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Every morning a group of elderly women dressed in loose blue and yellow gowns slowly raise their wooden swords above their heads in tune to the traditional music from a tape player. They regularly come to Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (lake) to perform their unique style of tai chi next to the badminton players and joggers who populate the footpaths and the road around the lake before the start of rush hour. Hồ Hoàn Kiếm is, of course, a very suitable setting for a bit of swordplay. Legend has it that it is the home of the magic sword that King Lê Thái used to defeat the Chinese invaders. He then returned it to its rightful owner – a giant golden turtle living in the lake.
Hanoi means “City on the river bend”, but it is the more intimate Hồ Hoàn Kiếm in the city centre, not the Red River, which shows the true spirit of this city. From sunrise until well into the night, Hồ Hoàn Kiếm serves as Hanoi’s backyard – as an outdoor gym, as a meeting place for catch-ups over games of Chinese chequers, as a pit stop for a quick snack of pineapple slices with chilli powder or as a romantic backdrop for rendezvous between lovers.
Hồ Hoàn Kiếm also serves as a living history lesson and a stroll around the lake illustrates Vietnam’s eventful past. The north end is dominated by the Đền Ngọc Sơn Temple, means “Temple of the Jade Mountain”, built in the traditional Chinese style; the west side is lined by a row of well-preserved French colonial buildings; and the stark Soviet-designed People’s Committee Building overlooking the eastern bank of the lake. A short walk away is the famous Old Quarter, the medieval central business district – a rabbit warren of thirty-six narrow streets and even narrower lanes. All the streets are named after what’s selling in the shops – so here you’ll find, for example, Silk, Toy and Bamboo streets.
The country that is now known as Vietnam was born in the Red River Delta when the Viets became the main ethnic group in the region and established the Nam Việt kingdom more than two thousand years ago. The kingdom’s capital was almost exactly where Hanoi now stands.
This first Vietnamese state was under constant threat from its powerful northern neighbour, China, which finally invaded Nam Việt in 111 BC. The Chinese occupation lasted for almost one thousand years, interrupted only by a brief but successful uprising led by the Trung sisters (Hai Bà Tru’ng), who headed a rebellion against the Chinese Han-dynasty and for a short time threw out the Chinese occupiers. Three years later, however, they were defeated – or rather suffering occupation again, the sisters committed suicide by drowning themselves. Today, one of Hanoi’s main thoroughfares, Hai Bà Tru’ng, is named in honour of these unlikely commanders.
China’s main contribution to Vietnam’s culture is Confucianism, and Văn Miếu, the one-thousand-year-old Temple of Literature, is testament to that legacy. A short motorbike ride from Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, it is an oasis of Confucian calm, of pounds and shady courtyards with the noise of Hanoi’s traffic barely a hum. Văn Miếu was built as a training college for mandarins, who had to complete a three-year course in philosophy and literature. The names of the students who passed the final exams are inscribed on a row of stone slabs resting on giant turtles.
Confucianism is about harmony and balance while Văn Miếu’s five courtyards represent the five elements thought to be the origins of all things-water, fire, metal, earth and wood. From the idea of the five elements inspired one of the most important principles of Vietnamese cooking-the concept of the five flavours. To be truly complete, every meal needs to have a balance of bitter, sweet, sour. Spicy and salty tastes. It is the great variety of dipping sauces in Vietnamese cuisine that plays a central role here, as they not only complement the flavours of the main dishes but also make up any missing tastes to round off the meal.