Saigon is rough and fast-paced, but Hanoi, I was warned, would be slow. The businessman who sat next to me in the airplane taking me north said this, indicating his disapproval. For him, time was money; the flight had sat on the tarmac for an hour, and he was getting restless. Saigon is the city of business, he told me. Hanoi is for politicians and bureaucrats.
Hanoi was slow-paced all right, but it didn’t seem to matter. All roads led to Ho Hoan Kiem, the lake at the centre of the city where all roads lead, and the quaint geometry surrounding it, of 36 streets, each named after a particular craft. There, long houses stretched like slim green beans lain neatly around the lake.
Languid: A footbridge over Ho Hoan Kiem lake in Vietnam’s capital city Hanoi. Thinkstock
The lake is calming: Trees provide the shade to the benches facing the water, where lovers sit in the evenings, admiring the timeless view. As I walked along the lake, looking for those streets, I felt a strange sense of tranquillity, with the breeze mild, the trees swaying lightly, and the evening sun pouring yellow light on the lake’s shimmering surface.
There was always a sense of randomness about the number 36, for some said there are as many as 70 such streets, and others said some streets, such as the one named after cotton, had no shops left where you could buy cotton. Trades congregate in specific areas in many cities around the world, and it is not unusual to find rows upon rows of shops selling identical wares. I remember the roads near Taksim Square in Istanbul, leading up from the Bosphorus with dozens of shops selling mannequins. London has its Ironmonger Lane, which is now renowned for Harry’s Bar. Mumbai has its Lohar Chawl. Some areas continue those trades, but many streets turn out in different attires, while retaining old names and links to the past. For cities get gentrified— sometimes over generations, sometimes within a decade. Trades that cannot afford increasing rents move away from the centre to the periphery and beyond.
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Walk through those streets, and you can see a town and its community emerge, of how its geography was shaped by economic needs, the names drawn from craft guilds. The old and the new coexist. Street vendors sell Coke, but an older craft—of twisting and turning Coke cans to manipulate them into fascinating toys, including motorcycles, airplanes, even cycles—survives. Pirated editions of Graham Greene’s novel set in Vietnam, The Quiet American, are available at virtually every newsvendor. Lanterns abound, as do old men in conical hats, and women in ao dai.
The streets are clean, and the steam from the stalls selling pho, the Vietnamese soup, makes the lanterns look hazy, the image losing its sharpness, turning painterly. When it rains, as it did the following afternoon, the sound of running water and the rhythm of the pitter-patter become a gentle backdrop to the street, interrupting the set beat of metal being beaten in the shops where old men continue to practise old trades. Water dripped from the awnings of the shops, and the temperature fell.
Some streets retained their homogeneity: the one with precious stones had dozens of shops selling stones of amazing colours. I had tea at a stall, and requested the shop’s owner if I could look inside the long house. He let me in. The house was like a long passageway, with rooms on one side, and in the past, each room would have a workshop and home, where workers would toil making clothes, polish stones, beat iron, mould clay, or paint fabric.
Each craft was self-contained, travelling from one generation to the next, but always within the community. It showed harmony, but it also showed how hard it would be for someone to break free from the web that intricate pattern of rooms created. The network became a maze of warrens. I thought again how I had pictured them first—as those slim green beans. This was more like a beehive, with busy bees working, the queen bee monitoring everything. Suddenly, the image did not seem quite that pleasant.
At one time, the queen bee here would have been the leader of the Vietnamese revolution, Ho Chi Minh. The bargain the East Asian peasant made when he supported the revolution was just that: His rice bowl would be full, if he obeyed, and did as he was told. Uncle Ho lay in state at his mausoleum, where his embalmed body continued to attract visitors. He had imposed order over chaos, discipline over anarchy. Down in Saigon, the city where people spoke its old name in whispers, there was disorder, but there was energy. In Hanoi, the 36 streets showed harmony, but it seemed ordered.
Human nature challenges imposition. As you came towards the shops facing the lake, a different kind of pattern emerged. The shops were no longer from those old trades. The names remained, but the goods they sold inside the shops were different. There were a couple of art galleries, showing bold art that captured the zeitgeist of the new Vietnam. See beyond the obvious, the symbols, and some paintings carried political allegory. Hanoi retained its name and exhibited its patriarch, even as it was flexing its arms to become like Saigon. In the south, Saigon was told it could not call itself Saigon any more. But it had the bustle which the 36 streets wanted, those streets pining for what was not.
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