As Hanoi marks 1,000th birthday, some are cynical
New York Times, Seth Mydans
A musical refrain blared from a loudspeaker as this weekend began — “Hanoi, Hanoi, Hanoi” — and on the sidewalk below, Nguyen Thi Thuy was selling red heart-shaped decals printed with the gold star of Vietnam's flag.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” said Ms. Thuy, a 20-year-old college student, who had pasted one of the decals on her cheek. “This day only comes once every thousand years.”
With parades and concerts and flamboyant propaganda kitsch, Hanoi is celebrating its 1,000th anniversary on Sunday, and much of city life has stopped to make way for it.
Ms. Thuy was selling her decals at Hoan Kiem Lake, in the heart of old Hanoi, for 10,000 dong, or about 50 cents, after buying them for 5,000 dong each. “Yes, capitalism,” she cried, delighted at the thought.
High above her on the wall of the central post office, the country’s Communist patron, Ho Chi Minh, looked down at her from a poster that read: “Live, fight, work, study according to the example of the great Uncle Ho.”
The dissonance was emblematic of Hanoi today, a Communist capital hurrying into a more market-driven future — bigger, faster, noisier than ever, grasping for a new identity as it embraces the modern world.
Like most of their countrymen, few Hanoians, absorbed in getting and spending, live their lives to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week.
But in the symbolism of the celebration, the Communist Party ruled supreme, just three months before a once-every-five-years party congress, at the pinnacle of a history that includes royalty and feudalism as well as revolution.
Red flags with their single gold stars filled the streets, and banners celebrating the city’s 1,000 years of history were trumped by others that declared, “The Vietnamese Communist Party will live forever!”
In the 35 years since the end of the war, both the nation and the party have evolved, moving from a failed experiment in doctrinaire communist economics to the tumultuous capitalism of today.
While loosening the economic reins, the party has kept a tight grip on political control, much as China’s party has done.
The pervasive propaganda of the anniversary contrasts with the strict controls it places on a free press. Limits on speech have intensified as the party seeks to manage discussion ahead of its congress in January.
A target of American bombing in the 1960s and 1970s, then a moribund postwar cityscape of poverty and rationing, Hanoi is now experiencing some of the ills of urbanization — overcrowding, traffic jams, pollution — more quickly than its benefits.
Its population is more than six million, with some of the most expensive and most densely populated real estate in the world.
For some people here, weary of propaganda and cynical about the country’s leaders, the gaudy and expensive celebrations were an occasion for discontent.
“I keep asking myself, a thousand years of what?” said the writer Vo Thi Hao in a widely quoted essay. “The whole country is flooded with flags, but people remain poor, and corruption is widespread along with many other social evils.”
Vietnam’s economy has grown significantly since postwar controls were loosened. In a country overview, the World Bank calls the country’s poverty reduction and economic achievements “one of the most spectacular success stories” in development.
Corruption is slowing this progress, which has also brought with it many of the social problems of an open, fluid society.
Nguyen Qui Duc, who owns a bar and art gallery, reflected on what it means to be a Hanoian.
“Tacky things, bad taste, expensive decorations,” he said. “But what is it we are celebrating? Taoism, Confucianism, communism, capitalism — Hanoi has everything, but it adds up to nothing.” As an urban landscape, though, Hanoi seems mostly to be succeeding, where other Asian cities have failed, in integrating development with preservation.
Zoning laws have maintained the low-rise heart of the city with its trees and broad sidewalks. Most development has been shifted to the western suburbs.
Many of the elegant villas of the old French quarter have been preserved, and the bustling Ancient Quarter, choked with tourists and commerce, survives. The area around Hoan Kiem Lake has so far resisted development.
“I very strongly believe that everything that has happened in the inner area has been good,” said Lawrie Wilson, an Australian urban planner who has worked in Vietnam since the early 1990s.
But it is a rule of thumb, he said, that for a city this size roads should cover 15 percent of land space. In Hanoi, the figure is just 5 percent, and traffic has begun to choke the city.
The buzz of motorbikes and the constant beep-beep-beeping of their horns are a jarring backdrop to life in Hanoi even if, after a while, they fade into white noise.
It is sometimes said that traffic patterns reflect the character of a nation, and on Hanoi’s chaotic streets, no one gives ground, no one compromises. Everyone single-mindedly pursues his or her own route. “The gridlock happens all the time, everywhere, all day and all night,” Mr. Wilson said.
“And if it rains, there is an unwritten law here that you totally ignore traffic laws,” he added. “You drive up on the footpath, you drive through public parks and you just do what you like.” In recent weeks, the gridlock has intensified, and complaints have multiplied during last-minute construction and cleanups for the anniversary.
As people from the countryside came by the busload to view the spectacle, many residents fled.
Others embraced the occasion, like Nguyen Thi Hoa, 28, a journalist, who posed for pictures in her wedding dress recently near Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.
“I chose this date because I want to link our wedding to the anniversary,” she said. But so many other people had the same idea, she said, that she had had to postpone her ceremony.
On Thursday, on roads closed to traffic, tens of thousands of marchers rehearsed the Sunday parade, winding through the streets like a living propaganda poster of socialist unity.
There were workers in blue uniforms and bureaucrats in neckties; students in their caps and gowns along with peasants, journalists and medical workers; overseas Vietnamese, ethnic minorities and in-line skaters.
A group of people dressed as Buddhist monks, Roman Catholic nuns and Muslims in skullcaps marched together carrying little red flags with the Communist hammer and sickle. Aging veterans of Vietnam’s wars, the workhorses of Communist Party propaganda, paraded with rows of medals on their chests.
Basking in the occasion, Vu Trong Thuan, 80, a former captain in the army medical corps, put on his uniform, a little loose at the neck, to stroll through the decorated streets with his nieces.
He was proud, he said, to have defended his city against the armies of France and the United States, but admitted to nostalgia for the old Hanoi, poorer but more intimate.
“I miss eating ice cream on Trang Tien Street,” he said. “I miss the sound of the electric train.”
As the city’s modernization picks up pace, it seems, the pace of nostalgia accelerates with it.
Duc Duy, an 18-year-old economics student, wears an “I (heart) Hanoi” T-shirt, and says he means it. But he too said that he was nostalgic for the quieter city of his very recent childhood.
“I would love to see Hanoi be like the way it was a few years ago, when it was clean,” he said.
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