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

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Banyan Tree Musical Club

There is a travel article that needs to be written entitled "Hanoi: Beyond the Old Quarter". Most tourists have no sense what's out there. It helps if you have a motobike and don't mind risking your life squeezing your bike down narrow lane ways and dodging the oncoming obstacles, not to mention the ones that pop out sideways from hidden doorways.

Last Saturday I took advantage of the warm weather (ahhh, 25C in January!) and hoped on my bike with my map and the intention to worm my way across the city using only obscure laneways. My eventual destination: the Temple of the Kneeling Elephants (Den Voi Phuc) near the botanical gardens.

I still can't get over Hanoi's network of lanes. This is the Hanoi tourists are oblivious to. In fact, these are where most Hanoians live and it is one reason why this city will always be at least somewhat resistant to cars. They can only be reached by foot or two wheeled vehicles and they can be long! God forbid my motobike were to break down in the middle of one and I'd have to walk my way out.

I'm pretty good knowing my way around the main streets of Hanoi, but then every large city block seems to contain a vast terra incognita. I still can't figure out how to penetrate into the core of the block I live in, even though I can see acres of houses from my rooftop. Also it seems so many of Hanoi's 150 plus lakes are hidden smack in the middle of these blocks and invisible from the main streets.

So I took the very long way through the city, popping out onto main streets and slipping back into side streets on the other side. Eventually I made it to the Temple of the Kneeling Elephants, named after the creatures guarding the entrance. This is one of the four temples, one for each cardinal direction, that are supposed to protect the city from evil forces. It was built in the 11th century in honour of Linh Lang, son of Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, and one of the mythical Vietnamese boy-heroes who fought off the Chinese.

It's a charming little temple and, since it turned out to be the 15th of the lunar month, it was hopping inside. On the temple path though I was distracted by a little gathering of old-timers under a huge banyan tree who were using the temple gate as a stage for music making. A couple of erhus and banjo type stringed instruments were being used to accompany the singers up on the gate steps. When I stopped to listen they waved for me to come and sit down but I declined and went on to the temple. On my way back though, I paused again and this time a friendly old guy lept up, grabbed my arm and dragged me over to the table. So I gave in, sat down and let them feed me little mandarin oranges and candy. I was there for an hour.

They were so friendly that at first I suspected they might in fact be drunk. I suppose the amber liquid coming out of those thermoses could have been some kind of herbal ruou, but actually I think they were just high on life or something. In any case, they seemed thrilled to have me as their guest and took turns sitting next to me, shoving food in my face and trying to quiz me. So much for the supposed crusty reserved character of Hanoians. (This reputation is completely unfounded in my experience.)

Of course I let them indulge in the usual series of questions, but conversation was naturally limited. This older generation would have had few opportunities to learn English. In fact, for years of their lives it would have been illegal. Instead when my Vietnamese skills were clearly exhausted they tried the languages of their generation: Chinese, Russian, French. One lady was especially determined to communicate. She got all animated when she learned I was from Toronto. Something about her son, studying, Toronto, March, here is his phone number. At a crucial moment an older toothless stringed instrument player suddenly appeared at my side and began speaking German. Why not? White guy. Must know German.

Actually German is not so uncommon among older generations. This is one of the legacies of the political connection with the former East Germany. Through my interpreter I clarified. Her 23 year old son will be moving to Toronto in March to study. Like a good mother she saw an opportunity here. Will I meet him, she wanted to know?

I was hesitant at first, but actually I am happy to oblige. Not to get mushy, but the kindness and generosity shown to me here has been overwhelming at times. From the very beginning I have been embraced by so many people who have gone out of their way to open up their lives to me. It has often made me wonder to what extent we truly welcome newcomers to Canadian society. And when we do, how often is our hospitality offered out of self-conscious charity rather than a willingness to truly make new spaces in our personal lives. I am glad to have the opportunity to return a bit of the favour. Tonight I will meet Thang at a cafe on Ly Thuong Kiet.

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Blogger Khoi Gallub-Ho said...

I just want you to know that I have read your Banyan tree entry after chatting with you this morning at work. I was about to go to bed and thought of you; that I have not read it and said that I would. The temple experience must be amazing for you. I also love the comment about how wrong my perception of Hanoian. They really are seem friendly.

11:53 PM

Blogger Godknows said...

Glad to know other people write about Viet Nam and about kind of traditional music as well. Enjoyed your blog

1:21 AM


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