Hustle and bustle of oriental dame


Whenever I heard this name in the past I thought of a far away place, as exotic as Deli for the first Englishmen, with streets overflowing with motorbikes and food everywhere at every hour. Busy, mixed, mingled and turned up side down. And it is exactly how we found it.

After almost two months in rural Laos and Vietnamese north, coming to a big city was like meeting an old friend. We were curious to know what’s new, but were stepping on a familiar ground at the same time. Hanoi was both comfortingly familiar and excitingly new. We were back on streets filled with shops, cafes and art galleries. Still, we were in Vietnam and everything was done the Vietnamese way. Locals enjoyed coffee and green tea at all hours of the day sitting on tiny plastic chairs on sidewalks and in little alleyways. Selling, buying and bargaining was taking place everywhere. Street vandours moved on bicycles with stock cleverly strapped together all around the bicycle frame, or on foot with (baskets name) balancing on their shoulders. All of them wearing Vietnamese hats (?), braving the streets in heavy traffic.

It was the street life that for us was the biggest attraction in Hanoi. Drinking coffee, eating street food and visiting one art gallery after another was our favourite pastime (we even bought an artwork!). We did some sightseeing, but we chose carefully the places to visit. Overload of historic sights isn’t healthy. They are like a chocolate cake – delicious, but in moderate amount.

We were staying close to Hoan Kiem Lake and St Joseph Cathedral, so we ticked them off the list of must-sees without even realising it. On another day we strained our leg muscles walking to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex and back and on yet another day we depend our understanding of Vietnamese society in Women’s Museum. They were all interesting to see, but the icing on the cake was for us the Temple of Literature. Devoted to Confucius, it dated back to 1070 and was a foundation of Vietnamese culture of today. It was the first National University of Vietnam training talented men of the nation. It’s a complex of university buildings, temples and shrines surrounded by immaculate gardens filled with bonsai trees. One could easily lose all day marveling at the beauty of carvings, architecture and rich decorations of the place.

Unlike in many other Southeast Asian countries, in Vietnam temples are not home to monks in saffron robes. Dominating religion is not Buddhism, but rather a mix of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism fused with Chinese beliefs and ancient Vietnamese animism. This complex fusion is called Triple Religion and is followed by a majority of Vietnamese, even though when asked they say that they are Buddhist. This fascinating religious mix gave birth to beautiful Chinese influenced temples. In Hanoi they were hidden from busy street life, tucked away in little corners. Only an old red wooden door with Chinese inscriptions revealed their whereabouts and stepping through that door was like stepping into another dimension. The noise left behind the gate, incenses burning and the tranquil interior inviting people to come inside.

As well as worshiping gods, the Vietnamese worship people too. One person in particular – Ho Chi Minh (Bringer of Light). His portrait hangs on a wall of every well respected family, in national institutions and public places. Over the years, he has become an icon. T-shirts with Ho Chi Minh are hung alongside those with Che Guevara and Mao, in all colours and sizes. People call him Bac Ho – Uncle Ho – and see him as a hero and saviour of the nation.

Yet to me the real saviours of Vietnamese nation are the women. Lovely but strong, friendly but fierce, there is no messing around with them. They are not scared of any work. They are sellers, boat guides, cooks, hotel owners, managers, temple care-takers, the list is long. And men? “Drinking beer is what they do best,” joked a shop assistant working in an art gallery, when I asked whether the artist was male or female. “Of course it’s a woman!,” she exclaimed. Her reaction summed up the male-female relation in Vietnam. Even though I did not see the men to be lazy beer drinking types, women were definitely more visible in everyday life. In the city they run businesses and in the countryside they ploughed the fields and planted rice. It was also evident from photographs that we saw in galleries that they were the centre of attention, the driving force.

It was also much to the women’s resilience that Vietnam won the war with America. While all the men were gone to fight, they stayed home and fought not only for their own survival, but the survival of the nation. During the hard years of war they had to dig shelters, protect their children, plant and harvest rice, install booby traps, help the wounded, make fabric for clothing and hospital use, educate their young and shoot enemies. Not bad for little happy ladies they are. Photographs in Women’s Museum show them planting rice with rifles strapped to their backs, operating wounded soldiers in dark muddy tunnels and hiding babies in cradles strapped together and lowered under the ground level. Women power, eh?

Little demonstrations of that women power were visible every day. One night we went for famous bia hoi beer ($0.25 per glass) with a Chinese guy we made friends with in hostel. The place was a tiny little shop selling cookies and water during the day. At night the owner, a lovely elderly lady, moved the cookies away and put a big fat barrel of beer in the middle. There was no room for chairs in there so she handed each of us a little plastic chair and showed us to sit on the street. Awesome! The beer was great, the night warm, we were having a great time. Until police came and told us all to get off the street. Apparently it was not allowed to sit on the road and they came to hassle us every hour. The lady, so gentle and sweet with us, waved offensive gestures at them behind their back and as soon as they were gone told us to sit back down. We loved her for it. And we loved the cheap beer. We stayed there until late, chatting away and getting off and back on the street every now and then.

Bia hoi was one of our favourites. But not the biggest one. Anyone going to Hanoi, listen up, you must go and try caphe trung da – coffee with beaten egg white – at Cafe Pho Co. It’s divine.
























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