Hanoi is a dangerous place. For your wallet, that is. Everywhere you turn, there’s a ‘sale’ sign that beckons at you invitingly. Enticing, affordable and picturesque — everything I look at threatens to relieve my purse of the ‘dong‘ within. The dizzying array of eye-catching handicrafts and gorgeous apparels, the tempting ‘bahn mi’ stalls and caffeine-fuelled drinking spots. Ah choices! But the capital of Vietnam draws me to its bustling streets for other reasons too.
Observing the people and their activities can yield some colourful and captivating snapshots of life in Hanoi. Having survived World War Two, the Vietnam war and other dark historical times, this 1,000-year old city looks remarkably well-preserved today and has maintained her role as the country‘s centre of culture and politics.
No visit would be complete without weaving through the maze of narrow streets within the bustling commerce-driven Old Quarter along with the 600-over pagodas and temples across the city. With a name that means “city within the river‘s bend”, Hanoi sits on the western bank of the Red River in northern Vietnam, where the temperature can dip to a cool 17˚Celsius during the winter season.
I was there recently to usher in the New Year and as it happened, the impending New Year’s Eve celebrations made it an even more interesting time to visit this former French colonial city. A palpable buzz filled the air near the famous Hoan Kiem Lake and roads closed to traffic swelled with pedestrians and entrepreneurs. Resilient street vendors, farmers and pop-up drinks stall owners plied their simple wares while urban artists displayed their sketching and painting skills. Further up, a crowd of onlookers were entertained by an amateur dance group showcasing their cha-cha and ballroom dance moves, motivating even a few uninhibited souls to join in.
Hanoi’s street life can be overwhelming to the senses at first, but looking deeper, I discovered the side that‘s enterprising, surprising and charming. Meet the people, delve into the past and witness the awakening of a Hanoi on the move.
As Naomi Lindt wrote in the New York Times, “Cultural influences of the past are still part of the modern-day fabric, from revered Confucian monuments to trendy French restaurants. In fact, it’s this zeal for barrelling toward the future while always looking back that defines this city.”
Members of Urban Sketchers Hanoi who form part of a global community of artists, sit down to sketch and paint street scenes. The members range in age and it was endearing to see children sitting quietly alongside the grown-ups, absorbed in producing works of art with pencil and paint. Urban Sketchers Hanoi also took the opportunity here to raise funds by selling money packets with beautiful and artful designs created by their own members.
A common sight in Hanoi Mobile street vendors, mostly women, plying their wares from either a bicycle, push-carts or by carrying a “quang ganh” comprising baskets slung from the ends of a bamboo stick. They sell mainly fruits, flowers, snacks and domestic products. Don’t be surprised if one of them suddenly stops you and places her “quang ganh” on your shoulder, hoping that in return for a photo opportunity, you would buy her wares.
The traditional local attire, ‘ao dai’, brightens up any scene. These three ladies clearly came to the park for the purpose of taking photos, as they were accompanied by someone equipped with a digital SLR. They posed happily for photos, not minding that random strangers also clicked away. The elegant graceful form of the ‘ao dai’, comprising a long fitted tunic made from silk paired with trousers, guarantees to turn heads. On special occasions, Vietnamese men may wear an “ao gam”, a version of the ao dai made of thicker fabric.
The last thing that one would expect to see amid the warren of narrow streets and shops near Hoan Kiem Lake is a grand neo-gothic church resembling Notre Dame de Paris. Beautifully lit up like a beacon with a large Christmas tree beside it, St Joseph’s Cathedral along Nha Chung Street is a sight to behold at night, especially during the year-end when festive lights make it even more breathtaking. It is the oldest Catholic church in Hanoi, having been built some 130 years ago after the French army conquered the city.
The cutest military tank driver is steered by remote control. Turning around, I also spot a miniature police car‚ driven‘ by another little boy who had just knocked against another miniature motorcycle. With few public transport options, motorbikes are essential and affordable for most locals. There are even more motorbikes than households. But with Hanoi planning to ban motorbikes by 2030 to help ease congestion and address air pollution concerns, this staple mode of transportation and cultural icon is set for an uncertain future.
Mini traffic congestion near Hoan Kiem Lake. The roads around the popular lake may have been closed to traffic for the New Year‘s Eve celebrations, but pedestrians still had to be mindful of motorists whizzing around, oblivious to any road rules. It’s hard to blame the ‘motorists’ who are mostly toddlers since they are just enjoying a ride in remote-controlled vehicles. Vietnam’s roads are often described as chaotic, causing first-timers to hide behind locals just to cross a street. The trick is to walk calmly at a regular pace and let the motorcyclists weave around you.
On New Year’s Eve, the streets of the Old Quarter are filled with locals and tourists alike enjoying a roadside meal, huddled together on tiny plastic stools. Adventurous foreigners brace themselves for a tight squeeze, hoping the stools don’t break beneath their weight! The pavements were particularly congested on New Year’s Eve, and even before sunset, those teeny tiny chairs had been laid out, ready for customers to watch the night‘s proceedings with a drink in hand and kuaci (sunflower seeds) in the other.