On the Old Quarter Stage

by Robert Tompkins, Jul 23, 2005 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

"What's a pity it is rain," commented a young mother as she was walking her toddler in the peaceful, almost deserted lakeside park. It was early morning and we had asked directions to the Old Quarter, the heart of Hanoi. The rain was barely perceptible, more like an intermittent fine mist; we had the feeling that she was using the weather as a pretext for practicing her English. "Later today it will be more brightly," she smiled with carefully enunciated syllables. Lake Hoan Kiem was placid and the tranquility of the park was complemented by a small group of seniors involved in the graceful movements of tai chi.

"Please be very, very careful with the traffic," she cautioned before adding with a wave, "Have a nice day." We strolled out of the peaceful park in the direction she indicated

Abruptly the serenity burst into a welter of commerce. We had wandered on to the ancient stage of the Old Quarter; we were immediately characters immersed in the plot of a centuries old drama.

All was turmoil, a teeming maze of bustling narrow streets and jammed sidewalks. These roads were not laid out by French colonial planners, but evolved from ancient footpaths joining the guilds that formed the foundation of the Quarter centuries ago. Pedicabs, motos, bicycles, and pedestrians wedged through the honking madness of the jammed laneways. Tubular shophouses, colonial villas, pagodas, and street stalls lined the swarming confusion of the teeming warren.

Following the pattern set by the original guilds, shops displaying the same merchandise either formed pockets along a street or filled entire laneways. A dozen flower shops were bunched together along a redolent lane. Nearby there was a selection of jewellery shops and then a segment of hardware stores. Shops selling shoes, sunglasses, and silks formed their own clusters as did vendors of lacquerware, children's clothes, and toys. Goods burst out of the stores, exploding onto the vibrant and frenetic sidewalks. Pressed together, a series of shops displayed votive paper effigies to be burned as offerings to deceased ancestors. A concentration of traditional herbal remedy shops filled the air with a distinct pungency.

While browsing through a cluster of stalls selling eye glasses, we looked at a pair of miniature reading glasses that folded into a pen sized container. The vendor scrambled for something we could use to see how they worked. All he could find was a card written in Vietnamese. "Can you read this?" he said laughing loudly.

Two images are inexorably linked to the Old Quarter--the non la, the conical leaf hat of woven palm leaves and the quang ganh, the pair of baskets loaded with fruit, vegetables, or anything else that will fit, suspended from a yoke slung over a shoulder. Both are ubiquitous. Wending their way through the crammed sidewalks and shouting their presence to those ahead, vendors with the pyramidal hats covering half their face lurch forward under the weight of the bursting baskets. With the bamboo yoke bowed and their knees bent, the vendors are ever in a hurry either in delivering their supplies or searching for a propitious place to set up shop along the shoulders of the incessantly honking streets.

Often the sidewalks become parking lots for the omnipresent motos which are the main means for both passenger travel and the delivery of merchandise to the shops. A family on a moto is a common sight-a father driving while a child is wedged in front of him, and another child behind him in front of a mother. Since delivery trucks would not work on these narrow and crowded streets, motos are piled high with stock. Loading a motorcycle has become an art form as the maximum load is attained without compromising the stability of the vehicle. As we watched a moto piled high with empty birdcages towering above the ensconced and honking driver, it became clear that the vehicle could only have been loaded after the driver was in place.

A sidewalk butcher placed a chunk of meat on a well used cutting board, whacked it into pieces with a cleaver, weighed the portions, and placed them into a plastic bag secured with a twist tie. Fruit vendors sitting on plastic stools only inches off the ground were surrounded by baskets of rambutans, melons, rose apples, dragon fruit, and bananas. Egg vendors squatted in front of their packed baskets. An old woman with a cigarette dangling from her lips was squatted near bags of freshly baked baguettes which she sold to a line up of customers. The smoke disappeared up under her pyramidal hat as one hand passed the loaves and the other took the money. Another vendor filled cups with steaming tea heated over the wood fire in a ceramic oven.

At the curb, a small group hunkered around a woman surrounded by various sized plastic containers filled with chopped red chilli peppers, coriander leaves, bean sprouts, and thinly sliced beef. On propane stoves were simmering pots of rice noodles and large vessels of boiling broth. She ladled the pho into porcelain bowls and the diners ate on their haunches amid a swirl of dust and exhaust fumes.

Next to the pho stand, a vendor was deep frying plump spring rolls that were served still sizzling to eager squatting customers. A few feet away, the streets honked and revved and honked some more. For a moment the smell of the food was pervasive, filling the air with aromatic wafts.

Traditional herbal medicine shops displayed baskets containing an assortment of barks, twigs, leaves, powders, and roots. Shelves displayed an array of jars containing tonics, potions, and elixirs. "For rheumatism, lumbago and sweat of limbs," said the label on the bottle of snake wine. "Take one capful two times a day." The bottle contained rice wine, a few gnarled roots, orange berries, seed pods, pieces of what appeared to be bark, and a cobra, its hood swollen and flared, tongue out, and eyes staring. While his wife regarded us with disinterest, the man hinted at another property with a broad grin and a gesture with his forearm.

Two men wheeled a massive sliding balance scale through the crowded sidewalk perhaps in search of a more auspicious spot from which they could petition passersby to check their weight.

Amid the tumult of commerce, strolling vendors wend their way through the streets looking specifically for tourists. Typically hawking books, post cards, and T-shirts, they can be persistent in their pursuit of a sale, often dogging potential buyers' steps for blocks while endlessly imploring them to buy. The arguments they employ are only limited by their knowledge of English and range from the sublime to the desperate. "Buy from me and I will never forget you," promised a smiling girl with a bag full of T-shirts bearing the image of Ho Chi Minh. "Uncle Ho very good. First sale of the day. Bring me luck. I remember you forever. Make me lucky today." It was hard to refuse when so much was on the line.

One strolling vendor had a board hanging from a rope slung over his shoulder; attached with hooks were various items for personal grooming-combs, brushes, scissors, nail clippers, emery boards, razors.

Another vendor with a stack of books under his arm was relentless as he tagged along beside us showing each book in turn. "Graygree. Graygree. Very good. Graygree. Graygree," he chanted proffering a plastic wrapped edition of The Quiet American. Graham Greene's name in Vietnam has the same cachet as that of Ernest Hemingway in Cuba. Without doubt the books the vendor carried were photocopies, a common practice throughout the country. We had purchased similar plastic wrapped books in Saigon and discovered that the print was exceptionally small and so faint it was virtually unreadable. After many minutes of his salesmanship and much head shaking, we attempted to dissuade him by saying that maybe we would see him later. "Now is better. I might not see you later. You won't be able to find me." In fact we did see him again, many times. Then he switched his tactic. "I have no food today. Please help me." Although the roving street hawkers are very persistent in their attempts to make a sale, the shop and stall vendors are much less so. Haggling is expected, but there are no outrageous first prices calculated to set an artificial starting point; a purchase is not a drawn out ordeal of back and forth negotiations, offers and counteroffers. Bargaining is not a battle, but rather a pleasant and friendly exchange.

Sitting on a plastic stool barely off the ground, an elderly lady selling an assortment of vegetables displayed on a cloth in front of her knitted while awaiting customers. She paused, retrieved a toothpick from behind her ear, employed it with diligence, and then securing it back in its hiding place, returned to her needles.

Preferring improvisation to a script, we had abandoned our map at the outset. On paper, this area does not look daunting, but maps do not show street stalls or strolling vendors laden with their balance baskets. Maps do not reflect the incessant street and sidewalk traffic. Maps are lifeless and static; this place is vital and in flux.

We wandered to the unabated rhythm of the streets, and as we meandered on, became more and more disoriented, lost in the ever ravelling skein of shifting scenes

On the side of a building, a huge poster of the much revered Ho Chi Minh, one of many in the city, reminded all to trust in his teachings. This one depicted Uncle Ho holding a hugging child, portrayed against a stylized backdrop of a dove with an olive branch in its beak; the dove's eye was a white star against a red background.

Although the government would never use the word, capitalism has been enthusiastically embraced, the energy of private enterprise bursts throughout the Quarter. Here there is the continuous motion, the din of commerce.

Squatting behind a well used bathroom scale, a woman not only provided clients with their weight, but also chewing gum, sold in individual sticks. From a basket sitting on a rack over the rear wheel of her bicycle, another woman sold branches budding with peach blossoms.

Leaning against a wall was a bicycle that had been transformed into a moveable store selling household wares. An assortment of brushes and paint rollers hung from the handle bars and front basket which was full of feather dusters, toilet plungers, locks, funnels and glues. Coils of wire were draped around the seat. The rear rack was a jumble of hardware: screws, nails and hack saw blades, files, drill bits and hinges, wrenches, pliers and hammers.

While we were perusing an assortment of alleged antiques--clocks, watches, coins, and opium pipes--all of dubious age and authenticity, a shoe shine boy approached and offered his services. We were both wearing sneakers. Without waiting for a reply, he extracted a toothbrush from his kit, poured water from a bottle onto the bristles, and began scrubbing away scuff marks. Seeing a captive audience, another strolling vendor presented padded insoles of various sizes.

Her knees bending under the weight of deep hemispheric baskets overflowing with melons, the cross pole bowed into a curve, a woman hollered a warning of her approach as she staggered forward with unsteady gait, driven by the momentum of her load.

From a tube leading to a large plastic open-topped drum, draft beer was siphoned into glasses for a group of men sitting on miniature stools and huddled around a wooden box that served as a table. Shuffling by with her shoulder baskets, a woman carried mounds of fiery red peppers balanced with a heap of limes. A passing bicycle rider transported scores of bagged goldfish hanging from a wire rack behind his seat. Mushrooms the size of Mexican sombreros had been bagged in plastic and suspended from awnings on strings.

Fashioning designs with ringing hammers, metal workers added to the constant cacophony of the streets. A key cutter hunkered behind a wooden box supporting a grinder, clamps, files and a ring containing hundreds of keys. Power was supplied by a much repaired extension cord running from his sidewalk stall through the door of a building. Overhead, laundry was draped on clotheslines strung across second and third floor balconies.

Tagging along side of us, a young post card vendor whose wares came in packs of twelve insisted on showing each scene in the set. "First customer brings me luck," he said shuffling from card to card watching us intently for any sign of interest.

With the cigarette in his mouth dangerously close to his client's ear, a street barber wearing a fedora and suit coat squinted through the smoke as his scissors clicked furiously. On the chipped and crumbling brick walls of the niche that formed his shop were tattered and faded pictures of men with neatly coiffed hair. A mirror was hanging from a nail above a shelf strewn with razors and combs; a nearby table was cluttered with bottles and jars containing gels, balms, creams, and tonics.

Nearby, on the sidewalk under a beach umbrella, another street barber had set up shop; it appeared that all his supplies-umbrella and its stand, a rather plush reclining chair, a stool, a mirror with an attached shelf, and a satchel containing supplies-had been transported to this location on the barber's bicycle. After strapping a battery operated light around his head, the barber, focussing with intensity, delved into his client's ear with a dangerous looking tubular device.

Thoroughly entangled in the interwoven strands of sub plots and changing scenes, we realized that our performance in the drama was nearing its conclusion and that our final and most demanding role would be to find our way back through the maze.

Appearing like the deus ex machina of ancient Greek theatre, a line of cyclo drivers lounging in their pedicabs presented an easy solution. We were soon a part of the traffic plagued streets; our drivers adeptly manoeuvring us at a relaxed and comfortable pace. Slowly we were disentangled, as all around teemed with bustle and honking.

With the cyclos providing a leisurely denouement, we made our exits from the Old Quarter stage.

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