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08. Hanoi – Of sacred and profane

17th April

6.30 am.
The alarm clock cracks my ears and my dreams.
Blood soaks my eyeballs, dead tired like those of Donald Duck in the dripping tap episode.
All through the night, I engaged in a bizarre dancing game against the air conditioning and a mosquito, while a birdsong-like accompaniment was played by the lift gears behind the wall.
Not sure who won the match, whether it was the air conditioning or the mosquito. Or the lift maybe.
The jet lag has left me with a mild wobbling gait.
I crawl towards the shower, blaming myself for not bringing any conditioner with me. In just one day the Vietnamese humidity has turned my hair into a bristly broom.
My first breakfast in Vietnam is strictly tied to the traditions – bread, butter, jam and cappuccino.
At 7.45 am, despite my atrocious drowsiness, I’m at the reception, ready to be picked up for a tour of Hanoi.

The bus runs through the streets with ease, experienced at playing shape sorter with scooters and bikes. Inside, I seem to live in a miniaturised replica of the Polar ecosystem, while the world out there is slowly melting down.
After collecting all the passengers from their hotels and distributing water bottles, our young guide grabs the microphone to kick his first official speech off.
A game of words about his unpronounceable name warms the atmosphere up. “You can call me Chan,” he concludes.
Like a showman running a quiz, Chan whets our curiosity by interrogating us on Vietnamese politics, geography, lifestyle, religion and culture.
I learn that building up a house in Vietnam is a mixture of pragmatism and superstition. The structure is made high and narrow to contain the land costs, while the number of floors can only be three or five, 4 being a symbol of death.
The following quiz doesn’t sound less challenging when interrogated on the difference between a Pagoda and a Temple. I admit defeat, unable to find an explanation to the dichotomy between Vietnamese sacred and secular.
“…I remind Miss Jenny to cover her shoulders,” Chan repeats before getting off the bus and moving to the Pagoda.

Tran Quoc Pagoda seems the pupil of a watery eye.
It lies on a slight drop of land surrounded by the Westlake waters, which are sufficient to ensure an adequate isolation from the city buzz, even though not from the tourists’ mundanity.
A warm draft is playing with the wind chimes on the Bodhi Tree in the middle of the courtyard. Its roots are encircled by a low brick fence, on which some Vietnamese words are embossed.
“They are the only words written in Vietnamese here. All around, you see Chinese ideograms, the language of pray,” Chan declaims.
For the very first time, I observe the written Vietnamese language and its alphabet with a more attentive eye. It’s intriguing how an Asiatic idiom has been caged into the constraints of the Latin script. A Latin alphabet in the middle of Asia. A sort of Portuguese alphabet filled with new symbols and accents, created to give a visual shape to the multitude of Vietnamese sounds.

Visitors are allowed to access the Pagoda barefoot only.
Inside, a blend of incense and human smells punch my nose.
Two women are praying on their knees. I walk tiptoe, but some tourists’ cackling suddenly floods my cautious silence.
The Pagoda is an anthology of Buddha representations, the males coming from the Chinese tradition and the females originated from ancient local beliefs.
Vietnamese Buddhism is not a polytheism, it’s a fusion.
Sometimes we don’t sense the boundary – or the twist – between sacred and secular, religion and symbolism, spirituality and superstition.
This is the most ancient Pagoda, and probably the most visited in Hanoi. I’ve got the impression that when places of worship also become tourist attractions, they lose a bit of their soul.

I make a deal with the little statue of Buddha next to me at the restaurant. I give him a note of 200K Dong and take smaller ones from his offerings, leaving a little contribution myself. Small notes make negotiating with local people easier.
After spending the morning to visit a Pagoda, a Mausoleum, a University and a Museum, nothing is left of my feet and my stock energy.
I just want to eat.
I’m the only solo traveller at the table. The rest of the company are couples and a family group.
An affable Australian man sits in front of me. His traits and moustache resemble those of Richard Dreyfuss, they look cheerful and reassuring.
He’s travelling with wife, son, daughter and her boyfriend.
I spot a hint of introversion in his attitude; however, he gently fills the silence either with stories about his family’s journey or asking about mine, and remarks how brave I am to travel alone. From time to time his daughter leans on and hugs him, spreading a sense of naive aloofness, self-confidence and love which clearly dip their roots into an abundance of her father’s affection. I can read him through her.
Before lunch comes to an end, the man hands me a paper filled with common words and phrases in Vietnamese. “You can have it,” he says, “You may need it”. I smile at that sign of paternal kindness.

I’m terrified. The bus is running fast, and the cows along the road are too close. The way to Bat Trang – the ceramic village – is arduous.
A stopover at the embroidery factory is meant to lure the tourists to buy handmade products and boost the local economy.
Stacks of drab canvases are turned into hypnotic floss paintings by some women’s slender fingers.
Colours too rich, too vibrant to stay still and quiet within the border cliffs.
I fall in love with a family of tigers, black and white stitches running together all along the weave.
It leaps out because of that white thread which is frantically making all the job while rolling over the black.
I’m tempted, I leave it on top of the pile, and observe it carefully. I imagine it hung on a hypothetical wall, which is not in my house though. I move forward, then I come back.
I look at it once again.
In the end, pragmatism wins. That object is too expensive.
I leave it there, on the stack, with the other embroidered paintings. I need to stick to more rational shopping.

The pottery factory is a private house where a family run the business.
The tour is backwards, from top to bottom.
The last floor is an incredibly luminous production space; floating particles of dried clay make the air dense and even more dazzling.
All around, raw grey crockery bends the shelves while waiting for someone to beautify it.
Today, the group of workers is made of one baker, two ‘smootheners’, four painters.
The girls, entertained by their earphones, are incessantly dabbing the same decorative pattern on desiccated vases. The colours for today are a soft green, yellow and red.
Some pots of magenta, steel blue and a delightful mix of the two are left on a dusty corner of the room, next to a window.
Downstairs, on the ground floor, it’s shopping time. However, I decided not to buy anything and keep my luggage light.
The ceramic shops along the main road tell me of the singular ways sacred and profane meet; Buddhas are displayed together with some folkloristic statuettes of half-naked women crouched down.

I expect Vietnam to be a country of contradictions and coexistence.
Ready to see what comes next.

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