatory 30 minutes or so that the daily afternoon showers last in Hanoi, before returning to the now-glistening streets and beautiful architecture of one of the most atmospheric capitals in Asia.

Hanoi may have been the on-again, off-again capital of Vietnam since 1010 AD, but much of its visible appeal arises from the 50 years it was the capital of French Indochina in the first half of the 20th century and the blending of cultures that occurred at that time.

The French may have left a bitter legacy of heavy-handed governance and an unwillingness to see the end of their colonial rule without bloodshed, but in cultural terms the French gifted the country - especially Hanoi - with striking churches and cathedrals, a vibrant cafe scene and many of the buildings that to this day form the city's Old Quarter - a warren of 36 alleyways that is the heart of Hanoi life and has been since the 13th century. Some of the older buildings remain as they were, including some exquisite guildhalls and temples, but many others were either replaced by French-style buildings or have been strongly influenced in subsequent renovations. Despite this, the layout of the old streets remains. The old quarter also boasts the city's largest market, the temples and major sites that draw in the tourists, and is where the seeds of the communist takeover took root in the guilds and education institutes where new ideas sprouted.

Once humming with the trades the streets are named after - Blacksmith Street (Lo Ren), Incense Street (Hang Huong), Pickled Fish Street (Hang Mam) and Coffin Street (Lo Su) to name but a few, the cramped winding alleyways are where residents and tourists alike stroll around in the evening, relax with friends and dine on fresh Vietnamese food, all among streets towered over by the peeling paint of the pillars and window frames of French villas.

I had spent a year living in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi's southern neighbour, early in the last decade and ever since have regularly engaged in inane but heated debates over which of the two cities is better. While Ho Chi Minh would edge it on vibrancy and development, my Hanoi friends would always pull out their ace - the glorious Old Quarter - to seal their argument.

Arriving by bus from the Chinese border for what would be a four-day stay, the crowded and tightly packed streets of outer Hanoi are abuzz as I enter the city in the early afternoon sun, reminding me of what I used to love about the country, while the roads themselves swarm with motorbikes and scooters that were - and still are - a ubiquitous feature of most Vietnamese cities. Crossing roads in Hanoi is a form of art and more than once I tense up as a motorbike passes just inches in front of me.

Part of Hanoi's charm is in this sense of disorder, and in the pockets of calm you stumble across all over the capital, where the sound of traffic is just a distant murmur. Walking down Hang Bac (Silversmith Street) in the centre of the Old Quarter on my first day, I detour down many of these out-of-the-way lanes, where curious locals glance up as I step around the piles of vegetables strewn in front of them that they are peeling for nearby restaurants. Others smile and take a drag of their cigarettes, waiting patiently for the foreigner to go by.

"Bananas, want bananas?" asks one old lady, heavily laden with fruit hanging in baskets attached to poles around her shoulders. "Lacquer bowls, lacquer bowls," "T-shirts," "authentic Vietnamese food", go other nearby shouts.

Waking up in the morning on my first full day back in the city, I start to remember the subtle tweaks on French imports that enhance Hanoi life. In the square around the striking neo-Gothic St Joseph's Cathedral, first opened for worship in the 1880s, swanky urbanites sit out under the sun, drinking coffee and chain-smoking. Only, rather than fancy Parisian brands, they are smoking cheap Vietnamese cigarettes and drinking thick but delicious Vietnamese iced coffees that remain black even after the inclusion of milk.

Vietnamese breakfasts are simple affairs, generally comprising a French baguette stuffed with an omelette and meat, bought from old women on the streets for less than a dollar. Evening meals are the main social time and the restaurants and bars around Hang Bac street are filled with loud voices and hungry customers. I fill my time between eating and coffee with endless walking.

The buildings of the Old Quarter are often camouflaged with workaday ground floors so it occasionally comes as a shock when my eyes rise from the knockoff T-shirt stores to the two- or three-storey buildings towering above me. The elegant facades, with wooden shutters, elaborate wrought iron and balconies often overflowing with plants, seem to hark back to colonial times.

On the south-east side of Hoan Kiem Lake, the beautifully preserved opera house and renovated Hotel Metropole epitomise this time of foreign rule when Hanoi was the Paris of Vietnam and a playground for colonists rich in the rice, rubber and opium trades.

While the colonial-era buildings, with their overhanging bay windows and high, sloping roofs, are a key part of the character of the area, the ornate Vietnamese tube houses, which seem like they have been squashed in a vice (the legacy of a taxation policy that focused on the width of property fronts and led to the thin but deep building style) are equally important to Hanoi's Old Quarter. On Ma May and neighbouring streets, it's possible to visit some of the larger wooden structures, which, despite their deceptively small entrances, extend several rooms backwards and would have been the homes and places of work for generations of Vietnamese traders, artisans and businessmen.

In the Old Quarter, the pace of the city quickens as the day goes on, and relaxing afternoons turn into lively evenings as restaurants explode into the streets, with large woks of fried rice and small plastic tables and chairs jammed full of hungry or thirsty residents and foreigners. Small stalls appear at the corner of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen, where people cluster around for drinks,enjoying themselves in an alfresco way that I am sure the French would still approve.

Days pass and, as I get ready to hop on a bus to leave the city, I remember what a friend of mine who had lived in the city once told me - that after moving away from Hanoi he wrote a lot less poetry; the city just sort of forced him to write. I had been too busy relaxing to write, but I could certainly understand his nostalgia for the place.

 

If You Go

The flight Return flights with Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Hanoi via Bangkok or Singapore cost from Dh9,200, including taxes