‘…For now I wait, trusting the car and its driver as it hurtles fatally past others reckless cars, past the grand new houses of West lake visible from the road and the nurseries full of cumquat trees. Hanoi arrives to meet me. Its picturesqueness spread like a welcoming banquet, it offers the cheeks of its grand buildings, the outstretched arms of its people. The afternoon light cast gold on everything.
This is as it should be when you enter a fabled city…’
I closed the book. The images that it had conjured up were still much alive, fresh in my memory . Their words still ringing in my ears as an invitation. ‘The Grave at Thu Le,’ by Catherine Cole reads its cover. On its pages, blossoms the story of a young Catherine D’anyers looking for her French family’s history in Hanoi. When Hanoi was French Indochina. During the French ‘Protectorate’. When the French were the masters.
Magically intertwined with Catherine family’s tale and secrets shines a subtle, delicate, heart-fully warm portrait of this historically rich city. A description of today ‘s Hanoi flooded with chronicles and anecdotes that take us back to the 19th century’s French Hanoi. Stories of each corner, building or lake were charmingly told, warmly exposed. Vietnam’s history was much alive on those pages, as if inviting the reader to be part of it.
When the end came, I had already made a decision: we should go. We would go to Hanoi. There was a long weekend ahead: May ,1srt. Labour’s Day. Decision made. We’d be following Catherine. Her memories will guide us. Hanoi, ‘ the fabled city’. Hanoi, Ho Chi Ming’s home city. Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. Vietnam, a land of legends …
Some months later, while organizing our trip to Hanoi an image, out of my memories’ land, came to my mind, : the cover of Catherine’s book. It was a harmonious picture, a peaceful image: a red wooden bridge, a farmer’s hat and a small temple in the background: Huc Bridge on ‘Hồ Hoàn Kiếm ‘, The Lake of the Restored Sword. This is a signal, a message, I thought then. From Catherine. She was guiding us, just from the beginning, I told myself. This will be the first place we would be visiting in Hanoi, Vietnam, the land of legends….
‘On the Chu River in Thanh Hóa Province lived a fisherman named Lê Thận. One night, Thận hauled up his fishing net. It felt heavy and Thận was filled with joy thinking he was going to have a big catch. Pulling the net to the boat side, though, Thận saw the “catch” to be nothing but an iron bar resembling a blunt knife without a handle. “Ah me,” Thận sighed, “the only catch for the whole night and it turns out to be this worthless piece of iron.” Thận threw it away…’
These are the first words of an old Vietnamese legend. It is a beautiful, long tale which goes by saying that the iron bar appeared to Thận in the following nights and on the third evening he picked it up realizing just then what it was: a blade of a sword with no hilt. It was early 15th century and the Ming Chinese had taken over this part of Vietnam.
To help the rebellion, Thận joined the insurgent army led by Lê Lợi , who, in turn, had found a shinning sword hilt …with no blade. As it turned out, that hilt matched perfectly with Thận’s blade. It was with this magical sword that Lê Lợi was able to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam becoming, eventually, king. Vietnam’s hero.
One day, while boating at the lake located in the centre of his capital, a tortoise emerged from the waters, bowed and said to the great emperor: ‘ Now that peace has been restored to the nation, please, return the sword to our God of Waters’. Lê Lợi surrendered the sword but its radiance remained on the surface of the water. Given by Heaven to liberate Vietnam, gone back to the gods, where it belongs. Since then, that lake was called ‘Hồ Hoàn Kiếm ‘, Restored Sword Lake…
The plane landed at Hanoi International Airport late at night. Under a dark, menacing sky we got on the taxi which would be taking us to our hotel. Already outside the airport, the first drops of a fine rain were falling. In the distance, Hanoi waited…‘ Hanoi arrives to meet me. Its picturesqueness spread like a welcoming banquet, it offers the cheeks of its grand buildings, the outstretched arms of its people. The afternoon light cast gold on everything…‘ Catherine’s words were resonating in my ears. No gold for us, just a dense, dark grey wetting everything . It was not the best of the beginnings.
We had chosen that particular hotel because it was close from the French Quarter and within walking distance from Hanoi’s Old Quarter and ‘Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, the Lake of the Restored Sword. Fantastic. ‘You would be able to see the famous Huc Bridge from our terrace’, the hotel website had read. Fantastic again. Only minutes later, after being settled in our room, we went straight up, to the hotel terrace. Only to verified that what we had read were true. It was. Bright red cut out from a dense blackness. Huc Bridge. Just extraordinary. Just promising.
Early in the morning, we left our hotel through its beautiful, French style – grandiose doors. A smiling boy-door wished us a good day. The smiling young women at the counter wished us a nice day.The door was still in the process of being closed behind us, when we saw it : a menacing, dark lead – grey overcast sky. A quick look around us. Every one wearing their brightly coloured rain – ponchos.
Went back in, up to our room, opened our backpacks, finding ours. Going down, crossing again the hotel lobby to the surprise of the smiling attendants at the desk, the door – boy ceremoniously opened the hotel main doors for second time in five minutes. He was still smiling. Not a wish of a good day this time. We had walked a few metres and already having in sight the lake when our rain – ponchos started to get wet…
‘Hồ Hoàn Kiếm proudly lies surrounded by temples, historical monuments and extraordinary examples of French architecture. In the very heart of old town of Hanoi. Impossible to miss. Unforgettable to ignore. And then, Catherine’s words came back from my memories…
‘…Lily and her lover moved together slowly, closer and closer on this bridge. After a month they stood side by side in the mists and continued to watch for fish in the water. Then her lover asked permission to hold her hand. That went on for another month, Lily’s fingers in their leather gloves, her lover’s fingers probing inside them. They had begun to kiss at the same time the mists had lifted and the spring lotus starting to bud, Lily’s white face reflecting the bridge’s red as her cheeks burned…’
A grey, wet blanket of mist and drizzle wrapped everything and every one..Only an exception: the narrow, iconically – bright scarlet wooden Huc Bridge was still there, presiding the scenery, as it did in the 1800s. As it did in Lily’s times. Lily, Catherine’s great aunt.At the other side of the bridge is Ngoc Son temple. Dedicated to Confucius, the great philosopher and to the national leader Tra Hung Dao, this beautiful temple seats peacefully on a small island on the lake mercifully isolated from the hectic city’s life by the surrounding serene water and protected by huge, hundreds – years old trees.
Ngoc Son temple is a place for meditation, silence and calm… if you don’t go, as we did, on a National Holiday day when the Vietnamese come in scores. Respectfully, but still, in scores. All wishing to pay respects to the revered small temple, the great master and the hero. At the same time. At the best time. Early in the morning. As we did, thinking that was a brilliant idea, just to avoid crowds…
Escaping from the legion of visitors and worshippers, we walked along the lengthy and painstakingly – manicured park bordering the lake, under a persistent drizzle that would accompany us, not only then but all our stay in Hanoi. So, with calm resignation we were slowly learning to accept those wet – grey mornings which, to our surprise and amazement, brought out the flowers’ reds, yellows, pinks and the golden brown of the trees’ leaves. Astonishing view, a distinctive atmosphere. No so bad, in the end. Calm resignation.
We had seen it in the distance. A strangely beautiful building in the middle of the lake. Fast look at our notes and Catherine’s memories. Yes, it was mentioned there : Tháp Rùa, the Turtle Tower. It is believed that this structure was erected, as it couldn’t be in other way, to commemorate Vietnam’s hero, liberator and founder of the Le dynasty: Lê Lợi . Even though the tower is in a state of apparent despair, it is still viewed, by the Vietnamese, as a symbol of peace and harmony. Standing there, as emerging from the water and the dense morning mist, under that drizzle, it was just fantastic. Magical.
Walking around in this area we couldn’t but get mesmerized by the delicate harmony that permeates everything. A strong sense of the city’s past, of the 19th century – Hanoi that blends sublimely with a modern, vibrant Vietnam’s capital city. In a non – planned – spontaneous order buildings of French colonial architectural style stand among the traditional vietnamese tube houses; surviving signs written in French can be seen next to those in Vietnamese; the aroma of just baked French croissants and fresh brewed coffee blend with the mouth – watering Vietnamese dishes prepared on the streets stalls. Just incredible, unbelievable. There is no picture that can make justice to this.
The harmony between the old and the new, past and present, is as subtle as it is forceful. And we are not talking only in architectural terms. But from the streets that, as natural places of encounter, are windows open to the life of the city. Of the old and the new Hanoi that make up the modern city. Vehicles of all types and sizes, engine power and number of wheels flooded the streets as hiving bees. Among them, rickshaws pulled by tiny but muscular, resistant Vietnamese, vendors on their bicycles with loaded baskets that defy the laws of physics; and then, walking through that chaotic traffic, adding to the chaos, the street vendors.
Typical photo of Vietnam, those men and women walk the streets of Hanoi carrying all kinds of products in two baskets hanging of a bamboo shoulder pole. Fruits, food, clothes, flowers and whatever we can think of. Walking among the cars, buses and motorcycles, rickshaws, crossing broad avenues, narrow streets, under a radiant sun that burns the brain, in the rain. As if they carried only a simple bouquet of flowers. Smiling, always smiling. Extraordinary.
Trying to found safe places for walking and crossing streets, we kept following our own plan, and Catherine’ guide. Suddenly, we found ourselves staring at the magnificent old Metropole Hotel which had become one of Hanoi’s highlights as soon as it opened its doors in 1901. Built in a neat French colonial style the Metropole imposes itself.
Admiring its white, massive facades we couldn’t help but imagine more than a century of stories and tales of welcoming ambassadors, writers, heads of States until these days. Yes, it was here where the second encounter between the leaders of the Democratic People’s of North Korea and the United States of America took place. Although nowadays it is named Sofitel Metropole hotel, it is the very same old, grandiose Metropole Hotel.
Leaving behind the Metropole and its luxurious stories as we walked protected, not from the hot midday sun, but from the persistent drizzle, by the old trees which lined the pavements since French times, we checked our notes and those of Catherine’s.
Next destination: the National Museum of Vietnamese History. Reading about its history, we found out that it is a public institution established in 2011 through the amalgamation of the old National Museum of Vietnamese History and the National Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution. Each museum had its own building. Each of these two buildings, like many and almost every corner of Hanoi, has its own history.
The first of these, the former National Museum of Vietnamese History, was built as the seat of the French school of the Far East between 1925 and 1932. Its architect, Ernest Hebrard, was one of the first in Vietnam to incorporate a mix of Chinese and French architectural design, achieving, in the process, an exquisite, balanced, elegant result. Shocking Promising.
Admiring the details, the harmony of its elegant façade was only the starting point of an extraordinary experience. As soon as we entered, in the entrance hall, just by reading the directory of the museum, we realized that we were entering the living history of Vietnam. The collections on display cover the historical periods that go from prehistory to the end of the Ngyen dynasty, in 1945. Going through its corridors and the different rooms, trying to absorb and fully appreciate the real dimension of everything, was a challenge. Because of its magnitude. For the beauty of the exposed images. Because of its relevance to the history of the country.
The second building, built in 1917 as the headquarters of the Indochina Department of Commerce, but which were transformed by the government of Ho Chi Minh into the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution in 1954, after the liberation of North Vietnam. Today, it houses material corresponding to the history of Vietnam from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. Testimonies of the wars and sufferings of Vietnam and its people, their struggles and their pain. Upon entering, we had only a vague idea of its content simply based on its name and the historical period of its exhibitions. We left the building surprised. Moved.
The National Museum of Vietnamese History, between the two buildings, houses more than 200,000 relics, 18 of which are recognized as national treasures of the country. From the extraordinary bronze drums of Dong Son era, dating from the third century before the Christian era, to the incredibly well preserved images of the Khmer and Champa kingdoms, including the jewels of the imperial Vietnam era, to exhibitions related to the French occupation and the Communist Party.
Extraordinarily preserved, excellently displayed, all those pieces that, like a puzzle, shape the long history of Vietnam, were there, before our eyes. We had seen testimonies of the hard, long and extraordinarily rich life of Vietnam. We are honored to have been able to do it. Amazing Stunning.
Again on the street, still trying to absorb everything we had seen, we find ourselves facing another of the jewels of Hanoi, another legacy of French Indochina: the Opera House, now called Municipal Theater. Built in 1911 using the Garnier Palace, the oldest of the two opera houses in Paris, as the model it is now considered an architectural and historical landmark of Hanoi. It is easy to see why it became a key piece of the architecture of the city, but in terms of the history of Hanoi, it is not so obvious. The visit to the Museum of History of Vietnam helped us to understand.
After the departure of the French, the Opera House was a privileged witness or, in other words, became the centerpiece of the history of Hanoi and Vietnam. It was from its balconies, built in the purest French style, that the Viet Minh Committee announced the taking of the city. It was August 16, 1945. We had seen a picture of that event in the second building of the museum a few minutes before. We could not believe that we were standing in the same place where, seventy-three years earlier, thousands of Vietnamese had been listening, applauding their leaders, their hero. Ho Chi Minh. Incredible. Intense.
The sky was still cloudy. That sturborn persistent drizzle covered everything with shades of a wet gray. But it did not bother us. We had seen and felt so much that we did not care anymore. We simply walked protected by the old, gray – green grove. Enjoying the artistic atmosphere of this bohemian corner of Hanoi, full of cafes, bookstores and art galleries, we decided to take a break.
The little bar was cozy. The background music, soft and relaxing, a balm for our ears and our souls. Only one table was occupied with two concentrated chess players. The aroma was tempting, our espressos, strong. Excellent conspiracy to make us reflect on everything we had seen and experienced since we left the hotel, early that morning.
We had seen many things, planned and not so planned, expected and not so expected.The comments came and went. Personal impressions too. But it was easy to agree on one thing: life, often, gives you surprises. The historical and cultural heritage of Hanoi is one of those things. It is simply extraordinary. You just feel it. You just breath it.
‘This is how it should be when you enter a legendary city …’, the words of Catalina.
We left our hotel early in the morning under an overcast , dark grey sky. We had walked a few metres and already having in sight the lake when our rain – ponchos started to get wet…
‘Hồ Hoàn Kiếm proudly lies surrounded by temples, historical monuments and extraordinary examples of French architecture. In the very heart of old town of Hanoi. Impossible to miss. Unforgettable to ignore…
Escaping from the legion of visitors and worshippers, we walked along the lengthy and painstakingly – manicured park bordering the lake, under a persistent drizzle that would accompany us, not only then but, all our stay in Hanoi. So, with calm resignation we were slowly learning to accept those wet – grey mornings which, to our surprise and amazement, brought out the flowres’ reds, yellows, pinks and the golden brown of the trees’ leaves. Then, i the distance, we saw it: Tháp Rùa, the Turtle Tower
The subtle harmony between the old and the new, past and present, is just overwhelming. And it is not only in architectural terms.The streets of modern Hanoi’s are overflowing with cars, buses and motorbikes, bicycles, rickshaws, vendors carrying loads of goods in baskets hanging on a shoulder pole..Yes, Hanoi’s traffic is just something that no one couldn’t help looking in disbelief…
‘We found ourselves staring at the magnificent old Metropole Hotel which had become one of Hanoi’s highlights as soon as it opened its doors in 1901. Built in a neat French colonial style the Metropole imposes itself…
The first of the two building , part of the Vietnam Museum of History, was built as a home to the École Française d’Extrême Orient between 1925 and 1932. Its architect, Ernest Hebrard, was among the first in Vietnam to incorporate a blend of Chinese and French design. Impressive architecture. Exquisite design. It is home of collections relating to pre-historic period to the end of the Ngyen Dynasty, in 1945.
The second building, which were built in 1917 as the Headquarters of the Indochina Department of Trade. In 1954 the government lead by Ho Chi Minh decided to transform it into a new museum of the Vietnamese Revolution. It houses material corresponding to the history of Vietnam from the mid – 19th century to present day. Testimonies of Vietnam’s wars and sufferings, of its struggles and grief.
Not so far from it, we found another jewel of Hanoi, another legacy of the French Indochina: the Opera House, today the Municipal Theatre..’.
The Cafe’s cozy atmosphere was inviting. A relaxing, soft backround music was a balm for our ears and souls. The lingering aroma was rich, our expressos, strong. It was calm and cool. Only one more table was busy with two concentrated chesse players. Wonderful.
We couldn’t help but coinciding on one thing: Life so often surprises you. Hanoi’s historical and cultural heritage is one of those things. It is just extraordinary. You just breath it.
‘This is as it should be when you enter a fabled city…’ Catherine has said.