As the rain steams off the street, I sit on a restaurant balcony in the middle of Old Quarter, sipping my Bia Hoi Ha Noi beer. Below, vendors in iconic cone hats and pedestrians alike rush about to protect their wares and themselves from the downpour. It’s strange to see so many white people that aren’t from my teaching group, but then again this is tourist central. People in ponchos drive past on scooters, swerving around those on foot. I can’t put my finger on it, but something about the rain makes this city more beautiful, every time. I am completely content.
As a rule, I’m not the type to chuck a sickie. But when the 20-hour-a-week-over-3-or-4-days ‘internship’ you signed up for turns into a 6am-to-6pm-Monday-to-Friday nightmare (thanks for that one English Language Company), rules change.
I’d been in Hanoi for almost a month, and so far only had one full day of exploring the beautifully chaotic city. With an escape flight booked out of Vietnam the very next day (thanks to strict visa restrictions, if I wasn’t working for Binh Minh Education, I wasn’t able to stay in the country), I was going to revel in the splendour of Hanoi if it killed me.
First on my agenda was to catch a xe ôm. This is Vietnam’s famous motorbike taxi. Xe ôm drivers can be found lounging on their bikes around every corner, spare passenger helmets ready to go. Unlike normal taxis, you agree on a price with the driver before you depart, so you can be certain he (I’ve never seen a she) will take the most direct route to get you there. You shouldn’t pay more than 50,000 Dong (about $3AUD) to get from the outer district of Cau Guay into the centre.
Throwing on a face mask I’d bought for about 0.50c and the spare helmet, I jumped behind the driver, feeling much calmer than I thought I would. Vietnam, it’s cities in particular, are known for their hectic traffic. That’s not wrong – scooters pop out of nowhere stacked high with goods or family members, lanes are optional and so is sticking to your side of the road – but I’d been here long enough to realise there was a method to this madness. I couldn’t count the number of times I’d seen situations on these streets that would have been a fatality back home for sure. Here, it never was. Drivers go slow and steady, so that if anything jumps out it doesn’t take much to stop. Add to that regular horn blasts to alert each other of their whereabouts, and this is probably one of the safest cities to drive in…probably.
As agreed, I was dropped at the grand entrance gates of The Temple Of Literature, or ‘Van Mieu’ in Vietnamese. Originally opened as a temple to honour Confucius in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, it then became a university of Confucianism, literature and poetry for those of noble birth in 1076. It wasn’t until 1442 that gifted students from all backgrounds were accepted. Today, it still houses the accomplishments of Vietnam’s finest scholars and men who were revered in the literary world. Yes, only men, this was 10 to 1400s Vietnam.
History aside, the bright green, neatly spaced gardens combined with the striking red and gold archways of this traditional Vietnamese architecture make it well worth the 20,000 Dong (about $1.20AUD) entry fee. And if your self-esteem is in any need of a boost, it took about 2 minutes after I entered for locals to insist on me having a photo with them each, individually. Thank you, thank you, I’m here ’til tomorrow.
The stone paths might offer a direct route straight through to the Thai Hoc courtyard where you’ll find the actual university (although it was destroyed by French bombing in 1947, it was rebuilt to exactly resemble the original), but the calming greens and bright nationalistic flowers invite you to meander through.
If the first two courtyards don’t have you feeling the Confucius vibe, the 82 stele (looking a lot like large stone tombstones atop turtles) erected by Emperor Le Thanh Tong in 1484 with names, birthplaces and achievements of scholars to either side of ‘the well of heavenly clarity’ in the third ought to do it. Of course, you could always just continue on and pray to the shrine of Confucius himself.
A group of young women in their finest traditional Vietnamese dress (known as ao dai, these were white to indicate their youth) group together for a photo, while the photographer barks out instructions. I manage to grab the assistant photographer just long enough for him to let me know, in broken English, that these are recent college graduates.
Feeling zen, I left the Temple an hour later to wander the 2km towards Hoàn Kiếm Lake, basically where all the action is in Hanoi. If it’s at all possibly in any place you visit, I highly recommend walking. I guarantee you will find quirky shops, meet new people and see strange things you will never notice from transport.
And if it rains, all the better! Because it did rain, like it does in Vietnam, fast and hard. I’d made it close enough to my destination to duck into Quán Bia Minh, one of very few restaurants I’d managed to find with vegetarian Vietnamese food at Vietnamese prices. From their upstairs balcony I warmed myself with tomato and tofu noodle soup, letting life happen around me, until the rain eased.
I had only one more thing on my list to tick off on my day of Hanoi indulgence: water puppets. Water puppetry is unique to Vietnam, developed as folk art: aka a way for farmers to keep themselves entertained during rice harvests. In the French Quarter only a short walk from Hoàn Kiếm, Lotus Water Puppet Theatre offers daily shows for 100,000 dong ($6AUD). The stories told depict the traditional lives, myths and stories of these folk, from farming scenes, to holy dragons and noble phoenixes, to the legend of King Hero Le Loi, returning the holy sword back to Hoàn Kiếm Lake after his great victory by way of a giant golden turtle. All the while, Vietnamese musicians sit to either side of the stage helping to narrate and adding music to the tales.
I exit the theatre feeling sad to leave this fascinating country having hardly seen any of it, yet also feeling ready to go. Some situations are not worth staying in. The xe ôm driver home laughs at my price like I’m a crazy tourist, until he thrusts a spare helmet at me with no buckle and I don’t say a word in protest. He takes my price and we depart with no further haggling.
The smell of rain fills the dusk air as I cling to this stranger’s shoulders, wishing he realised I was several feet taller than him and therefore my knees would not easily fit into the same tiny gaps between cars that his would.
At home, knee caps thankfully in tact, I scrub the grit from my skin, the smell of street food and wet grass still in my nostrils. This city clings to you. Oh Hanoi, it’s not you, it’s ELC.