Hanoi is a city of the high water mark. The capital of floods, under siege from the nearby Red River that flows above it and which is scarcely kept at bay by crumbling, inadequate dikes that burst every few months. Throughout the year, as the river breaches the city walls, foul water rises out of Hanoi’s overflowing wretched underbelly and through the town like a Biblical deluge.
Rats, snakes and other subterranean vermin are flushed out of the sewers and thrown about on the filthy tide past the old colonnaded entrances of the grand French colonial villas and the crumbling Vietnamese shop houses. When the waters eventually subside, the filthy, blackened streets are littered with rat corpses lying on broken pavements and in congealed gutters. Meanwhile, the punch-drunk survivors cluster in sodden, panic-stricken hordes at the drains desperate to flee back to the forbidding underworld they inhabit.
Back on the half drowned streets the stoic Hanoians roll down their trousers, push back the water-logged sandbags that cover the entrances to their homes and once again go about their business with their usual nonchalant mania. Within moments of the deluge stopping, motorbikes carrying trees, dead animals, live animals, mountains of packed ice, whole families, scythe through the receding waters drenching everyone in their wake. Hanoi is the only city in the world where you get soaked after the rains stop.
I’d been to Hanoi before, indeed I’d lived in the place for couple of years, but the sheer volume of black, viscous water sloshing down the grimy alleys of the city always takes me by surprise. And by far the worst place to be when the waters start rising is in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the area that has most of the cheaper tourist hotels and where I was staying. During the flooding seasons, which is pretty much all year round, a room with a view in this part of town will afford you some of the most memorable and harrowing sights you’ll see anywhere in Asia. Riding out the deluge in air-conditioned calm.
The Old Quarter is a medieval trading centre covered by 36 narrow streets and alleys that once serviced the Vietnamese emperors living in the nearby citadel. It’s a place of bewildering scenes, night and day, as the locals industriously go about their bizarre chores to earn a crust. Many live in low, dank and airless hovels in crushing 98% humidity, a climate that turns cloth and even leather green within days and completely rotten within weeks. Come rain, shine, war and peace, the Old Quarter’s cheerful but charmless inhabitants rise at 5 in the morning and fan themselves into an indigent torpor by 9 at night. For all those romantics seeking out old Asia, this is the stark picture behind the Victorian sepia prints. Lives of picturesque hardship and little romance.
After the flood recedes life soon returns to its odd normality in the Old Quarter. The noodle soup (pho) stalls quickly open for business again on the cracked pavements, a yard away from the sodden rat colonies. The tiny chairs and tables barely big enough to hold an average Western buttock.
Nearby makeshift beer stalls set up selling a locally brewed lager called Bia Hoi. Literally translated as fresh beer, this is a thin, yellow liquid that was first sent over from Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, a donation to the people for their anti-imperialist struggle. It’s a gift that is still sincerely appreciated by the Vietnamese who drink the city dry each day. Made every morning, bia hoi is served out of aluminium casks called bombs, “because they look like them’, as one stall owner told me.
Going for bia hoi is the Vietnamese equivalent of popping down the pub after work, with fermented pork and dried squid being the local version of crisps and pork scratchings. Over violently strong local cigarettes and endless flagons of the brew served onto cramped little tables, Vietnamese men tell bawdy tales before drunkenly mounting their bicycles and motorbikes and heading off home for their evening meals. Incidentally, the Russian gift to the people of Hanoi was a grey statue of Lenin, leaning slightly forward in an earnest, pedagogical gesture. Hanoians are quick to point out that the former Russian dictator has his hand firmly clasped over his wallet, “like all Russians,” a Vietnamese friend sneered.
Meanwhile, sprinting past the bia hoi stall in the centre of the road ancient crones carry shoulder poles and baskets full of fruit and vegetables and howling for customers. Cyclos (trishaws), three wheeler chairs pushed by haggard old cyclists from behind, race dangerously down the dimly lit streets, careering headlong around corners, their passengers mute faced and staring into the space ahead. And all around, the cluttered, crumbling shop houses of the Vietnamese continue to throw off their sandbags and reopen for business and gossip, with the soap opera of Hanoi’s lifes and loves carried on as it has done for 1,000 years.
On overcrowded pavements outside their homes old men and women in tatty, stained pyjamas talk and chew betel, occasionally emitting huge streams of blood-red saliva into dark pools and onto unwary passers-by. Teenage girls shit into the gutter, squatting and chatting while their arses delicately perch above the road. Younger infants queue up in lines to piss into the streets after waking from their afternoon naps.
At Hang Da market, the economic heart of the Old Quarter, blood and offal run off into the receding drains that are clogged with rotten vegetables, plastic bags, shoes and Tupperware, most of which will be recycled by someone later in the day. The canopied market is where people work in the shadows amid the slaughtered beasts, fresh fruit and vegetables, general detritus and stench. The livestock market is particularly gruesome with limbs of pigs and dogs and goats lying about in heaps, their wild eyes staring out in terror from their detached heads, gaping mouths silently screaming in a last desperate plea for clemency.
The Vietnamese, like the Chinese, have a penchant for cooking up a delicacy out of anything that is unfortunate enough to fly, walk or slither. On the edge of the city is a village called Le Mat, a seedy little place comprising side streets of small restaurants that boast any number of exotic animals on the menu. Here you can feast on snakes, dogs and monkeys . But the piece de resistance is raw monkeys’ brains. The tables are even especially designed with small holes in the top to fit the monkey’s head, which is then sliced open rather like the top of a boiled egg to reveal the runny, yokey brain inside. The restaurateur I spoke to said this was a delicacy usually reserved for visiting dignitaries, the Chinese being particularly keen on spooning in raw monkey.
No stay in Hanoi is complete without dining at Le Mat. There’s a ritual behind these occasions, which generally involves masses of intoxicating snake wine and several different helpings of cobra, either fried, baked, boiled or grilled. Actually delicious as it turns out.
The evening begins with the slaying of the snakes, their grisly deaths primarily used as a photo opportunity. This involves slamming their heads violently against the stone floor after which they’re bled and disembowelled. The blood and the bile of the snakes are then drained into small glass tumblers which are sweetened with lemon grass. Lastly come the hearts, which are popped into the tumblers reserved for the special guests. While western stomachs tend to turn at the thought of gulping down a still-pumping heart, it’s generally the lethal snake-penis wine that causes most of the morning-after nightmares.
For all their squalor and decay, the Old Quarter and Le Mat have a certain charm, but it’s outside the medieval streets where Hanoi can be breathtakingly charming. The city maybe the ancestral home of the Vietnamese, but many of its buildings were painstakingly put up by the French who drained the swamps, died in their droves of malaria doing it, but arguably created one of Asia’s most beautiful capitals.
Out from the Old Quarter, huge stucco mansions and palaces line the city’s graceful tree-lined boulevards. Many of these are now embassies owned by former Communist brothers-in-arms and Hanoi must be the only city in the world where the Mongolians, Romanians, Albanians and Cambodians live in palatial splendour while the Americans make do with a grey block that wouldn’t go amiss in a Moscow suburb.
Elsewhere, whole art deco neighbourhoods rest in a state of museum-like grace, untouched since their trendy French inhabitants hurriedly left them in the early 50s. There’s an air of sophistication and erudition about the place, as little old Hanoian men sporting berets and drinking thick, black coffee idle away the days beneath the frangipanis and tamarind trees whose branches scream overhead with the sound of contented cicadas.
The Vietnamese are a romantic people. Their TV stations have several hours a day put aside for romantic interludes. Young, fresh faced women in traditional ao dais sing piercingly unlistenable tunes, their mouths hopelessly out of sync with the music, as they gently stroke the leaves of weeping trees that line the city’s lakes. Hoan Kiem lake and West Lake epitomise this almost nauseating obsession the Vietnamese have for romance. Both lakes are the focal points of holidays and celebrations, legends and history. Photographers skulk beneath the trees ready to take snaps of Vietnamese lovers who self consciously pose for the camera, entwined against the milky backdrop.
The myths that emanate from Hoan Kiem, or the Lake of the Restored Sword as its called English, are embedded in the northern Vietnamese psyche. The picturesque lake, in the centre of Hanoi, has played a crucial legendary role in helping the Vietnamese expel outside invaders and reads in certain respects like the Arthurian myths in Britain: a famous sword from the lake is given to a king who then wards off the invaders. A tortoise, not a maiden, however, is responsible for Emperor Le Loi’s good fortune and, indeed, a couple of giant turtles were still alive in the lake up to a few years ago, both estimated to be about 300 years old. Curious crowds of people would line the lake on Sunday mornings for a glimpse of the rare turtles. And no wonder: in a city where the few remaining sparrows are eagerly barbecued, these two aquatic antiques were probably the only wildlife Hanoians were likely to see anywhere in the Red River lowlands.
Beautiful much of it maybe, but Hanoi is also a very paranoid city. It’s still a Cold War capital in many ways, with informers on every street and eyes peering from every window. Most landlines are tapped, emails are regularly blocked, an estimated one in nine of the population work for the city’s security forces and almost everyone is wary of each other. The police freely admit in Hanoi that gun carrying is not necessary.
Loud speakers hanging from posts around the city begin a daily feast of propaganda from 7 am onwards, with instructions for “fellow citizens to make sure they eat more vitamin B or work hard for the memory of Uncle Ho.” Once I asked a Vietnamese friend to translate the morning instructions.
He whispered: “It says to remember that foreigners have more money than you so make sure you charge them more to enrich the nation.”
As a tangible remnant of the Cold War nothing is more evocative in Hanoi than the huge mausoleum that is still home to Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body. This wonderfully sinister building, oozing John Le Carre novels, is a classic of Soviet modernism dominating the huge open squares originally laid down by the French for their Bastille Day show of arms. Each day queues of country folk dressed in little more than rags amble their way into glimpse their revolutionary icon, still lying peacefully in state. Cynical Hanoians, meanwhile, give the place a wide berth.
Because of this constant surveillance, not surprisingly there is very little crime in Hanoi. But the myth that “we can leave our doors unlocked” does not apply in this city or anywhere in the lowland Vietnamese countryside for that matter. Even the lowliest resident in Hanoi has huge iron gates barring entry day or night. The city is one of the most overcrowded places in the world, with an estimated 500 people occupying each acre of space. In a city like that, everyone already knows what you own and what you earn. Priorities for purchases are usually TV, motorbike and video, in that order. Consequently everything is jealously guarded, banks are not trusted and money is hidden under the mattress at home. In Hanoi charity stops outside the front door.
After only a few days the city has a dreadfully wearing effect upon the soul, what with the paranoia, the floods, the mayhem outside the hotel window starting at 5 in the morning and the constant lack of privacy. But I was only passing through this time. In fact I was bypassing the lowland Vietnamese altogether and heading up-country to where the remote tribal people live, among the sculpted mountainsides and hidden peaks of the northern Alps. I finally managed to creep slowly out of Hanoi on an overnight sleeper bound for the far north where Vietnam meets it’s oldest enemy, China.
Main pic by Tran Viet Duc