Your Gateway to the City: Sketches for a Portrait of Hanoi

by Steven K. Bailey, Mar 1, 1999 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

Rarely have I encountered a book cover as symbolic as the one adorning Sketches for a Portrait of Hanoi by Huu Ngoc. This one features a photo of the Regimental Commander's Gate in Hanoi. Two Hanoians on motorbikes speed out of the gate on missions of work or play; a man laden with baskets walks into the city bound for market. For 250 years, citizens and travelers alike have entered the city through this gate, and it strikes me as symbolic of what the book offers the reader: a journey into Hanoi's heart via its full-color pages.

In Sketches for a Portrait of Hanoi, language takes a back seat to the visual image, with glossy color photos jamming all 200 pages. The company has clearly upgraded its printing press, because this book offers a high-quality photomontage of Vietnam's capital city, its history and its inhabitants. Some of my favorite photographs include a portrait of mouth-watering spring rolls for which the author and I apparently share a passion, as well as a picture of a giant inflatable Carlsberg beer bottle that Huu Ngoc finds symbolic of the foreign consumer culture invading his country. I also liked the vintage black and white photos of the former French Quarter. These are particularly intriguing because the buildings still stand today, and by comparing the old photos with newer pictures, I could trace the passage of history itself.

Like the photos, the text of the book also forms a fascinating collage. This blend features Huu Ngoc's musings on Hanoi as well as excerpts from various Vietnamese and foreign authors familiar with the city. The book's six chapters offer a grab bag of topics ranging from colonial architecture to the city's Year 2020 Urbanization Project. The first chapter concentrates on the ancient mythology of the Red River Delta, and this might well be my favorite part of the book. Here I learned how the heroic Lac Long Quan killed a nasty trio consisting of the Fish Demon, Nine-Tailed Fox and Demoniac Evil Tree. I also learned about the Trung Sisters, who stand with Ho Chi Minh as Vietnam's most revered patriotic figures. The Trungs led an unsuccessful revolt against the Chinese some 2,000 years ago that is considered by many to mark the birth of the Vietnamese nation. When faced with defeat, the sisters drowned themselves, but lived on as a symbol of patriotism honored in over 200 temples in Hanoi and neighboring provinces.

Sketches for a Portrait of Hanoi can serve as an outline to plan what you'll do in the capital city as the author does not merely tell you where to go and what to see. He tells you the stories behind the sights as well. The Lake of the Restored Sword, for example, is the centerpiece of Hanoi, and no one visits the city without viewing the lake's famous Tortoise Pagoda. To discover the story behind this famous landmark which does indeed feature a giant tortoise, you'll have to read the book, but suffice it to say that the pagoda has the same symbolic potency that the Statue of Liberty has for Americans. In addition to the lake, everyone visits the city's famous 36 market streets--Hemp Street, Silk Street, Cotton Street, Coffin Street, Bowl Street and so on--first laid out in the fifteenth century. Huu Ngoc himself was born and raised on Hemp Street, and reserves a special affection for this part of his city. He knows these streets well and offers an insider's knowledge of their secrets.

Huu Ngoc suggests some more adventurous options as well, such as Le Mat village five miles outside Hanoi. This community remains famous for its snake hunters, snake breeders, snake chefs and snake restaurateurs. At one of several dozen eateries you can sample a variety of dishes including snake-meat spring rolls, sautéed snake meat, snake-meat soup, and snake meat simmered in sugarcane juice. For a cocktail you can sip rice wine mixed with snake bile, said to be good for your sight and cure lumbago (a common traveler's affliction, no doubt). If snake doesn't appeal to you, the restaurants also offer civet cat, pangolin (a kind of anteater), monkey, porcupine, turtle and salamander. And if you ask really nicely, they will probably find some chicken for you.

I liked the obscure factoids of the book best, since I've always thought that such details can tell a great deal about a city. If you are American, for example, you might be interested to know that Hanoi has a street named "Victory over B-52s" that commemorates the defense of the city against US Air Force bombings. However, lest you overestimate the American impact on a country that has been fighting foreign invasions for millennia, there are only two streets named for the American War but 61 for the French wars and 59 for various tussles with the Chinese, the historical arch-enemy of Vietnam. In fact, roads commemorating victories, defeats, generals and battlefields

account for a precise 37.81 percent of the street names in Hanoi--a statistic that says a great deal about the history of the city.

Huu Ngoc shares some great anecdotes as well. For example, when the defeated French departed Hanoi in 1954, Hanoians melted down the bronze statues of various colonial Frenchmen and recast them as Buddhas in the most ironic of reincarnations. Thus the hated governor-generals of Indochina became the Buddhas of Ngu Xa. This strikes me as emblematic of the Vietnamese ability to absorb foreign elements and adapt them to their needs. The book, printed in English, remains a classic example of this. Other examples include the bread, coffee, beer, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots and chilies that star in Vietnamese meals--all imports from abroad now integral to the nation's cuisine.

No matter what your travel plans, Sketches for a Portrait of Hanoi is your own personal gateway to the city. Open it and enjoy.

Tet in Old Hanoi

Hoang Dao Thuy, the father of the boy scout movement and the Signal Corps of the Vietnam People's Army, died at the ripe old age of 97. He knew Hanoi like the back of his hand. Here is how he briefly evokes Tet in the capital city early in this century, at a time when the newly established colonial administration had only blurred the traditions of this highly popular festival with an archaic charm.

A spring drizzle falls on the pink peach blossoms and the white petals of apricot flowers. The children relish the foretaste of the joys of Tet. They will wear new clothes and eat as much as they like of banh chung loaves, pork fat and salted shallots. They will set off firecrackers. No more school. They can look forward to generous gifts from their parents and grandparents.

But the adults wear a rather worried look.

Impecunious families in particular are frightened outright. Their creditors are merciless in claiming their loans back before the end of the year. They send bullies who do not shrink from taking away the sacred vessel on the ancestors' altar in which incense sticks are planted at Tet and on anniversary days or else urinating into it failing repayment of the debts.

Even families not finding themselves in such straitened conditions are disturbed. Grandpa has a concerned look, but he can't say what he is worried about. In fact, it is Grandma who bears most of the burden of things to be done. As early as the beginning of the 12th moon, the last month of the outgoing year, she has to go to a rural market to buy some glutinous rice at a reasonable price and a few chickens to be fattened. For a six-kilo pig, she shares the cost with a small group of neighbors. Then she has to buy some fish, a bundle of zong leaves, in which to wrap the banh chung.

The children are impatiently repeating their refrain, " Ma, don't forget about my new clothes!" The mother sits up late at night, cutting and sewing, surrounded by the little ones who fall asleep at last. Her eldest daughter whispers to her sleepily, "Don't bother making a new dress for me, mine is still serviceable." But her mother simply says, patting her head: "go to sleep, dear," and goes on with her needlework.

Also early in the twelfth moon, Grandpa has gone to buy three narcissus bulbs that he leaves to soak in a vessel filled with water. Then Grandpa sets about making cuts in them before putting them in water again. Next, each bulb is put in a large bowl and exposed to the sun for several days. Meanwhile, care has to be lavished on the bulbs and the shoots that soon start sprouting. It is an art to cause the flowers to open (the word used on the occasion is 'to smile') on the morning of the first day of the New Year.

Another concern of Grandpa's is to purchase a pen-brush of some paper with a floral design for the ceremony of "opening the pen-brush" (khai but): the scholar and the student will trace the first ideograms at the start of the new year. Grandpa will also remember to buy some red paper on which to write couplets expressing good wishes for Tet.

If the courtyard affords enough space, one will plant the Tet pole (cay neu), a bamboo pole of 5-6 meters on top of which hangs a bamboo circle from which are suspended little clay gongs, carp and 'gold' ingots made from paper. On the ground, traced with slaked lime, are a set of bow and arrows meant to frighten away evil spirits.

When evening comes, groups of poor children will stop in front of people's closed doors and sing ritual songs, marking rhythm by tapping the ground with a bamboo cylinder containing a few coins: "Sir, if there is still light and fire in your home, please open the door. On the upper bed, a dragon lies while on the lower one another pays will have children as beautiful as pictures...please give us a string of firecrackers." The mother will open a little window and slip a few coins into the children's bamboo cylinder whereupon they will immediately go away. She later distributes the new clothes taken from the family's big box to her wide-eyed children.

But the children refuse to go to bed. They will stay up until the moment of Passage to the New Year, at midnight. It is then that the whole town is shaken by the thunder of firecrackers. The father lights incense on the ancestral altar, where a tray of food is laid with offerings to the manes (spirits of the dead). Later the tray is taken down and the entire family partakes of the Tet meal. If the weather is fine, the parents will leave for the pagoda where they will pick a twig from a tree growing in the grounds which they believe will bring them prosperity (hai loc).

The following morning, the first day of the New Year, one stands in wait of the first visitor, in the hope that he will bring good fortune. In many cases, arrangements are made in advance for the visit of a man favored by fate with wealth, honors, a long life and numerous descendants. Meanwhile, family members exchange best wishes among themselves.

If Grandpa is living with his oldest son, father, who is the youngest, brings him the most beautiful narcissus. Mother and the children come with him. When all are about to kowtow to Grandpa, he waives that ritual mark of respect, then spreads a large piece of red paper with silvery spots on the table. Father, who is good at calligraphy, traces four ideograms: filial piety, respect for one's older brothers and sisters, loyalty to the country and faithfulness. From her betel box, Grandma takes shiny coins wrapped in red paper and gives those symbolic gifts to father, mother and the children. Incense sticks are lit and all prostrate themselves before the ancestral altar.

The family then pays visits to the maternal family, the children's teachers, to the family physician, to friends and acquaintances. At each visit, much overdrawn wishes are exchanged. For instance, to a newlywed couple, one would say, "May you have a son early in the year and a daughter toward the end of it." There are so many people to visit and to receive that father and mother will have to take turns; one of them by turn will be on duty at home. Often a visitor will stay only a few minutes, long enough to kowtow to the manes, exchange wishes with the host (or his wife), drink a cup of lotus-scented tea, taste some candied fruit or perhaps a bit of banh chung.

Women go to temples to consult the "oracular paper" (xin la so). Kneeling before the altar, each will shake a vessel filled with bamboo sticks until one jumps out. The stick gives the number of the "oracular paper" whose content is to be interpreted by the soothsayer.

On the fourth day of Tet, a farewell meal is offered to the spirits of the ancestors. Paper votive offerings are burnt. Each resumes his or her normal activities after performing "opening ceremonies", that is; opening the shop for a trader, tracing a furrow with the plow for a farmer, applying his seal for a mandarin, penning a line of prose or poetry for a scholar or any event, the spirit of Tet is very much in the air.