Happy Birthday Hanoi

VIETNAM

Many happy returns

Wired for sound? Hanoi is that and more. The birthday girl is preparing to invite the world to her 1000th birthday this year – rsvp now. Bev Malzard reports.

Hat’s off to Hanoi, turning 1000 years of age in 2010 is quite an accomplishment. The elegant grand dame of Indo China is getting ready for the big birthday party. Is she excited? Indeed. Hanoi has aged gracefully, and with a few centuries of experience etched on her face she’s still well-preserved. She has seen ‚it all‘, so the birthday bash better be good.

Looking back down memory lane to AD1010 she (giving cities a gender could be a bit weird, but I think of Hanoi as female) remembers Emperor Ly Thai To who moved his capital to this spot and called it Thang Long (City of the Soaring Dragon). And just when you thought that the city was a settled done deal after 800 years, along came Emperor Gia Long, of the Nguyen dynasty in 1802 who decided to up sticks and rule from Hue leaving Hanoi to join the B-listers in the city stakes. It rolled along nicely though as a regional capital for 100 years.

Down through the centuries Hanoi has been given many names and became Hanoi in 1831 which means The City in the Bend of A River. A short title for a long explanation?

The city was proclaimed capital of Vietnam in 1945. Hanoi managed for many years to maintain her beautiful architecture that is a fine and enduring example of French colonial buildings and sensibility. During the American War, US bombing did sever damage to many parts of the city but the worst of it has been repaired and restored to its former glory. Spread along the Song Hong (Red River) the city is only hitting its new millennium stride now. There are skyscrapers filling the sky rapidly but there remains much charm and originality in the city.

If you start your visit from the heart of Hanoi, which is at Hoan Kiem Lake, you can begin to explore the past centuries of this stoic survivor. The Old Quarter is old Asia – romantic and traditional. It’s near the lake and consists of a maze of little lanes and narrow streets full of life and a pervading energy that doesn’t relax. Thanks to the cool, calm and collected precincts that boast many lakes, Hanoi can offer a hospitable respite from the buzz and din of a society on the move.

It’s mad to move through. And as well as absorbing the kaleidoscope of colours that merge into people and objects at street level, stop and look up. It’s a spaghetti mess of wires up there. As crazy as it looks (Spiderman better not come to this town), it’s almost an homage to electricity. There are telephone poles that are on a slant, are tall, short or don’t exist – the roof or another platform is holding the wires up. There are so many electric wires that you can’t help imagine where all the connections are, what’s being powered, who’s talking to who..

I have a theory that there’s never anyone at home in and around the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Surely nobody cooks at home either. The streets are crowded with a passing parade of Vietnamese: school kids on Vespers talking texting on mobile phones as they drive along, and traffic crushes that you would not have ever imagined. It seems that the tightly packed jumble will never untangle itself and atrophy to the sounds of honking horns. Then there’s movement, a bike scoots around the outside, a small car manages to weave between trucks, buses crawl slowly ahead and voila! Eight lanes of traffic that were going in four different directions at an intersection move along in an orderly direction. Not that there is orderly direction in Hanoi – but this passes as something like it. And keeping to the crush -everywhere you walk you’ll dodge people eating. They are in tiny makeshift cafes, sitting on plastic crates or leaning against a wall eating a bowl of food.

Stalls sell the Vietnamese take on fast food – Pho – broth with tofu, beef, chicken or pork, noodles and fresh herbs. Food is excellent – fresh and cheap. You can go hang out at one of the many chic cafes that have emerged or eat in a classy restaurant serving international cuisine. And if you want a hit of home, there’s the famous Kangaroo Cafe with its Aussie owner serving up burgers that would do Bondi proud.

Hanoi is a city to return to time and time again, there’s always something new to uncover around a corner. And despite the noise, the crowds and the confusion of traffic, it’s strange how quickly you are made to feel at home.

To understand Vietnam take note of the Old Quarter’s shops: everyone is doing business and selling all sorts of items. Or are they? Look closer and you’ll see that many of the folk here are repairing things. Nothing is wasted in Vietnam, anything that has been broken can be fixed – much like the country itself. Happy birthday for 2010, Hanoi.

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Source by Bev Malzard

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