Stories from Hanoi

We stayed in Hanoi with Luan and his extended family. They have six guest rooms and they live on the top two floors, located behind their tour guide business in The Old Quarter. There is Luan, his wife and their son, and his mother and father. Hai is a cousin from a village outside Hanoi, she has finished a four year university degree as a tour guide and now works for Luan. Her brother (who is at university and helps out as well) and Hai rent an apartment nearby.

Father cooks breakfast for all the guests. His Pho Ga is very good. This is the traditional breakfast food for Hanoians and it takes him two days to prepare the stock. He is very strict with how you eat it. He was critical of the fact I used three lemon quarters and too much chili. He told me off when I went to drink my coffee before I finished my soup. It would spoil the taste, he indicated, soup first and then coffee! When a lemon pip fell in too my soup, he grabbed a pair of chopsticks and quickly scooped it out. He wouldn’t let me put lemon juice on my papaya! He ensures all guests go out for the day well fed although he cannot communicate with spoken language to them at all. We showed him pictures of our kids and grandkids  and tried to chat using the translator app on my phone.

One night we went to see the water puppets. It was very well done, the troupe has travelled the world performing their play. The orchestra was fantastic! They played a collection of traditional instruments and performed a modern composition prior to the puppet show. Although the puppetry was entertaining and at times very funny we had no idea of the stories that were told.            


The next day I had organised a student, who wanted to practise her English, to act as a free guide. She told us that the water puppets began because the farmers were bored in the dry season. They would make the puppets and perform in the water of their rice fields. Suang, the student, explained many of the stories and legends that were depicted in the play. These same stories are depicted elsewhere in Vietnamese culture. Here are some of them…  

Vietnamese Creation Legend (all these stories are paraphrased from memory, as told by Suang, with some facts and names checked using Wikipedia)

One day the male dragon (Lac Long Quan – Dragon Lord of Lac) came out of the sea and fell in love with an immortal woman fairy (Au Co) after he saved her from a terible monster. They married and had 100 children all born at once from a single egg…. 50 boys and 50 girls. But they were not happy because the dragon desired to live in the sea and the woman desired to live on the mountain. So they decided to go their separate way. They each took 25 boys and 25 girls and from these children are the ancestors of the Vietnamese people. Au Co is recognised as being the mother of all Vietnamese and her 50 children were later known as the Hung kings. Because the people are from both mountain and sea it is said that they are destined to live together in peace.

The crane and the turtle

When it is wet and the land is flooded the crane cannot move so the turtle lets him stand on his back and helps him move around. When it is dry the turtle cannot find anything to eat so the crane flies off and brings food back for the turtle in his  mouth. So they are a symbol for best friends. This shows that people should help each other. Also to rub the cranes tummy and the turtles head is to bring luck.

The story of the turtle and the sword

The famous king, Le Loi, liberated the Vietnamese from the Ming occupation in the 1400’s. He had a magical sword given to him by the Dragon King. But it was separated into two pieces, the hilt and the blade. A fisherman caught something heavy in his net one night…it was a long, thin piece of metal. He threw it back in, but he kept catching it. He noticed it was the blade of a sword so he took it home.

Much later, after he joined the rebel army, a general (Le Loi) came to his house and the sword blade started glowing, so Le loi took it with him as he felt it was meant for him. Much later, whilst fleeing a battle he saw a glow coming from the branches of a tree. He climbed up and found a jewelled hilt. He joined them together and the magic sword helped him free Vietnam.

One year after he became king, Le Loi was on a dragon boat on a lake, when a giant, golden turtle came out of the water and asked the king to return the magic sword to the Dragon King. Le Loi threw the sword toward the turtle, who leaped and grabbed the sword in his mouth. From then on this lake in Hanoi has been known as Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword).

This is the lake near to where we stayed in the Old Quarter. I visited a temple on the lake that is dedicated to the giant turtle, Ho Guam, to remind the people of the heroic struggles of the Vietnamese people.

The Temple of Literature

This is actually a Temple to Confucious that hosts the Imperial Academy, the first university built in Vietnam in 1070, originaly only for the elite – bureaucrats, nobles and royalty . The first gates have a statue of two carp on them and one cup. A gate further on in has a dragon on it. Suang explained an old story where carp want to change into dragon but they have to pass an arch-shaped rock waterfall during the violent tide. If they try really hard and with a little bit of luck from the wind they can swim up the stream and they will become a dragon. A dragon is very powerful. This is telling students when they come into the univeristy that if they work hard, and with a little bit of luck, they too will become powerful, like the dragon. The jug in the middle represents knowledge. We saw this legend acted out in the water puppets play.

The three paths above are – centre for the king, one for talent and one for virtue (two of the most important qualities under Confucian education system. There are 5 courtyards representing the 5 elements – earth, metal, wood, fire, water. For the students to pass through the third (?) gate to the next level of knowledge , the virtue and talent of the first stage must be joined to excellence in literary expression. The pool in the middle is where students came (and many still do) to gain literary inspiration.

Current graduating students will come and have their graduation photos taken here. This place has a lot of meaning for the Hanoian young people. Giant turtles hold big stone tablets on their backs on which  are written names and details of the top students for each year over the centuries. For current students it is considerd good luck to rub the head of the turtle of the student you wish to emulate. The turtles are now barricaded off because all the rubbing started to erode the turtles heads. Also at the start of the Nyugen dynasties of kings they destroyed some of the tablets with other kings families on them

Students can also pay a monk and recieve a special service in the Temple of Confucious to bring them luck. When we were there, two high school students and two final year university students where having a ceremony to get luck for their final exams. 

Other things Suang told us

There was a fancy pavillion that had been put up on the pavement opposite when we were leaving the Temple of Literature. We had seen this happen in other places. Suang explained it is for a wedding. In Vietnam they have the wedding ceremony on the street outside the husband’s families house. The husband goes to his future wife’s house and takes her to his. After they marry she will live with his family. All Vietnamese families follow this tradition and the families are always extended.

When you enter a temple in Vietnam you have to step over a low wall, this is to make you automatically lower your head to show respect. The doors in the middle have much lower walls to step over…these are for the king. You should enter a temple on the right and exit on the left.

The Vietnamese belief system is based on Confucianism, Taoism and Buddism but is not true Buddhism. Whilst the Vietnamese follow folklores and have the right to freedom of belief and religion in the Constitution they are not a religious country. They practice ancestor worship and celebrate death anniversaies. They have an altar to their worship ancestors in each home. They believe the ancestors are always with them and offer food to the ancestors at the temple in their house, then they eat the food for good luck.

The houses in Vietnam are so narrow because of tax. They were taxed for how much frontage to the street they have. So a narrow house is cheaper. They can go up as high as they want. Even cheaper is to have a house at the back, with just a very narrow doorway to the street and passage leading to the house.

The reason many of the small street eating places have tiny plastic chairs is so they can pack them up quickly when the police come along.

We also visited Hanoi prison, Maison Centrale,  where the French housed the Vietnamese political prisoners during the revolution and where the Vietnamese housed the American prisoners during the American war. Like all prisons it is a macabre place to visit.

Our guide Suang is from a farm 140 km from Hanoi. Her family used to farm many animals, now they just have lots of fruit produce. She is studying marketing and hopes to study in China. She was a lovely girl but her ‘guiding’ technique was a little unusual. Everytime a new topic came up she quizzed us first to discover what we already knew, even for the folklore stories of Vietnam! She was keen to find our opinion of Ho Chi Minh plus other topics. Her way was interesting to begin with and she told us some great stories.

After a bit of a ‘funny’ argument we gave Suang a tip and went our separate ways. She did not want to leave us even though our time was up. We wanted to continue to The French Quarter on our own but she was determined to escort us back to our hotel.It was a little bit tricky! It led us to wonder afterwards if she wasn’t that ‘free’ after all, and if she was paid for by the government

The French Quarter is quite different to the Old Quarter, wider streets, not so many street traders and bigger, more colonial style, buildings. We managed to find food away from the main drag, in the more Vietnamese style back alleys.

In a park a local man struck up a conversation with us. He was trying to get a VISA to come and work in Queensland with his cousin who works on a mango farm. His cousin was from South Vietnam and he escaped on a boat after being released from prison. Now he has an Australian passport and is protected by the Australians. 

This man had some interesting opinions he wanted to share with us. He said when the trade embargos where lifted in the 1994 things in Vietnam changed for the worse, allowing overseas investors and corporations into Vietnam. He reckons there is now 40% unemployment in the cities. (According to official sites it is only around 2%). In rural areas, the farmers don’t want to progress too much because otherwise the govenment will step in and take the profit because it is for the all people. He likes Donald Trump, because he thinks he will stand up to the Chinese, whereas Obama was too weak. He reckons the Chinese are preparing to take over world dominance. They are buying property everywhere, including throughout Vietnam, and he reckons the Vietnam government is in cahoots. 
I asked him about homeless people, he said, “You can’t be homeless or beg, you will go to jail for up to a year!” So everyone has to appear to have a job. He was actually touting for work and was hoping we would take him on as a tour guide. Then there are the motorbike taxis, Uber drivers, street vendors…people trying to make a living doing anything. I wonder if my earlier romanticism about community and connection is as accurate in a big city like Hanoi?

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