Thursday, December 16, 2010

1000 Years

It's been about a thousand years since I last posted. This is less of an exaggeration than it seems, as the preeminent event in Hanoi over the past few months was the city's early-October celebration of its 1000-year anniversary.

Allow yourself to reflect for a moment: when Hanoi was founded, the world's population stood at around 250 million, and forests still covered between 45 and 60 percent of the world's surface. Half the world's civilizations did not possess written language, the classical Maya were still around, and William the Conqueror had yet to cross the English Channel. This was a very, very long time ago.

Hanoi's founding ushered in what is often considered a golden age of Imperial Vietnam. Abandoning the defensive fortifications of the old capital near Ninh Bình, Emperor Lý Thái Tổ foresaw a Vietnam whose strength laid in technical and commercial achievements. He founded Thăng Long - Ascending Dragon - where he had seen a dragon rise from the Red River, and over the next several generations the Lý kings constructed great hydraulic works, including a vast network of dikes and canals, laid the foundation for Vietnam's legal system, abolished torture, and founded one of Asia's oldest universities, the venerable Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu), whose ruins are a must-see for any visitor to Hanoi.

Nobody in Hanoi during September and October could have avoided being swept up in the festivities. The city pulled out all the stops, closing off much of the city's central streets to traffic, chasing away hordes of street vendors, erecting stages for public cultural events, and putting up a giant video screen on the northeast corner of Hoan Kiem Lake with a countdown to the final day flashing in English and Vietnamese.

Local residents seemed to be of two minds with regard to all the commotions. Street vendors in the center of town were clearly annoyed at being moved, residents were none-too-keen on the heightened noise levels, and the inconvenience of all the street closures provoked a few grumblings. But it was hard not to notice a sense of civic pride even among the most jaded - a pride that was fully justified.

Like most other residents in the center of the city, I partially endured and partially enjoyed the celebrations. It was a good opportunity to learn about the city's history, to enjoy traffic-less streets (though this was balanced by worse-than-normal traffic jams on the city's remaining thoroughfares), to people-watch, and to reflect on what 1,000 years of change has brought to this once-tiny settlement in the Red River Basin.

"City" is a relative concept, and what anyone viewing old photographs of Hanoi is likely to notice is how undeveloped the city remained as recently as 60 years ago. Dirt roads prevailed, a great number of the city's structures were made of wood, and an intricate network of canals and waterways still snaked their way through the city - much of the Old Quarter's serpentine design is a result of it having been built around this topography. Indeed, I still occasionally flash on the Hanoi I first saw in 1991, filled with bicycles and the quiet sound of breezes floating off the city's many lakes.

Combining this vision with the extraordinary changes I've seen in just the year and a half I've been living in Hanoi, it's easy to conclude that the Hanoi of the future will be much different from the Hanoi that has come before. It is likely that, for this city redolent with a sense of history, the past is merely prelude.