As Good As Vietnam Gets
An Encounter With Ghosts in Hanoi
It was a late winter afternoon, and I had little more than an hour to spare before my next meeting. As the general manager of a luxury hotel, there is very little demarcation between when you’re working and when you’re not; you catch your leisure when you can, and I needed a walk.
The drizzle, or the crachin as it’s known to the French in Hanoi, was upon us as I stepped out of the Metropole wing of the hotel. I sometimes prefer Hanoi this way, with a bit of chill in the air to remind me of Bordeaux in winter. In the waning light of late afternoon, the city takes on the slatey ambiance of a film noir, so much so that a walk in a trench coat in a light rain can make you feel as if you’re in a movie.
I turned left onto Trang Tien and walked past the magnificence of the Hanoi Opera House. Several minutes later, I was at the National Museum of Vietnamese History where I watched a man move around the building in a strange way. He’d walk along one of the galleries, and then stop to focus on a point, moving his head about between his shoulders as jerkily as a bird, as if there were something going on up there among the bracketed eaves. His curiosity was contagious, and I started looking, too.
He didn’t carry a guidebook, but he was carrying something. “Hébrard,” the man said, cognizant of my presence, and moreover, of the fact that I’d been paying attention to his investigation.
He assumed an immediate rapport, as if we’d known each other and had been in conversation previously, though we’d never met.
“Not only was Hébrard a great urban planner — you know what he did in Thessaloniki, of course — but look at this, this melding. The pagoda tower, the trappings of villas in the galleries. He was trying for something new. It’s brilliant.”
I knew of the great Ernest Hébrard, and the monuments he’d built in Hanoi in the 1920s and 1930s. He, more than anyone else, was responsible for the city’s resounding Gallic echoes.
“I just arrived yesterday, and I’ve been walking all day,” the man told me. “This is a great city for walking. So much of the life we keep bottled up inside our homes in France... here in Hanoi, it’s lived on the outside. But that’s not the overarching impression that I have today. Do you know what I am really feeling for Hanoi right now?”
He was a remarkable man, really, to presume that I was this taken by his curiosity. But I was. “I don’t,” I told him.
“It’s a ghost town,” he said. “Hanoi is a ghost town.”
“But you yourself just said it was so vibrant. How can it also be a ghost town?”
“The French,” he said. “Look at this building. The Opera House. The Bank of Indochina. I walked up and down the streets near Ba Dinh Square today, past the villas… and it occurred to me that all of the people who designed these buildings, and lived in them as if they would live here a thousand years, they’ve vanished. They’ve vanished, and their descendents have vanished, and these places have been repopulated by people with the rightful claim to this place. But still, it feels like a ghost town.”
He smiled then with his perspective on this city, and I nodded. You cannot be in Hanoi without remembrance of things past, without feeling haunted in some way. It is one of the city’s great charms.
Later that evening, after dinner, I swirled the last of my cabernet, and I heard something at a great distance, a woman’s voice, the Sparrow’s voice, not clearly but creaky and echoey, as if from a gramophone. Up there, somewhere among the brackets, perhaps.