HANOI (AP) ― Close your eyes in the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and you will experience two sensations. The first is the earsplitting cacophony of conversation, cars, clamor and chaos. The second is the realization that closing your eyes for very long in such a crowded place can be unwise, unless you enjoy being jostled, bumped, hustled, shouted at, or maybe even knocked down.
Such is the Vietnamese capital, lurching into the 21st century with the swirl of unfettered street capitalism set to the music of Communist proclamations. Everywhere people are buying, selling, hawking goods and offering services, while nationalistic music and announcements about keeping streets clean play in the background.
Six million people live in this former colonial metropolis; add hundreds of thousands more who jammed the city last fall for the celebration marking its 1,000th anniversary, and you sense that Hanoi is spinning into a new era.
This is not to say that traditions are endangered. The Old Quarter is arguably the epicenter for the city’s connections to its past. Wander its criss-cross of streets ― with tall trees, narrow buildings, louvered windows and people’s lives spilling onto sidewalks ― and you will discover a district known as 36 Streets, named for the craft guilds that populated the neighborhood over the centuries, mixing Vietnamese and Chinese merchants and artisans together.
Silk Street (Hang Gai), Silver Street (Hang Bac), Sails Street (Hang Buom), among others, all offer their crafts and other goods for tourists or locals. The Old Quarter’s oldest building, the Bach Ma (White Horse) Temple, dates back to Hanoi’s original incarnation as the imperial city of Thang Long ― Soaring Dragon.
People eating at a stall in Old Quarter district in Hanoi, Vietnam. (AP-Yonhap News)
For culinary traditions, Cha Ca La Vong is a nondescript restaurant on Cha Ca Street that has been serving up one dish for more than a century. Sit down at a communal tables shared by random guests ― common language not required ― and forget the menu. Waiters bring out tabletop, gas-fired stoves in which chunks of marinated, turmeric-coated whitefish are fried in oil ― by patrons themselves ― along with dill, chives and other greens. Dump the mixture over rice noodles, top with peanuts and wash it down with a draft beer known as bia hoi. The fish itself does not deserve many superlatives and tourists have pushed up prices, but it is still worth the experience.
You can also find bia hoi at the corner of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Dinh Liet streets, where backpacker tourists outnumber the Vietnamese sitting on the stools.
Pho is the dish Vietnam is best known for ― a steamy broth of beef or chicken with noodles, greens, star anise and spices. It’s served up everywhere, and everyone has their own spice secret. Order a bowl from a sidewalk vendor, squat on a plastic stool a foot or so from the traffic, savor the broth and watch the crush of people go by. You can also sop up good soup in quieter, though less interesting settings in the indoor comforts of the chain restaurant Pho 24.
Vietnam is one of the world’s top coffee exporters, and it’s known for bitter, super-strong coffee, lightened with condensed milk. You may also see ads for ca phe chon, the coffee famously brewed from beans that have been digested ― in one end, then out the other ― by weasel-like animals known as civets. Real civet coffee is extremely expensive ― $100 a cup ― so beware of imitations, which are extremely common, particularly in areas frequented by tourists.
Hanoi’s noise does not yet rival that of its larger southern counterpart, Ho Chi Minh City, but it still can take some getting used to. If the incessant beeping of motorbikes and cars pushing through the streets are not enough, there are the exhortations blaring from the pole-mounted loudspeakers, courtesy of the Communist Party, which remind listeners to keep the streets free of trash, not to mention the eternal supremacy of the Party.
The blare of slogans like the “Vietnamese Communist Party Will Live Forever!” may inspire you to learn more about Ho Chi Minh, the revered revolutionary leader who died in 1969 but who lives on through ubiquitous admonitions like “Live, Fight, Work, Study.” A massive museum west of the Old Quarter features Ho’s biography in a series of displays that are Cold War-archaic and mildly informative.
Despite sometimes bizarre exhibits (one display compares the cave where Ho hid during World War II to a human brain), the respect and admiration the Vietnamese people express toward Ho is genuine.
Just a block away is another structure you could easily find in Moscow’s Red Square: Uncle Ho’s mausoleum, where his body is embalmed for public veneration. Like his comrade Lenin, Ho had no interest in being turned into museum display, but party leaders spurned his request. For older Vietnamese, the mausoleum is a site for honoring Ho, and visitors are expected to behave respectfully, as if visiting a funeral parlor.
If the Old Quarter din gets overwhelming, stroll down to the edge of the quarter until you see Hoan Kiem, the Lake of the Restored or Returned Sword, and marvel at the smallish 19th-century pagoda called Thap Rua (Turtle Tower), which appears to float on the water when illuminated at dusk. Mind you, the crowds will be thicker at the lake’s north end, walking over the Sunbeam Bridge (The Huc), a red pedestrian bridge that leads to an island where the ornate Jade Mountain Temple (Den Ngoc Son) stands.
Just across the street from The Huc is the epicenter for another of Vietnam’s most authentic art forms: water puppetry. Accompanied by live music performed on traditional instruments, the puppeteers at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater stand in the water, behind a bamboo curtain, using poles to move wooden dragons, farmers, long boats, kings and other figures through the water. During some festivals, the dragons will breathe smoke and fireworks, as well.
During the millennium celebration last fall, the government spent a fortune on festivals, fireworks, concerts and propaganda ― all aimed at bolstering Vietnamese pride and showcasing the renewal of a city that was bombed repeatedly during the 1960s and ‘70s. While the Old Quarter connects to Hanoi’s past, it is otherwise a city that is soaring into the future. Some would say it is about time.