Heart of Hanoi beating strong

In Vietnam to attend a poetry festival, Dunedin poet Sue Wootton went where each street has a name.

I arrived in Hanoi at Tet (Vietnamese New Year), to grey weather but a city bright with floral displays in chrysanthemum yellow and poinsettia red. Balloons filled the sky above Hanoi's central lake, their reflections swimming on the green water.

Every doorway held a potted and manicured kumquat tree, dotted with the orange fruit.

Pagodas were fragrant with incense and crowded with pilgrims, the shrines loaded with offerings: pyramids of fruit and (oddly to the Western eye) cans of beer and Coca-Cola. In nearby markets people queued to have bearded calligraphers in scarlet dress inscribe traditional "parallel sentences" in brush and ink on yellow paper. It was noisy, lively and fascinating.

Hanoi's heartbeat is most intense in the Old Quarter, a densely populated area of about 36 narrow streets, each named after a guild or product, like Silk St, Shoe St, Jam St or Salt St.

Streets devoted to shoes and silk remain, but streets once lined with jam or salt now display more contemporary products.

There's a street that sells motorbike parts, and one that sells adhesives. The Old Quarter has been a residential and commercial hub since the 11th century.

Its streets are lined with tall, skinny "tube houses", so called because each is three or four storeys tall yet only a few metres wide. The ground floor, spilling out to include the immediate footpath, is always the family shop or restaurant.

Shops are lined floor to ceiling with goods, leaving an aisle about one Western tourist wide.

Several generations live together in these narrow houses. Much of what we would regard as private life is lived publicly on the streets. Families share breakfast on the busy footpath outside their home.

Meanwhile, loudspeakers broadcast public announcements. Parents are reminded to have children vaccinated; motorcyclists to wear a helmet. Throughout the day, the footpaths continue to also be kitchens. Pots simmer on charcoal burners.

Cooks tend rice dishes or "pho" (the noodle soup commonly eaten for breakfast). Ingredients wait in baskets, pans or bowls: snails, fish, crab, prawns, pork, eggs, and stacks of leafy greens. Stalls display plump, colourful fruit.

From late afternoon, people gather in the streets, sitting on low stools and snacking on sunflower seeds, whose husks litter the pavement. All the while, a river of pedestrians and traffic flows by.

Two decades ago, Hanoi was a city of bicycles. Now, with a population of 6 million and growing at 10% each year, it's a city of motorbikes. Some carry the whole family, kids squeezed between Mum and Dad.

Motorbikes also transport the stuff of trade and commerce, from small bamboo cages to mysterious bundles the size of fridges. These items often balance unsecured on the back of the bike.

Traffic lights or road signs are not so much rules as suggestions. If 30 motorbikes are advancing like a battalion along a one-way street, there will be at least one motorbike coming the other way, probably with an infant on board. And the driver may be texting.

Constant horn-beeping is a background cacophony to daily life. Crossing the street is adventure tourism at its most risky. The trick is to do as the locals do: don't look and don't hesitate.

In 10 days I never really got the hang of this, and gasped to see unaccompanied small children walk calmly into the bearing-down traffic without glancing up from their conversation. At each intersection a mass collision - or at least a major traffic jam - seems inevitable. Somehow, everyone gets through. From above, it must appear an elegant, highly choreographed dance.

Indeed, despite the apparent chaos, the concept of elegance is present in most aspects of Vietnamese life. Contemporary culture continues to be influenced by Confucian and Buddhist philosophies, and includes the practice of many ancient traditions. Dance, song, music, theatre, literature and poetry are regarded as vital for whole and healthy character development.

One of Vietnam's major contemporary cultural festivals is National Poetry Day, enthusiastically celebrated in Hanoi's beautiful Temple of Literature.

Constructed in the 10th century, the temple is dedicated to scholarship and literature. Its high walls and elegant courtyards mean it's usually a haven of quiet in the midst of the city.

On Poetry Day, however, thousands of people thronged through the gates to be greeted with traditional dancing, song and ceremonial drumming.

Revered poets included now-elderly veterans of the independence wars, whose well-known poems lament wartime atrocities and celebrate peace. Poems from ancient times written on silk banners were attached to giant red helium balloons. They rose gently, symbolising the paradox of a society where attachment to tradition co-exists with a willingness to allow space for the new.

This interweaving is everywhere. Leaving the Temple of Literature, I emerged back on to the crazy street.

Walking sedately against the tide of motorcycles was a street vendor. Wearing a conical hat, with pineapples and dragon fruit swinging from a shoulder pole, she might have walked straight out of the 10th century - but for the incessant beeping.

Sue Wootton visited Vietnam to attend the first Asia-Pacific Poetry Festival last month.


Attractions
Most of the following attractions are within walking distance of accommodation in the Old Quarter: - Temple of Literature, off Van Mieu St.
- Ho Hoan Kiem (Restored Sword Lake) is the central lake in Hanoi.

It is surrounded by several hectares of esplanades and well-maintained gardens, and takes about an hour to circumnavigate at an easy stroll.

An arched pedestrian bridge leads to Ngoc Son Temple, with its Inkstone Monument and Writing Brush Tower.

- St Joseph's Cathedral on Nha Tho St is interesting in its own right, and anchors an area renowned for good cafes, restaurants and boutique shopping.

- For something a bit different, walk across (or halfway across) the 2.5km Long Bien Bridge, designed by Gustave Eiffel.

It's a daunting walk on a narrow footpath, the bridge reverberating underfoot as motorcyclists surge across, but there's a good view of the river and of the intensively cultivated river flats.

- Vietnamese Water Puppet Theatre, at 57B Dinh Tien Hoang St.

There are several performances daily, and bookings can be made at the venue. Tickets cost 60,000 dong ($NZ3.50).

- Ho Chi Minh Memorial Museum and Mausoleum. Arrive early, as queues get very long for the mausoleum, which closes for viewing at noon.

- A short taxi ride from the Old Quarter is the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Nguyen Van Huyen Rd, www.vme.org.vn Eighty-five percent of Vietnam's population are Viets. The remaining 15% are comprised of 53 ethnic groups.

As well as the excellent main museum, don't miss the gardens, where you can enter beautifully reconstructed traditional houses.

Close to Hanoi
- Three hours east of Hanoi by bus, Ha Long Bay is a World Heritage Site for natural beauty. Its opalescent waters contain nearly 2000 time-sculpted limestone islands - spat out as jewels, legend says, by a diving dragon.

- Thay Master Pagoda: In a rural village 30km west of Hanoi, this beautiful 11th-century temple is said to be the most sacred in Vietnam. Carefully tended by the present-day monks, the pagoda celebrates the religious, literary, and teaching contributions of Superior Bonze Tu Dao Hanh (1072-1116) and King Ly Nhan Tong (1066-1128), whose poems are among the earliest extant works of Vietnamese literature.

Recommended eating
- Koto, 59 Van Mieu, opposite the Temple of Literature. Koto trains street children in English and restaurant work. This food is delicious and very reasonably priced. www.koto.com.au

- Recently opened by alumni of Koto is Pots & Pans, at 57 Bui Thi Xuan St. Exquisitely presented delicious mains - like my paillard de salmon, sauted wild mushrooms, crispy salmon skin, pickled fennel and ginger salad and wild lime caramel reduction - range from 120,000 dong-290,000 dong.

Souvenirs
Silk (sleeping bags, clothing, scarves), embroidery, ceramics, water puppets, shoes.

If you tire of haggling on the street, try the two excellent shops operated by Craft Link (on Van Mieu near Koto restaurant). Craft Link is a not-for-profit organisation which assists small Vietnamese craft producers to develop their businesses. Their website is www.craftlink.com.vn

At a glance
When to visit:
High tourist season runs from November-May. Residents say the nicest month to visit Hanoi is November, when the weather is fine but not too hot. Even locals try to avoid the extreme heat of June/July. January and February are drizzly and cool (10degC-15degC), but being present for Tet and Spring Festival more than compensates.
Language: Many people have some English. Older people may speak French or Russian as a second language.
Currency: The Vietnamese dong. At the time of visiting, 20,000 dong were worth just over $NZ1. American dollars are also accepted in tourist areas.
Getting around: Most taxis are cheap, but be wary of scammers; a 15-minute drive across town should cost 40,000 dong-60,000 dong. Three reputable taxi companies are Hanoi Taxi, Taxi CP, and Mai Linh Taxi.
Where to stay: A range of boutique hotel accommodation is available in the Hanoi's Old Quarter. Recommended is Hanoi Value Hotel (90B Nguyen Huu Huan St).