HANOI 5

Everywhere I turned, the streets were alive with energy. No one was idle. People were sawing, welding, jackhammering, repairing, building, lugging, selling, cooking. They arose at 5 A.M., were at work by 7 A.M., and often did not set down their tools until deep into the evening. Everyone seemed to have a purpose. Battered by war, invaded, occupied, colonized, Hanoians moved with the confidence of victors—warriors who time and again had defeated more powerful outsiders. There was a swagger in their attitude that fell between arrogance and confidence. They were prudish and proud. They had a tough edge but were not cold or distant. I asked the young bartender in the Polite Pub one evening what he thought of his city, and he replied, “Hanoi is like being in the center of the universe.”
Not many non-Vietnamese would put it quite that way. Actually, Hanoi is pleasingly dull and quiet, far removed from the center of any¬thing. But his reply reflected the reverence that all Vietnamese—even those in Ho Chi Minh City, as Saigon is now called—harbor for the City on the Bend in the River. More than a seat of government, it is the spiri¬tual heart of a reunified country. If Ho Chi Minh City is New York, with its up-tempo beat and economic clout, then Hanoi is Boston. It is smaller, more refined and austere than its southern sister-city. In this place, who your family is counts more than what your salary is. The Southerners think and do; the Northerners think, then they think some more. The entrepreneurs live in Ho Chi Minh City, the poets in Hanoi.
The odes to Hanoi that make Vietnamese teary-eyed lose much in translation, but Phan Vu’s song, even in English, conveys Vietnam’s at¬tachment to Hanoi. Set to music by Phu Quang, a widely known com¬poser who now runs a restaurant in Hanoi, it tells of the 1946 winter when the city rose up against French rule and battles raged in the Old Quarter for two months.
Oh, my dear Hanoi streets.
I still remember you with the perfume of orchid.
I still remember you with the perfume of milk flower.
The quiet street whispers with rain.
A girl waits, her long hair wet, covering her shoulders.
I still have you, Hanoi, and the memory of the lonely tree in winter.
I still have you, the lonely street corner in winter.
And a lonely piece of moon in winter.
That winter, in a collapsed house, sounds of a piano echoed.
The afternoon prayer is over, but why still echoes the bell?
I still have you, ever green, though time has gone by.
In an afternoon when the girl waits, her hair radiant, the artist wanders on streets suddenly unable to remember even a street name.
I still have you, the old streets covered by moss.
And uneven tile roofs fill my heart with memories.
West Lake in the afternoon echoed with waves.
Twilight came unexpectedly.
Oh, my dear Hanoi streets.
The older generation of Hanoians found a certain pleasure in their country’s ability to suffer and survive hardship. And these people had known no shortage of tough times, particularly in the decade that fol¬lowed the war when Vietnam’s humorless, hard-nosed government pur¬sued doctrinaire communist policies with the fervor of a fundamentalist preacher. Hanoi became dispirited and bleak. The shelves of state stores were empty and the streets were deserted, save for a scattering of bicycles and the occasional Soviet truck that rumbled by. Residents were not al-lowed to speak to foreigners on the street, much less sit with them in cafes or their own homes. The glorious old Metropole Hotel—once the center of French colonial life—was renamed Thong Nhat (Reunification) and fell into such disrepair that guests could look into the room a floor above through holes in the ceiling. One former guest recalls being awak¬ened in the middle of the night by rats gnawing on his suitcase. Squatters moved into the stately villas along Dien Bien Phu Boulevard; the turn-of-the-century Opera House was boarded up; and economist Do Duc Dinh remembers queuing for hours for a handful of rice. On the rare oc¬casions when meat or a few pairs of new shoes went on sale at a govern¬ment store, prospective customers would stampede the door. Most went home empty-handed.
Several families lived in each house, usually with just a curtain separat¬ing their living quarters. Nothing had been repaired in years. The old French colonial buildings appeared in danger of collapse. Everything was in a state of poverty and decay. “The human landscape was equally wrenching,” Truong Nhu Tang, a Viet Cong (VC) official, wrote after visiting Hanoi in the 1970s.
People walking or biking in the streets shared a look of grim preoccupa¬tion. They seemed poorer than they had three decades earlier. They walked slowly, as if resigned to their lives of poverty and constant toil. Though the streets were crowded, there was none of the bustle or vitality that Asian cities usually display. In its place was an air of melancholy given off by peo¬ple who seemed to have aged prematurely. The scene was somber and col¬orless, like the clothes that almost everyone was wearing—both men and women in dark or khaki pants and white shirts (industrial textile dyes were an unaffordable luxury). A surge of pity came over me for what Hanoi’s citizens had gone through, for the sacrifices that the war had demanded of them, not just for years but for a full generation.
Once, a young Australian diplomat traveling to Vietnam on temporary assignment called his embassy in Hanoi when he reached Bangkok to in¬quire if his colleagues wanted him to bring anything. “Their only request was for colored posters to put on the wall,” the diplomat, Michael Mann, remembered. “I didn’t know what they were talking about but I brought them posters. As soon as I got to Hanoi I understood. Everything was so gray—the mood of the people, the rundown city itself—they just wanted something to brighten their lives.”

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