Ate bun bo nam bo for dinner tonight–just a bowl of rice noodles with bits of beef & vegetables & a few cilantro-like herbs, but what of bowl of noodles! The food stall, long & narrow like many Hanoi shops, is right next door to the hotel & has been there as long as I’ve been coming to Hanoi. Good food and a good place for observing the local scene–couples, young families, & tonight a gangster & his flunky. I knew he was a gangster because of the shiny black scoop-neck tee-shirt and the big scar across his cheek. Apparently, the semiotic signs that spell “gangster” are cross-cultural. The flunky did not eat & I swear he was there to carry the gangster’s cigarettes. When the gangster left the young father sitting a little further up the long table said something disparaging to his wife and caught my eye. We shook our heads ruefully. What is the world coming to? The girls who wait tables–I think all the daughters of the family that owns the place–could teach those slackers at the Moca a thing or two.
Just got back from lunch out on West Lake with my friends Long & Giang & their little boy. We got to talking about property values & Long told me that the land we were sitting on, right on the lake shore, goes for $250,000 per square meter. Families of modest means who happened to own property along the lake — often for several generations — have overnight become millionaires. And when Giang’s grandparents died a few years ago they left their small (by US standards) apartment in the Old Quarter to her father & uncle: at about 350 square meters, it is valued at around one million US dollars.
Over the last twenty-five years Vietnam has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world to a point where it is poised to move into the middle tier, according to IMF & UN statistics. Among the reasons for this have been prudent economic policies by the government that have focused on stability, as well as a literate and socially cohesive workforce. But one wonders what such huge infusions of wealth are going to do to a society that retains many traditional elements. I haven’t looked up the numbers on income disparity, but I know there is a lot of distance between urban and rural populations. So far, in the cities, it seems that the wealth is being spread around sufficiently that the social structure has been able to absorb the shock. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next decade.
Took a walk around the Old Quarter yesterday evening. Lots of dogs, as I noted earlier, but this one struck me by his self-possession. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but he’s sitting in a narrow alley where motorbikes regularly whizzed by six inches from his nose while he practiced a Buddhist sort of equanimity. Perhaps some old bodhisattva radiating peace & quite in a noisy city.
Walked out to West Lake yesterday morning & visited two famous temples, one Taoist & one Buddhist. I’ve been to both before & in fact Tran Quoc–the Buddhist one–figures in my poem “What I Like about God,” which came out in the Georgia Review a couple of years ago. It is located on a narrow peninsula that juts out into West Lake. The present buildings are from the 19th century & are in fact getting some restoration now, but there has been a temple on the site for three-hundred years & a predecessor temple in another part of the city. In the pictures below it is the one with the tall brick stupa. Quán Thánh has one of the most architecturally perfect courtyards I’ve ever seen anywhere, though it is quite modest in size & the actual temple building at the end opposite the entrance gate is small, though beautifully proportioned. Perhaps the courtyard is so inviting because after going through the ornate gate, you descent several steps below the entrance level. Even though there are busy main thoroughfares on two sides, the traffic noise seems to fade as you go down the steps into the courtyard. After crossing the courtyard, you can stop to light incense before going up several steps to enter the temple with its initial alter & then, behind a screen, the sanctuary of the Protector of the North, who is represented by a three-ton bronze statue. The God of the North would have been very important, for China, Vietnam’s perpetual antagonist, has applied economic, cultural, political, military, & imperial pressure from that direction for 2500 years. The huge black figure sits with one finger raised in a sort of mudra, but to me it looks like he is saying to potential invaders, “Don’t even think about it.”
To get up to West Lake and the temples, I walked through the old French administrative quarter north of the oldest part of Hanoi and the Citadel, guarded by the Bac Mon (Northern) Gate, which the French breached with cannon fire in 1882, pretty much completing France’s colonial project in Vietnam. The Vietnamese commander of the Citadel hung himself in the guard tower of the gate, using his mandarin’s turban. The gate, as well as other parts of the old citadel, have recently been restored and archaeological efforts continue. A large hole made by a French cannonball has been left in the restored gate. The French were essentially bandits in Southeast Asia (to say nothing of Africa), but they lived well. Their broad tree-lined avenues contrast sharply with the narrow alleys of the Old Quarter.
One does not need to romanticize the old Imperial system of the Vietnamese emperors–some were better & some worse in following the Confucian mandate to care for their people–to feel the rapacity of the French. The French of course are long gone and the Vietnamese military now inhabits their old administrative buildings and much of the Citadel. The country prospers & when the country prospers the leaders retain the Mandate of Heaven, though the mandate is held, the old Confucian scholars would say, only as long as the virtues are upheld. Vietnamese modernity is an astonishing hybrid of old & new that continues to surprise me every time I return. It is a modernity quite distinct, I think, from that of the West & no one should expect that it will conform to Western forms & expectations.
I’ve been in Hanoi about twenty-four hours now & am mostly recovered from the flight, except for a slightly stiff neck from all that sitting while sleeping. Driving in from the airport yesterday, I was struck by how ordinary it seemed to me. I’ve now made that drive a dozen times or so & though the driver–you didn’t think I was driving did you?–was still weaving in & out of traffic & horns were blaring & buses belching & . motorbikes merging from every direction, it all felt pretty normal. Not that I’m jaded, but Vietnam no longer feels exotic to me. Even an historically informed & culturally sensitive Western intellectual–& I’m not necessarily claiming those attributes–cannot help feeling a sense of pleasurable cultural disorientation on first coming to Vietnam. The place is different. It looks different. It smells different. People behave differently. Nothing wrong, I think, with noticing & even enjoying the differences; but one probably should not let the differences define the place, even to celebrate them. Exoticism chooses a few such differences & aestheticizes them; inevitably, this involves a form of condescension.
On a trip several years ago, it struck me that I ought to do the Vietnamese the favor of letting them irritate me, when appropriate. That was a first step away from treating the places as an exotic outpost from my own middle class American life. Yesterday, it just felt normal to be here, an interesting & pleasing part of my life & this morning, jet-lagged, I walked around the city with a big smile plastered on my face because this is a place I really love. More than just about any place on the planet except my tiny little patch of riverfront back in rural New York. Why? It makes sense to me–not that I’m claiming any profound insights into the national character or anything. It’s just that I’ve spent enough time walking around Hanoi that I know where I am most of the time. This city is alive.
It has been a long time since I’v read Jane Jacobs’ The Economy of Cities, but I remember that she emphasized the importance of many cross-streets & short blocks in American cities; presumably, that can be generalized to cities in other parts of the world as well. Hanoi not only has short blocks with many intersections, the oldest & to my mind most vital part of the city has narrow streets & some alleys that only pedestrians, bicycles, & motorbikes can fit through. There are no right angles in this part of the city, either. When the French came, they build a new part of the city on a Cartesian grid, but the Vietnamese have been chipping away at that arrangement for better than 100 hears, enlivening what must have originally a sterile neighborhood of offices & private villas. The French did build wide sidewalks, which the Vietnamese have successfully converted into outdoor living space. Continue reading