Behind the doors of Hà Nội9 min read
They say when one door shuts in front of you, another opens. It may not be instantly evident, but they say it is how the Universe works. I reckon, it is something like the butterfly effect.
There are doors like heavenly gates that invite you to wondrous places. They call Hà Nội the gateway to Vietnam. That’s probably because your international, dreadfully long flight will land there. So, yes, Hà Nội may be your gateway to Vietnam, but much more than that…
Hà Nội, oi!
I made a friend in the capital called Hà, who tells me his name means ‘river’. Ha! So what does ‘Nội’ mean?
Hà Nội translates into “inside the river”. I can almost hear the soundtrack behind this:
Like a river, like a river,
Shut your mouth and run me like a river
The first door I opened in Hà Nội was that of the sleeping wagon of the train I arrived with.
I don’t want to preach, but hey, if you can skip airplanes and use trains instead – just do it! It’s fun, and it doesn’t have the same carbon footprint. Plus, you haven’t really experienced Vietnam, if you haven’t been on a sleeper’s train or bus.
So, the train… The door slid, and much like the curtain of a circus tent, unveiled a world to which I did not belong, but one I was ready to embrace. The narrow railway snaked its way up North and flowed (like a river!) into a network of roads, tangled by the madness of traffic.
All but mere decoration of what might become a rule, yet for now remains only a suggestion. An exception, if you wish.
Welcome to Hà Nội where the streets are chaos, or so it seems!
Once you soak into the rhythm of Hà Nội’s river, you realise there is a narrative in the chaos. It is all that Jazz. The movement here is an improvised response to life. You cannot shackle it in a frame. Traffic flows from all directions and with no restrictions. It flows with the rivers after, even during, heavy rainfall and at the mercy of the wind’s direction. But also, against all odds and currents.
Your heart skips a beat,
Every time you cross the street?
It’s all that Jazz.
At first, every muscle of my body tightened like the cord of an elaborate instrument. An instrument for survival. Be one with the bicycle, I’d say to myself, be water, my friend. Flow. Sometimes, I would foolishly close my eyes. A blitz prayer to that, which otherwise I’d doubt. Please don’t tremble, don’t change the trajectory of that journey, not even for a centimetre. There is no place for that. Tragic may be a centimetre away.
I realise how being part of the traffic in Hà Nội is a great way to master precision. It is also the best instrument to fine-tune your intuition. You need to be fully aware of your surroundings and able to recognise the intention of everything that moves around you.
Don’t forget them eyes on your back when you leave home!
And when I say everything, I mean it. Along with the vehicles, on the six-lane streets, there are also pedestrians. They, too, flow with the traffic, carrying merchandise on their shoulders. Minding their own business.
In time, I learned to dance with the rhythm of the traffic, singing out the smog in my lungs. If I were that person, I could have gracefully swayed between the swarm of motorbikes, picking up some fruit from the baskets of the pedestrian businessmen. But I am not.
The first door I opened in Hà Nội was that of my wagon and it felt as if it were the door of a hibernating chamber.
“Ssssst“, it gasped, “Welcome! You may now leave the air-con space of your chambers. Enjoy!”
If it were a high-tech train with a Siri-like program, it might have said that. Instead, it is otherwise. Technology here is best represented by the wires hanging on the streets.
The journey continues on a railway which flows into the very centre of the city, even though I am no longer on the train. There is a narrow residential street in Hà Nội, through which a train passes a few times a day. The railway is the street itself, and a perfect bridge from the train station to the Old Quarter. Kids play, adults have their small plastic chairs by the rails, where they cook and eat. Tourists enjoy local coffee and pose for their followers. Know the train is coming, if you see them clear the way. It looks staged, but it is real.
In Hà Nội, too, life happens on the streets, though the dynamics differ from those in Hoi An. In the Old Quarter, which is the preferred area for tourists, the streets are themed. Each name suggests the merchandise or service you will find there. From tinsmiths to jewellery makers, there is a street around here that will answer to your needs. By far, the most popular of all is the junction Bia Hoi. A heaven for beer lovers, this is where you can savour a glass for about € 0,30.
It is cold, so bottoms up!
Behind the doors
One thing I know about doors is never to be deceived by their appearance. Some shiny doors, just like the grin of a traitor, can lure you into darkness. Other – neglected and dusty – may hide a buffet of surprises. It is behind those shabby doors that I find the gems of the city – art galleries, cafes, libraries and craft shops. I best explored the depths of my productivity at Tranquil Books & Coffee and Manzi Art Space.
Some doors were waiting for me wide open like that of VietClimb. Others, were tucked in small streets, hidden from the muggles and opened only if I knew the magic spell.
There were doors I kept coming back to, like that of Puku on Wednesday night. If you are curious enough and make it through the backyard and up the stairs, behind one of the doors on the second floor awaits The Hanoi Philosophy Forum. The events are a great way to meet the local expat community and make new friends by skipping the small talk. And if you wish to go hardcore into philosophy, you can test one of the doors of The Click co-working on Saturdays.
@ a gallery
– So what is the story about? – the artist asks me.
– Espionage! – I say in a mysterious but not so low voice.
– Shhht! Don’t say that word! You forget where you are. – he makes a good point.
And I forget. Is it because of all the graffiti and street artists; all the galleries and cultural events, but I forget that I am in a communist country. And while there is no First Amendment here, there is definitely a bloom in expression. Is it all without oppression? No.
Doors of prosperity
Doors are not always open to everyone. Some obey social hierarchy, others – ineffable laws. There is a gate in Hà Nội, which is composed of three entrances, carved with dragons and turtles. Once upon a time, only a monarch could pass through the central and largest entrance. The left one was meant for the administrative personnel, while the one on the right was for the militants. The gate opens into three pathways that lead through five courtyards. You are about to enter one of the most notable places in Hà Nội – the Temple of Literature.
Through which entrance will you go?
Temple of Literature
Built in 1070, the Temple was Vietnam’s first National University. It was dedicated to Confucius and initially only nobles and members of the elite could attend it. Today, it is one of the must-visit sites in the city. But more fascinating than the Temple, are all the local kids in front of it ready to ambush you with a noble purpose.
– Hi! Do you have 5 min? – a cute girl asks me.
– Hi! I do. How can I help you? – I answer.
– I wish to practice my English. Would you mind having a conversation with me?
– I’d love that!
I am fascinated by all the youngsters (and not only) who wish to learn and improve their English. Instead of waiting for the abracadabra effect, they go out and practice. Kids around here often spend their vacation, hanging around touristic spots, asking foreigners to talk to them.
Dedication. Effort. I bet Confucius would be proud of that new generation of students.
To learn and then to practice it time and again is a pleasure, is it not? To have friends come from afar to share each other learning is a pleasure, is it not?
— (Confucius, 551-479 BCE)
There are doors we wish we never opened. It is when a door like this slams behind you that you pray for the butterfly effect to be true. Visiting the Hilton Prison in Hà Nội makes me think of those doors. The walls there are soaked with torture and whisper of stories you would never dare retell. Stories that make you want to go out and inject yourself into the flow of the city’s madness.
Close the door behind
The first door I opened in Hà Nội was that of my wagon.
What followed was a domino effect of doors that allowed me to pass through new experiences and gain new perspectives about life. But the magic of doors goes beyond them being simply a passage from one place to another, even though there is always the notion of coming through from somewhere to, maybe, somewhere new.
Doors slice our lives into insides and outsides. Some doors we open to escape, others we do to welcome. But whatever the case, I’d like to think that when one door closes, another one opens somewhere.
“Ssssst“, the door of the airplane gasps. It is the last door that closes behind me in Hà Nội.
P.S. There is no train to where I am headed next. 😀