Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hanoi at One Year

On May 10 of last year, after a week in Thailand, I arrived in Hanoi to begin what I knew would be at least a one-year adventure. One year later, I've extended my work contract two more years, and as I've come to know Hanoi, my relationship to the city has deepened. Below are some random notes on Hanoi, as I see it today.
Past First Impressions
As I wrote in My First Two Hours in Hanoi, my first impression of Hanoi was that it was "like being inside the buzzing element of an incandescent bulb." Like most visitors, I was initially based in Hanoi's Old Quarter, where the energy is non-stop. I found life among the vendors, street touts, backpackers and motorbikes exhilirating...and exhausting. As soon as I found my first apartment, my sense of the city began to change.

Judging Hanoi by the Old Quarter is like judging New York City by Times Square. It's an important component, but by no means representative of the city as a whole. As I wrote in Correcting the Record on Hanoi, "Hanoi is an intimate city, a city of neighborhoods." The visitor who doesn't leave the Old Quarter entirely misses the point. It is this intimacy, this sense of the "neighborhood as village," which gives Hanoi much of its flavor and charm.

Development and Change
Whether you see Hanoi as poor or rich, as developing or decrepit, depends on where you come from. Flying in from Europe or the U.S. one is apt to notice the crumbling facades, the broken sidewalks, the tangled skeins of electrical wires knotted around weathered wooden poles, and conclude that Hanoi is underdeveloped.

In the year I've been here, however, I've seen the Vincom Towers open for business, the city's western edge push outward, more and more luxury cars appear on the roads. New construction projects are coming on line every day, and the government plans to double the existing amount of hotel and office space over the next five years.

When you remember the poverty and devastation this country faced at the end of the 1980s (vestiges of war and government mismanagement), it's easy to see that Hanoi has taken great strides. Judged by its history, Hanoi doesn't represent underdevelopment. It represents modernization on steroids.

Expat Life
There are many ways to live the expat life in Hanoi. Some foreigners nibble around at the edges. I've chosen to jump into the center of the pie.

Take language, for example. A year ago I spoke no Vietnamese. After 10 months of language lessons, daily contact with salespeople and neighbors, and mingling among the majority-Vietnamese social circles I travel in, I'd place my language ability at a pre-intermediate level. I believe this has opened the door to understanding Vietnam in a way that many foreigners, even those who have lived here longer, cannot.

As a prototypically high-context culture, Vietnamese social relationships rely on a strong nexus of shared assumptions and unspoken "in-group" understandings. But while Vietnamese share a strong sense of common identity, by no means have I found them to be unwelcoming, xenophobic or chauvinist. What I have found is a strong sense of well-deserved cultural pride. I call it self-respect.

What this means, to the foreigner, is that to enter Vietnamese social circles, you need to do it on their terms. A basic knowledge of the country's language and history, and an appreciation for the cuisine, open the door. All you need to do is show a little interest, and respect. If you're not ready to do that, then why the hell are you here?

Annoyance and Acceptance
To be sure, no place is perfect, and Hanoi at its worst could test the patience of a Buddha. Traffic, smoking, pollution, and unhappy Westerners all rank high on my list of annoyances. But beneath it all, Hanoi today feels to me like a calm city.

There's little I enjoy more than strolling past a modern architectural ruin – a crumbling Vietnamese Imperial gate, or some decaying monument to French colonialism – or alongside a neighborhood lake. The city comes to life in vignettes: a conical hatted woman setting up to cook bún riêu on the street, two old men playing chess in an outdoor cafe, children kicking a beat-up soccer ball down the street.

These intimate moments, set against the backdrop of a city that breathes history, are what come to mind when I think of Hanoi today.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Watching Opera in Hanoi

True confession: I like opera. I've been attending performances and listening to recordings since I was a boy. For a few seasons, I was even a subscribing member of the Pittsburgh Opera. So when a friend scored free tickets to a recent performance of La Bohème at the Hanoi Opera House (Nhà hát lớn Hà Nội) , I was happy to go and see how the locals put on a show.

Although opera is commonly considered high-brow, upper-class entertainment, it should be remembered that, for centuries, opera was Europe's street theater. It's always had its high-brow side – a number of operas were commissioned by royalty and played to exclusive audiences. But there is a second strain to opera's history, a tradition of musical theater performed by local singers and musicians, that was as popular in its day as American Idol is today.

Hanoi's performance of La Bohème, although performed in a high-brow venue, seemed more in line with opera's populist tradition. Performed by Vietnamese singers with a mostly-Vietnamese orchestra, it was a not-entirely professional but fully energetic performance of Puccini's famous work.

Opera in Hanoi?
That Hanoi even has a local opera company highlights a side of Vietnam I have grown to admire: its ability to weave elements of foreign cultures – even the cultures of former colonizers – into its own cultural narrative. France's continuing cultural legacy in Vietnam underscores this point.

As much as any European power, the French extended their culture into their colonial territories. Even while exploiting the colony's resources and manpower, there was a strain of thought which saw French colonialism as an opportunity to bring the "benefits of civilization" to the people they colonized.

Though French colonialism proved intolerable as an institution, during the colonial era in Vietnam the arts fluorished. Vietnamese writers, schooled in the French lycées, were prolific; the École des Beaux-Arts trained a generation of Vietnamese painters; and traditional Vietnamese theater was supported and influenced by ther French stage.

Hanoi's Opera House – a replica of the Palais Garnier in Paris – was completed in 1911. It ran regular performances by mostly-French troupes until the 1950s, whereupon war and overall deterioration forced it to shut its doors. This architectural gem remained closed for 40 years, until the government of an independent Vietnam commenced to restore it in the 1990s.

Since its reopening in 1997, it has once again become a center of Hanoi's cultural life, serving regular offerings of European and Vietnamese arts.

Vietnam's East-West Blend
Traditionally, the Vietnamese reaction to France's cultural expansion was to absorb French influences into its own local traditions. Thus, the 1920s saw lacquer painting marry traditional Vietnamese techniques to modern European aesthetics, the New Poetry Movement of the 1930s and 40s expressed the clash between Confucian ethics and western-style individualism, and the áo dài, Vietnam's national dress, was born from the marriage between 19th century traditional Vietnamese woman's garb and 1920s Parisian haute couture.

Indeed, Vietnam's east-west blend is visible on every street sign, as Vietnam was the only Southeast Asian country to adopt the Latin alphabet as its national script (quốc ngữ).

But for all this culture-blending, there were areas where imported Western culture was accepted with few changes. Breadmaking, for example, was one of them. In today's Vietnam one can find a decent baguette in nearly every corner of the country, along with a cup of coffee (to see how coffee has been transformed into a Vietnamese culinary offering, read A Vietnamese Coffee Primer). French pâté, croissants, and pastries are all part of my regular fare living in Hanoi, all part of France's legacy in Vietnam.

Professor Hữu Ngọc writes, "There is no pure culture. Everything is a mixture." Though it may not be immediately apparent, the European culture France brought to Indochine continues to permeate modern Vietnam, in much the same way that Europe continues to be influenced by the cultures of classical Greece and Rome.

Thus it is that, on a lovely spring Hanoi evening, I was able to hear soprano Lê Thị Vành Khuyên's lovely rendition of Puccini's famous aria, Quando m' en vo' soletta, and have it feel like a natural merger of Europe's own popular operatic tradition, and something comfortably Vietnamese.