flaneur's diary

Hanoi, Old Quarter

Hanoi Old Quarter

Sundays and Saturdays

On the weekend the streets of the Old Quarter are closed for traffic. Only the children may drive then, which they do in large toy cars that may be rented on spot. The kids zigzag in the streets before parents and uncles and aunts cooing and taking pictures of them. The toy cars sport the logos of big brands, such as the Mercedes. Toy armored-cars are available as well, guns and all, but parents had picked mostly the civilian types. Their driving was concentrated on the streets Triang Thi and Dinh Trieng Hoang.

The music filled the air, cheering the chilly street.

Most of Dinh Trieng Hoang was taken over by teens and the twenty-somethings. The women danced; the men filmed the performance. The dances were set to western pop/rock, and as one group did the steps another got ready on the sidewalk, preening, and adjusting their shiny black dresses. Each group played the same song: He’s a very bad boy, or something like that. The music filled the air, cheering the chilly street. A cold wind was skimming in from the lake; some ladies had put out a lot of skin, but the wind didn’t bother them.

Shooting, the men danced their own gig.

Besides the videography, there were others taking still pictures. Unlike in the dances, here the women were dressed in colorful dresses in various fashions, Viet and western, long and flowing, tight and sleek, and they posed before photogenic portals, lakeside spots, statues on high pedestals. The gear the men had brought were top of the line — photography in Hanoi is on a par with Japan, it seemed. A Leica boutique close to the southeast corner of the lake confirmed it.


Traffic is thick with cars and many motorcycles weaving in and out of impossible narrows, and there is every kind of ware spilling into the sidewalks, a ware a street: tin cans, iron grills, gravestones, Santa Claus dresses, decorations for Christmas and Buddhist prayer articles, fine silks and mats and carpets, meat and fruit and fish and shiny juicy vegetables, fragrant herbs and nature cures and bags and boxes and so many other things.

For some reason tourists like to lodge in this dense maze, so everywhere here there are hostels and hotels and spas. Nobody was going into the spas, but I was walking there afternoon on a workday. Anyway, to balance body and spirit, there are on the same streets temples for the Buddhist, the Taoist, and the high St. Joseph’s Cathedral. The manger was ready before the cathedral in anticipation of the Birthday, with much selfie activity round it.

Among all these were tucked-in a profusion of Vietnamese cafes, and they had the most custom. The brew most advertised before them was egg coffee. The other establishment that was packing people in was the Water Puppet Theater before the lake, which was running full, several shows a day. The water puppet show is an old tradition, from the countryside, performed when the rivers flooded. Tough in any situation, the Viets.

The streets I was happiest in were the streets before the Opera House, and the Le Thai To street along the west of the lake.

Occasionally, white men on mopeds zipped past and shot into side streets with skill that surpassed the locals. Western backpackers: they settle in anywhere.

The streets I was happiest in were the streets before the Opera House, and the Le Thai To street along the west of the lake. These are gentrified, good for easy strolling, and I felt guilt for my pleasure when I walked there. In the streets about the Opera House are Boss and Hermes and such, and the sidewalks are wider. The hotels Metropole and the De L’Opera are a big presence here. The Hilton cannot call itself the Hanoi Hilton; it is the Hilton Hanoi Opera. I didn’t go into the stores or the cafes in the place, but I did return to the streets before the Opera a half dozen times. I found a restaurant with leafy interiors close by, the La Lua Wild Rice, where I enjoyed on three days, at leisure, vegan Vietnamese lunches.

To the Opera House the locals have themselves been returning, to mark momentous events. In 1945, for instance, their Uncle Ho proclaimed a sovereign Vietnam to his countrymen from this 1911 monument. (Built after the Palais Garnier, says Wikipedia; an approximation, my eyes said to me; but it is pretty in its own right.) Although military parades and processions happened all over town, and the military celebrated with personnel and hardware before the gate of the Thang Long Citadel, Hanoians rejoiced best before the Opera. In 1945. In 1954. And 1975. And 1979.

Alone in the cold in the open-air before the Opera House, with scooters buzzing before me, and cars flitting across, I experienced warm communion with the Hanoians.