Skooter reports 11/25/12
Hanoi: Best for city life
If I’m not wrong, it’s rush hour in Hanoi, because the streets of the city’s Old Quarter is swarmed with hundreds of scooters. The roadway and the central reservation are fair game in the bedlam; zebra crossings exist more as a personal test than an assurance of safe passage. Someone believed these are streets where might have written the highway code; where a grandma on a scooter will think nothing of driving head-over-heels into a tidal wave of oncoming traffic.
Hanoi looks like a city that refuses to grow old elegantly, a millennium-old capital of derelict pagodas and complicated streets, now undergoing a speedy renovation into a 21st-century Asian metropolis. Meantime in the Old Quarter, ancient temples are now neighbor to karaoke joints, and family of artisans ply their trade next to shops selling cuddly toys the size of grizzly bears or commonly known as Teddy bears. Hanoi is a city that mess up its past with its present, where a statue of Lenin lifts up a clenched fist to teenagers who skateboard past him every afternoon.
Few have observed the shifting face of the city as closely as Do Hien, an artist who has spent a lifetime painting Hanoi’s streets. Do Hien invites me to enter his studio, and nonchalantly leafs through sketches of city life, like for instant, couples waltzing beside the willows of Hoan Kiem Lake, and alleyways where vendors prepare steaming bowls of pho.
While he sat cross-legged among stubs of incense sticks and paintbrushes scattered across his studio floor, Hien thoughtfully said, ‘Hanoi is a place that runs in your blood. Had I not lived in this city I might not be able to paint like I do.’
Among Hien’s collection, there are reminders of darker chapters in Hanoi’s past. He started as a Viet Cong propaganda artist applying brushstrokes in between rushing off to fight the Americans during the Vietnam War, and during Christmas 1972, he was an eyewitness of the bombing of his home town. The man shows me propaganda prints of anti-aircraft guns firing into skies above the city, and a giant Vietnamese soldier grasping an American B-52 bomber from the air with his bare hands, King Kong style. Today, posters like these are in much demand among collectors – yet Hien labors to paint with the viciousness of his younger years.
‘I can copy these posters technically, but I don’t have the right kind of spirit,’ he says. ‘I try to remember what I was feeling, but I don’t have the same anger anymore.’ Like Hien’s artwork, Hanoi too has moved forward. On his front door, hangs an oil painting of Long Bien Bridge, to many locals, it is the enduring symbol of Hanoi’s flexibility. Blasted to pieces by American bombs forty years ago, the bridge has long since been restored to its original status. It now creaks under the weight of so many scooters passing through.
If you want to know where to eat, Little Hanoi offers good-value noodle and rice dishes in an atmospheric dining room where birdcages dangle from the ceiling (main courses from £3; 9 Ta Hien Street).
If you want to know where to stay, go to The Metropole, it is now owned by Sofitel, dates back to French colonial rule over Vietnam, with interiors that feature smoky wooden floors, magnificent chandeliers and whirring ceiling fans. Guests can also investigate a rediscovered bunker, where staff and residents sheltered during the bombing of Hanoi in 1972 (from £139).
To be continued…