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Hanoi was once known as the Paris of the Orient


By Donald L. Telfer



As the young girl handed over a crumpled dong bill, the Hanoi street vendor smiled and delivered a colourful bouquet of three red roses.

“They’re for my mother’s birthday,” the girl said in broken English. Grabbing the tiny parcel, the beaming girl and her friends disappeared into the crowded Hoan Kiem District. In a country with an average annual income of about $150, the gift was a monumental purchase.

This fascinating capital of a unified Vietnam, once known as the Paris of the Orient, Hanoi is typified by shaded boulevards, verdant public parks and a dozen scenic lakes.

A mishmash of busy one-way streets crowded into the Old Quarter, its street names describe its wares on offer: Hardware St. (stores that sell household goods), Broiled Fish St. (seafood), and Ancestor St. (caskets, funeral flags and picture frames). Hundreds of tiny shops display every product imaginable. These are the troopers of private enterprise with their fresh fruit, colourful birds and maybe a huge Burmese python waiting for the dinner table.

Nearby is the Lake of the Returned Sword and the landmark St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Consecrated on Christmas Eve in 1886, the cathedral was built over several years after the French conquered Hanoi, demolishing an ancient pagoda temple to accommodate the new church. With its twin square bell towers, the cathedral is similar in design to the famed Notre Dame in Paris, though much smaller. Known as “The Big Church,” the interior is decorated in popular Vietnamese red and yellow; the altar and stained glass windows are especially notable. A statue of Mother Maria in front of the cathedral welcomes worshippers. Masses are only on Sunday, and the evening worshippers often overflow out the front door onto the plaza, numbering into the thousands especially on Christmas Eve.

Hanoi’s hypnotic street life is an irresistible magnet. When people manage to tear themselves away, many head for the monumental Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Situated in a huge park-like square in the centre of Hanoi, uniformed soldiers are out in force to keep the crowds moving, maintain peace and ensure hands are kept visible outside pockets. Embalmed in the tradition of Lenin, the final resting place for “Uncle Ho” is a glass sarcophagus set deep in the cold, dimly lit bowels of the marble edifice.

“The body is sent back to Moscow twice a year to keep it in shape,” I overheard a guide whisper to a visitor. Such extravagance would have surely upset Ho Chi Minh as much as his request being denied for cremation after his death in 1969.

Hanoi is a city of extravagance contrasted with stark poverty. Near the mausoleum is one of the most striking buildings in Vietnam, the former Presidential Palace opened in 1906 for the governor general of French Indochina. The bright ochre building, with its green shutters and European design, was too lavish for the governor who refused to live there. The picturesque landmark is now used for official receptions.

At the southern end of the country is Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as southerners commonly call it, a bustling polluted metropolis which makes Hanoi appear rural by comparison. Hanoi was untouched by the Vietnam War unlike Saigon which has many gleaming hotels and office buildings that replaced ruined buildings.

There are many reminders of Vietnam’s tumultuous history. One is the famed Cu Chi Tunnels that now are part of greater Saigon, a city that has grown from one million at the end of the war in 1975 to more than 10 million. Located about two hours northwest of downtown, the ingenious multi-level tunnels were the great defences of the North Vietnamese to fight the French and later the Americans.

One of Vietnam’s architectural marvels is the Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Saigon. A standout in the largely Buddhist country — only about seven per cent of Vietnam’s 90 million people are Catholic — the red brick cathedral was built over 17 years and consecrated in 1880. An Italian granite statue of Our Lady of Peace in front of the cathedral is said to have shed tears in 2005. Though the Vatican has refuted the claim, it has not stopped thousands of people from visiting Saigon’s most famous site.

I hired a cyclo (a three-wheeled bicycle taxi) to return to the Rex Hotel, the hotel made famous during the Vietnam War (its rooftop bar was a hangout for the military and war correspondents). Without agreeing to price at the outset, I was given a roundabout trip through downtown Saigon. The entertaining tour cost 50,000 dong (about $3), giving the ride and that bouquet of red roses another spin on money, people and values.

Former travel writer-photographer, and editor and publisher of the Humboldt Journal, Telfer has contributed to over a hundred newspapers and magazines in Canada, the U.S. and abroad.