The Old Quarter of Hanoi is a city in miniature. Everything is smaller, the streets, the shops, the hotels, the restaurants. In some respects, it’s like the old city of Chiang Mai, a compact and distinct enclave from a time past, updated, modernized to some degree, very appealing to tourists, but without eliminating the underlying character of traditional culture. Indeed, the traditional feel of the place is its appeal.
Tucked against the river, is a maze of narrow streets lined with an eclectic variety of four story apartment buildings adapting European architectural influence to traditional Vietnamese family life. Most of the houses are four stories to house several generations–and the family business–under the same roof.
The sidewalks are packed with parked motorbikes, merchandise spilling out onto the sidewalks from the tiny shops, debris and garbage that gradually collects throughout the day which is magically gone by morning.
Hanoi is a city of 7 million. There are 5 million motorbikes. The sheer volume and variety of traffic, both motorised and human, transforms any casual stroll into a obstacle course. Driving is like swimming in a school of fish. Individual initiative must take the whole into account. Every step becomes a negotiation with a variety of moving vehicles and uneven ground, other walkers, small vendors carrying their wares either on their shoulders or wheeling on a bicycle. There are no stop signs or traffic lights or traffic police. Honking is constant, though still nowhere near the likes of India or Nepal. Fleets of two, three and four wheels vehicles interpenetrate at right angles in a subtle dance of caution and deference with intermittent bursts of well-timed outright agression.
At night the sidewalks are magically transformed into open air cafes of varying sizes with low plastic tables and stools huddled next to mobile “kitchens” serving soups and small dishes, cooking over hotpots.
The hotels are all narrow and deep, nothing much wider than any other shop. More people are out, turning narrow alleys into walking streets sporting tables encroaching toward the middle from both sides. A motorbike can barely get through. Some blocks belong to hardware stores. Some to optical shops or fashion boutiques, herb shops, auto repair or jewellery. There might be 4-5 coffee vendors in a row or housewares, shoes, men’s and women’s clothing.
In fact, the entire Old Quarter is like a department store with each department distinct from most others. At one time, by royal order, the mercantile culture of Hanoi was divided into geographical areas belonging to different craft guilds, so that flavour of craft neighbourhood still remains to some degree.
Everywhere I walk has been a pleasure. I wandered into a small square to find a curious anachronism– a Catholic church built by the French in the late 19th C. It was intended to look like a version of Notre Dame though on a much smaller scale and without must of the detail . After 1954, the government closed it. It has since reopened, has regular services and is visited by tourists as well. It’s not spectacular, but still, it’s the only church I’ve seen here at all. In fact, yes, there are temples hidden in side streets, some quite beautiful, but their entrances are nondescript–at least to me. If you don’t know what you are looking for, you could miss them entirely. Most of them are Confucian, but there are representations of Buddha to be found.
The style is heavily influenced by the Chinese. I haven’t found them to be very appealing. But after all, this is a communist country. The religious nature of Vietnamese culture, if it exists at all, is not really in evidence.
The area surrounding the Old Quarter, Hanoi is an exuberant splash of color, sophistication and creativity. Around the lake and near the opera house and to the west and south of the Old Quarter are more upscale hotels, restaurants, art galleries, electronics shops, tour vendors, coffee shops, bakeries or upscale boutiques.
The bakeries rival anything in Europe. The post-colonial architecture, the continental ambience, the variety and european flavor to the cuisine all make this part of the city a cornucopia of pleasant surprises. Every block is an adventure. And it’s jammed with tourists.
The main road leading to the Opera house has a number of art galleries. I stopped in one of them and immediately was struck by this oil painting by one of Vietnams most well-known artists, Dang Mau Triet. It is now mine.