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
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
Streets devoted to shoes and silk remain, but streets once
lined with jam or salt now display more contemporary
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
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
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
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
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
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
On Poetry Day, however, thousands of people thronged through
the gates to be greeted with traditional dancing, song and
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
Sue Wootton visited Vietnam to attend the first
Asia-Pacific Poetry Festival last month.
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
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
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
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.
- 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.
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).