Hanoi's whirl of activity

To cross the street in Hanoi’s heavy traffic, simply step off the pavement, walk in a confident manner and watch the vehicles slalom around you.
To cross the street in Hanoi’s heavy traffic, simply step off the pavement, walk in a confident manner and watch the vehicles slalom around you. -- ST PHOTOS: LEE SIEW HUA

My first morning in Hanoi, I discover that the Vietnamese have perfect peripheral vision.

As I stand in the lobby of Essence Hanoi Hotel, set within the labyrinthine Old Quarter, a vendor in a conical hat strides past. I point in delight to the pretty sight of her two flat, woven baskets piled with vivid orange fruit.

Somehow, though a thick glass facade separates us and the alley is in ceaseless motion, she senses my curiosity and swivels around. We make eye contact for the first time and she smiles so hopefully.

It is a flash of the intense survival mode hardwired into peddlers. As they gracefully foray into Hanoi's fearsome traffic, they seek and compete for buyers. I see women pushing bicycles laden with lilies in bloom, beauty amid barrenness. Others cart baskets of unknown street snacks or balance towers of cheap plastic boxes.

These hawkers are often women who leave farms and young families to make a living in the capital, as I learn later at the elegant Vietnamese Women's Museum (www.womenmuseum.org.vn).

There, I watch a filmlet that gives wistful voice to the vendors crowding Hanoi. One cheerful flower-seller recounts: "My husband says, just a few more years till the children grow up and we can be together." It does not matter that we are poor, he comforts her. She is sad, she says, to be young and apart.

It costs 30,000 dong or $1.80 to enter the museum and its feminist world of ponytailed guerillas who fought French colonial rule from 1946 to 1954. Visitors also encounter a benevolent Mother Goddess worshipped in Vietnam.

I leave the museum with multiple images of the resilient Vietnamese woman playing in my mind, and mostly I see Hanoi's unsung vendors in a new light.

I am also intrigued by the streets and pavements they inhabit, as I sit on a low, low stool at Cafe Hue (26, Hang Giay, Hoan Kiem district) and sip drip Vietnamese coffee on the colourful roadside near my boutique Essence Hanoi Hotel (www.hanoielegancehotel.com/essence.html).

Cafe Hue brews "weasel" coffee, the Vietnamese equivalent of coffee berries ingested by civet cats. An aromatic cuppa costs 20,000 dong at the tiny cafe, which seats four.

I return three more times, alone and with a friend, during our week in northern Vietnam which also includes a couple of nights in rustic Mai Chau Valley, 140km south.

Once, Lan, the cafe owner's college-age son, is tapping on his laptop and watching European football on TV. He asks me to guess how much the shopfront, all of 7 sq m, is worth. I hazard wild guesses and he exults: "US$700,000!"

Ten years ago, it was US$70,000, he adds, pushing the point that I am sitting on very, very prime property in the 1,000-year-old Old Quarter.

This is a maze of 36 alleys devoted to guilds that once served the imperial court. Though the lines have blurred, there are streets devoted to silver, bamboo, coffins and more.

Traverse its streets - indeed any chaotic Hanoi road - by moving slowly and decisively. Best not to yelp and jump back to the kerb. Two-wheelers, though not bigger vehicles, expect you to keep moving and will flow or slalom around the cool pedestrian.

I get used to the streets and pavements and can gaze at the Old Quarter shops and dwellings, which look like gothic doll houses.

Called "tube houses", the facades are tiny but the interiors are like one long, surreal, inky tube. The design saves money, for property owners were once taxed according to street frontage.

One shop selling retro toys is the size of a doorway. The owners and merchandise overflow to the pavement.

And what extraordinary pavements I spy everywhere. They are parking lots for motorcycles.

Vendors hustle lottery tickets, offer laundry service, feed toddlers, fan coal braziers that fit all of two ears of corn.

Pavements also double as mini-cafes where young and old slurp noodles or quaff beer, chucking melon seeds everywhere. Step off the pavements and you find art galleries, theatres, temples - and also restaurants from fancy to homey, all inexpensive.

Green Tangerine (greentangerinehanoi.com), a cafe with an inviting courtyard, presents French cuisine with a Vietnamese twist. Cha Ca La Vong (14, Cha Ca, Hoan Kiem district) serves only grilled fish prepared with turmeric, dill and shrimp paste for 170,000 dong.

I have a respite at these cafes but cannot get enough of rambunctious pavement culture.

So another evening, I sip margaritas outside the Fat Cat pub. This sits on a conserved slice of Ta Hien Street, which I gather is meant to be pedestrianised.

But this idea is weakly enforced by young patrollers, who seem to let every third or eighth motorcyclist through. That includes the youthful ice supplier who is nose to nose with me when his bike revs up. He plops a bag of ice cubes in the pub and is gone.

I am amused, annoyed, and overwhelmed - a churn of emotions surely befitting the riotous, bizarre and protean streets of Hanoi.

Hanoi’s street life may be in your face but the capital also abounds with reposeful classic places to visit.

Established in 1070, the Temple of Literature (Quoc Tu Giam Street; admission 20,000 dong or S$1.17) is Vietnam’s oldest university, predating Oxford. The temple, which honours Confucius, trained mandarins for seven centuries. It has 82 tortoise steles inscribed with names of scholars. 

Grouped here are the Lenin-inspired mausoleum (Ba Dinh Square; free admission) where revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh lies embalmedand a museum (19, Ngoc Ha Street; admission 20,000 dong) chronicling his life. A new exhibit here shows his influence on today’s Vietnamese Communist Party. Also see the One Pillar Pagoda (8, Chua Mot Street) which stands on a single stone pillar.

Originally, farmers waded hip-deep in rice fields or ponds to stage folksy dramas with floating puppets strung to bamboo poles. This mesmerising 1,000-year-old art form unfolds at the Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre (www.thanglongwaterpuppet.org; admission 100,000 dong) with English commentary and live singers. 

Hanoi is a city of lakes and legends.

The story goes that a magic turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake once endowed an emperor with a sword, which he used to fight the Chinese. Cross the red-painted The Huc Bridge to Ngoc Son Temple. Or circle the luminous lake in 30 minutes to relish local colour.

Relive French colonial-era Hanoi with a drink at the Bamboo Bar of the historic white-facade hotel (www.sofitel-legend.com/hanoi), which was built in 1901. Or sign up for a cuisine class (S$123) that includes a market tour, cooking demonstration and lunch.