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The Hanoi Hush: Walking Vietnam’s French Quarter

TRAVEL

My girlfriend and I have been in Hanoi for less than two hours and already we’re rattled. It’s Ho Chi Minh City all over again. The sights, the smells, the sounds. What was all there is all here, but this time we’re just not in the mood.

It’s the sounds, really. I could, as I did just an hour ago, romanticize it as the melody of progress, the salutary resonance of the world’s 13th most populous nation ratcheting its way up the ladder from the 56th rung of the global economy. Now, it just feels like too much noise.

I suggest a game to my traveling companion. We need it. She and I have been visiting her homeland for just shy of three weeks, working our way north via train from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang to Da Nang to Hoi An to Haiphong and now here. Until this particular moment I adored Vietnam without question. At the same point I loved her, too. Now it’s just cloudy skies, littered streets and the noise all around and between us. What once was charming, for the moment, gone.

The game I propose is to see how high we can count before the sound of another horn blares from the din of combustion and steel. A scooter, a car, a truck or if by chance a flock of geese passing overhead, let’s see how high we can go until we hear a honk.

One, two… honk!

One… beep!

On…honk!..e.

She smiles, but doesn’t care to play.

The front desk clerk at the hotel was helpful. He suggested we first try a neighborhood nearby called the French Quarter; the area where the French colonial enterprise ruled from 1873 until 1954 when they were forcibly expelled by those they once conquered. In my bag I have a book containing a map demarcated with 20 notable spots to admire French architecture within a grid of quieter back streets. We take off walking hoping the rain holds.

Rounding the northern stretch of Hoan Kiem Lake, then south along its western shore, we enter the French Quarter. The wide streets are lined with large trees that serve like gauze to the noise now beginning to fade. We come first upon St. Joseph’s Cathedral, with its blue-and-white 1 on the map.

Built in 1886 on the grounds of a sacred temple demolished by the French, the cathedral was modeled after the Notre Dame de Paris in the neo-Gothic style of that period. I think I know what that means. I haven’t been inside a church in years, and today this one is closed to the public.

Walking around the side under the watchful eye of a towering Jesus and two children, we are approached by a shabbily-dressed old man whose few remaining teeth are colored like soot—like the unadorned mortar with which the cathedral was erected.

I ignore his How are you? fearing it will lead to What change can you spare? only to find he is now asking my companion, in Vietnamese, if we’d like to take a look inside. Vang, she replies, as he pulls a ring of keys from his overcoat.

The cathedral’s side doors, framed in the drab, washed-out exterior, open up to an inspiring house of God. From marble floors to soaring arches, every inch is immaculate. It’s breathtaking. It’s holy. And the metaphor of who unlocked the doors is neither lost nor elusive. The meek shall embarrass the earth.

Like most Americans, especially those from down south or out west, I am awed by storied old structures. Southerners in America built everything from wood, and California simply hasn’t been around that long. By comparison, Hanoi is forever.

Afterwards, we stop in a quiet cafe. The noise between us for the moment subsided. I read her a passage from a book, written by Hu Ngoc, a local scholar who just celebrated his 94th year.

Even today the French culture plays an important role in daily Vietnamese life… being French educated, I embraced French humanism… that knowledge and understanding helped me to resist and fight the colonialism.

I think she understands. She lived her life here, now studies in Korea, speaks that tongue more than mine and knows well its ways. I suggest that it’s likely easier to embrace the value of foreign influence when you’re the reason that your occupier leaves. She’s texting her mother.

We walk the serene grounds of Hoan Kiem Library, take some pics of a Banyan tree, sneak in the gates of an old seminary and then search for the infamous Maison Centrale, which I’ve known throughout my life as the Hanoi Hilton, a notorious name from a notorious time that she calls the American War.

Built by the French at the end of the 19th century to suppress local dissent, then used by Vietnam for downed American pilots, only the front gate and a few of the structures remain. For some reason, I imagined the Hanoi Hilton would be comprised of sloppily erected huts somewhere in the middle of a jungle. It’s instead within a canopy of tall buildings at the center of town. There’s a KFC down the street.

Once outside, while I wait for her to come, a tour bus pulls up and out streams what looks and sounds to be an American college football team. I look at the young men who, at another time, might well have been soldiers exiting their transport at gunpoint.

While watching them I wonder what they’ll think of what’s inside. Will they soon exit, possessed like myself, with a mixture of disdain with our own heritage and with that of our former adversary that’s glossed over in propaganda photos on the prison walls? Were captive pilots really playing volleyball everyday after being downed while bombing nearby?

Winding down the last of the map, there’s more French architectural remnants, efficacious, standing strong, as the old now blends with the older and then the older with the new. There are several historic temples that the French hammers spared, towering trees and their roots fighting battles with the concrete, rows of metal shops and cafes and boutiques.

We eat, we talk, and once again we laugh, sitting on dirty plastic chairs eating delicious street food. And the horns once again sound melodic.


Around the French Quarter

Photos by Bobby McGill

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