Tran Quoc pagoda, Hanoi

Hanoi, and the beauty in small things

It’s time to talk about Hanoi.

About a life lived in fragments, about the fragments of planes, and even of planes which left lives in fragments.

Hanoi might genuinely be one of the few cities I’ve lived in where the sum of the parts is truly greater than the whole. Generally, Hanoi gets quite a bad press from a lot of western tourists; it’s too polluted (comparable to Jinan and Beijing), the weather is temperamental and goes from one extreme to another, and most of all, the nightlife is incomparable to that of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City, but my supervisor says it’s not respectful to put Ho Chi Minh’s name in the same sentence as “nightlife”).

On the whole, those critics are right. The traffic is awful, the weather seems unstable, and there’s definitely a more conservative, traditional mindset here than there appears to be in HCMC, from what I’ve heard.

Hanoi street art

Yet there are scenes here which cannot be forgotten, and it is to these small details which I now draw your attention to.

  • Classical music streams from the partially-opened shuttered windows of an ochre-coloured mansion, its fading colonial grandeur illuminated by a pollution-red sun.
  • Elderly women sit and sip tea together, on stools which are just centimetres from the floor.
  • Men of a similar age gather around a traditional chessboard nearby and argue jovially about the legitimacy of different manoeuvres in a tense game of Chinese-chess.
Hanoi B52 Museum deities
Small deities reside in a plant pot in front of military wreckage. There’s an overwhelming sense of forgiveness, and generosity of spirit here. The small bonsai tree signifies eternal life, in a place of death.
  • Small deities grace a plant pot besides the burnt-out remains of a large, Soviet-made, American-deployed tank.
  • A woman and young child stare out into the middle of their neighbourhood lake, opposite a primary school, which happens to contain the wreckage of a downed B52 fighter plane.
A Vietnamese woman and child look out onto a lake with the wreckage of an American B52 plane.
A Vietnamese woman and child look out onto a lake with the wreckage of an American B52 plane.

It is these things and more which give Hanoi its charm. Something about the way in which the caged birds by the lake sing tells me that time has a way of moving more slowly here. To quote Bram Stoker’s Dracula; “the old centuries had, and have, powers mere modernity cannot kill“. There are few public clocks here. Time moves of its own accord.

Caged birds Hanoi
Caged birds which sing regardless.

Please don’t mistake my referencing of classic Victorian literature. This is not meant to be a colonial-esque romanticism of Vietnam’s capital, though it is often described as such. Hanoi to me suggests defiance in the face of a turbulent past, not a whimsical longing for a bygone era, but that’s just my impression. It’s hard not to be impressed by a place which is able to turn history to its own advantage, to triumph in such a way as to build a themed cafe based on the site of a plane crash, for example.

Huu Tiep lake, plane wreckage, Hanoi
Close-up of wreckage. Note the small tree growing out of the plane’s remains, seen by locals as a symbol of life’s resilience. 55 Hoàng Hoa Thám, Huu Tiep Lake.

I’ll leave you with this, and you can make up your own mind. Hanoi will continue to stand, as it always has done, regardless of the attempts of others to remake it in their image.


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