Reflections and stories on six months of life, culture, food and friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Pho Co: 36 Streets

No it's not another soup. Pho co is the name of the old quarter, literally meaning ancient streets. It's also known traditionally as the 36 streets. Somehow the latter name seems like a lie. The number suggests a limit, as if you would exhaust the area by counting them off. In fact, pho co embodies a kind of infinity within. Over the last two weeks I have wandered around here many times. The area assaults the senses and boggles the mind.

Several times I have met friends after work for an iced coffee with friends at the Au Lac cafe behind the famous Hotel Metropole. It's all very genteel and beautiful sitting under the canopy of trees and taking in the French architecture. But when I wander north into pho co, the streets change and begin to meander off defying any sense of direction. The Vietnamese I have met cannot speak of the city in terms of compass points as we do in North America. In fact, they don't seem to be able to point out things to me on a map either. There is no use for me to say I am staying south of Hoan Kiem District. The city is a place they known by intuition, not by a rational mental grid. (See the article "Paradoxes of Discovery" which I have linked from my blog sidebar.) I have only just begun to wander around without a map for the first time. If I get lost, I can always hop on a xe om and direct them to my address in Bach Khoa. But getting lost is half the fun. It is during those times I feel I experience the infinity of the district. There is a richness of detail, of both architecture and human life: the unexpected pagodas, street vendors, hidden alleys, market streets, and sidewalk cafes.

At the same time, I worry that the area has lost something in the three years since I was last here. Each street is still named after an ancient guild or trade that once operated there. There is a chicken street, a paper offerings street, a tinsmith street. (Here's a list of the meaning of the 36 streets.) Over time, the trades of the streets have changed and the names are no longer reflective of the businesses, but even just a few years ago the old quarter was still like a giant department store, with neighbourhoods of merchants and artisans engaged in the same trade. I remember a bird cage area, a sunglasses street, a gravestone street and a candy lane. Somehow these themes seem less striking now than I remember them in 2002. The businesses are more mixed and more gentrified.

On the other hand, the changes have also brought about some improvements. I remember being constantly harassed by street vendors hawking gum, maps, travel guides, and lottery tickets (not to mention marijuana and opium) . They were very aggressive and Jon and I came close to being assaulted by a desperate map vendor. This irritation is mostly gone, although if you linger too long on a corner looking at a map, the xe om and cyclo drivers appear out of nowhere to offer their services. I was told today that most of these vendors were shipped back to the countryside during the ASEAN Seagames hosted by Hanoi several years ago.

But how many of the irritants are part of the overall flavour? Tonight I sat on little plastic chairs at a sidewalk cafe. Suddenly a jeep swept around the corner followed by 4 or 5 motos and screeched to a halt directly in front of my curbside seat. Stern looking green uniformed police jumped out and confiscated all the tables and chairs (including the one I was sitting on) and screeched off again just as quickly. It was a very abrupt and alarming experience. Apparently the street's sidewalks were not designated for patio use. Of course the messy life on the sidewalks are half the fun and charm of the old streets of Hanoi, chaotic as they may be.

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