Wednesday 9 December 2009

Streets of Hanoi

Hanoi, the northern capital city of Vietnam, has an intriguing past. Boasting more than 1,000 years of history, the city is all at once ancient, French-colonial yet cosmopolitan. Let me take you on a walk through the beautiful city.

Much of Vietnamese history has been defined by the desire to resist Chinese domination while at the same time benefiting from Chinese cultural institutions. One of the most prominent attractions is the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu), founded in 1070 as a Confucian Temple.

This ancient Confucian sanctuary is now considered one of Hanoi's finest historical sites. The temple is based on Confucius' birthplace at Qufu in the Chinese province of Shandong.

In 1076, Vietnam's first university, the Quốc Tử Giám or Imperial Academy, was established within the temple to educate Vietnam's bureaucrats, nobles, royalty and other members of the elite. Given the extreme difficulty of the doctor laureate tests, few students passed the final examinations.

Our guide showing us names of the laureates that have been carved on stone steles placed on top of stone tortoises.

This statue shows the actual height of a typical Vietnamese soldier 1,000 years ago.

Let's continue our history lesson. The French took control in 1888 and modeled the city's architecture to their tastes, lending an important aesthetic to the city's rich stylistic heritage.

The Presidential Palace of Vietnam, nestled amongst lush greenery in the heart of Hanoi, was built between 1900 and 1906 to house the French Governor-General of Indochina. It was constructed by Auguste Henri Vildieu, the official French architect for Vietnam.

Like most French Colonial architecture, the palace is pointedly European and painted in a regal golden yellow.

When Vietnam achieved independence in 1954, President Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the grand structure for symbolic reasons, although he still received state guests there. He eventually built a traditional Vietnamese stilt house and carp pond on the grounds.

The stilt house where Ho Chi Minh worked from 1958 to 1969.

His meeting area.

His bedroom and dining room.

In Vietnam today, he is regarded by the Communist government with almost god-like status in a nationwide personality cult where he is affectionately refered to Uncle Ho. His image appears on the front of every Vietnamese currency note and his portrait is featured prominently in many public buildings and classrooms.

In fact, his embalmed body is on display in a granite Mausoleum near the Presidential Palace.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is open for several hours in the morning. It was already closed when we got there .

Another attraction is the One Pillar Pagoda, a historic Buddhist temple built by Emperor Lý Thái Tông who ruled from 1028 to 1054. According to the court records, Lý Thái Tông was childless and dreamt that he met the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who handed him a baby son while seated on a lotus flower. Lý Thái Tông then married a peasant girl and she bore him a son. The emperor constructed the temple in gratitude by erecting a pillar in the middle of a lotus pond, similar to the one he saw in the dream.

Don't be too surprised if you can't find it because the One Pillar Pagoda is a small shrine, not a tall pagoda that we were expecting to see.

Even in the throes of modernisation, the city of Hanoi still retains much of an old-fashioned charm, with numerous quaint cafes, lakeside walks and interesting restaurants and shops. Huge mansions line grand boulevards,while lakes and parks dot the city.

The Old Quarter, near Hoan Kiem lake, has the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi. At the beginning of the 20th century the city consisted of only about 36 streets, most of which are now part of the old quarter. Each street then had merchants and households specialized in a particular trade, such as silk traders, jewellery, etc. Today some of the older trades have given way to art galleries, travel shops and stylish boutiques.

One of our favourite shops is Vietnam Quilts, a non-profit outfit that employs women in rural Vietnam and contributes all their profits to various community development projects such as school scholarships and health education.

We also went ga-ga over the mind boggling array of preserved fruits and nuts at the specialty stores. Needless to say, everyone of us carted away bags of goodies.

If you're spending a weekend in Hanoi, don't forget to visit the bustling night market (near Dong Xuan market) which opens for business every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening. You can find just about anything from garments to bags and accessories amongst the hundreds of stalls lining the street.

St-Joseph cathedral.

The best way to explore Hanoi is on foot but I must warn you about the traffic. For the locals, motorbikes remain the most common way to move around the city. The riders weave about in an utterly choatic manner, you're constantly worrying for your life. Yet, there is system in this madness. I have not witnessed any skirmishes or accidents during the trip.

On the contrary, right after I landed in Singapore, I witnessed 3 accidents on the way home. The cab I was in was also hit by another one behind. Thank goodness it was nothing serious. To think that we have such a good infrastructure and a sophisticated traffic system in place!

In Hanoi, you will find lots of vendors hawking things from their bike like this flower lady.

Before I round up the series on Hanoi, I think everyone should visit Hanoi before it loses its old world charm. It's a city built from lowland and is often called "city of lakes". Here is a shot taken from the apartment where you can see West Lake, the largest lake in Hanoi in the far distance.

I hope you've enjoyed the tour. I know I did. And I even met a doggie friend along the way!


The Real Mother Hen said...

Oh the streets are chaotic in Vietnam, but they do drive with an attitude that they use the road, share the road, but not own the road; while drivers in big cities drive like they own the road and get all upset when they are required to share the road. That's just my observation. Things will probably change when Vietnam progresses and its people start to have a sense of self-entitlement. Often advancement in society is actually a bad thing, sigh.

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