Hen Gap Lai Ha Noi!


Hanoians are famous for nostalgia. Being the great storytellers that they are, there are myriad poems, paintings, folk tales and other art forms depicting the sentimental beauty attached to this city. Despite – or sometimes because of – the drastic modernisation witnessed over the past few decades, there remains a pride in the certainty that Hanoi is, and always has been, a city of unsurpassed charm and romance.

From the moment I arrived in April 2013 I, too, found this charm impossible to resist. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of aspects of life in this city that irritate me. Truth be told, there are moments when I have wondered what it is with the sprawling suburbs, crowded streets, temperamental weather and questionable driving techniques that allows this city to still be considered charming. In the end, however, Hanoi is a good seductress: she woos with imagery and flirts with imagination, captures hearts and stimulates minds, persuading one to overlook her flaws.

IMG_0558Upon a recent rereading of my early blog posts, I discovered that I still get a kick out of many things I originally loved about Hanoi.  From babies in bicycle baskets to unidentified squealing animals toted around on the handlebars of a scooter to toads in a bowl on the footpath – a new take on toad-in-a-hole – there are some Hanoi quirks that never cease to enchant me.

As my day of departure nears, I find myself in limbo. I have not yet left – although by the time this is published I will have – but I’m not quite here anymore. Unable to fathom a life back in the US, where my days won’t begin with dog walks through parks of dancing couples, nor end with beer drunk on tiny plastic stools, I don’t want to start packing up my home. Yet I already feel that my too brief participation in this city is over. I will lead my final walking history tour for Friends of Vietnam Heritage, submit the last of the magazine articles, hand over my projects and finish my final column.

IMG_0103Summer is commencing as I book my flights and fret about moving details, such as how much we will have to pay for the furniture our dog, Marmalade, has chewed. Winter drizzle is turning to heavy rain showers, the damp street drying quickly in the hot sun. Perhaps it is these changes that give the city her charm. Seasons change in cities around the world but in no other have I felt and smelled and seen the changes as intimately as I do here. I cannot think of a more succinct way – nor a more nostalgic one – to sum up my time here than to highlight my favorite parts of the seasons. Hen gap lai, Ha Noi!

Feel – Damp, always. Bare legs sticking to taxi seats, sweat running down my back as I ride the scooter.
See – Lakes of lotuses flowing in the morning sunshine.

Feel – The rare combination of sun and low humidity as I walk Marmalade in the park. Hanoi actually looks like the postcards.
Hear – The sound of “Ai ca phe nao!” echoing through empty streets at midnight.

Feel – Fog — and pollution — and endless drizzle turning the city into a watercolour painting as the liquid sky hangs heavy overhead.
Smell – Cold dampness penetrating through cracks in the windows, seeping into furniture and making everything smell of mothballs.

Feel – The happiness of spotting bicycles laden with mounds of floral colour, the yellow roses smiling at the still sleeping lilies.
See – Trees laden with orange fruit and spindly branches full of pink blossoms weaving their way through traffic.


This article first appeared on the AsiaLife website on May 22nd 2015, click here to see the original.


Hanoi’s Song Birds

Thank you to Jura Cullen for the photos. More of her work can be seen at http://juraphotos.com/

Thank you to Jura Cullen for the photos. More of her work can be seen at http://juraphotos.com/

Delicately adorned cages hang from a tree on the bank of one of Hanoi’s many lakes. Barely audible above the roaring traffic, a fragile tweet glides across the water. It is a sight and sound familiar to all those who have spent time in Vietnam. Undeniably romantic, the caged birds are both beautiful and tragic. A remnant of ‘old Hanoi’ – a slower, quieter version of the city – this image is one only perceivable at certain times and in certain places, such as misty lakeside mornings.

Yet whenever I see these birds, I can’t help but hear Alicia Keys’ song Caged Bird:

That’s why I say that I knowIMG_5090
Why the caged bird sings
Only joy comes from song
She’s so rare and beautiful to others
Why not just set her free?
So she can fly, fly, fly
Spreadin’ her wings and her song
Let her fly, fly, fly
For the whole world to see

Perhaps I’m being a little dramatic. Keys is singing about the pressures of fame, and the Maya Angelou poem upon which it is based connotes racism and oppression. Hanoi’s bird owners, however, would vehemently deny any cruelty on their part and likely be offended by the insinuation that they do not care for their birds’ welfare and happiness. Still, the symbol of the caged bird is a powerful one.

“In Vietnam, the sight of bird cages paints the traditional picture of a rich man relaxing with his birds,” says Le Quy Minh, an expert on native bird life and one of Vietnam’s leading birders. “Birds are expensive and time-consuming and those that keep birds do so to show that they are able to lead the life of a relaxed, romantic, rich man.”

However, Minh argues that just because song birds are perceived as a part of Vietnam’s long history and rich culture, this time-honoured tradition doesn’t make the act of keeping them as pets right.

Sing like a bird…

P1060741A friend who had been privy to the famous bird singing competition hosted by the Thien Quang Lake Bird Club recently explained a few of the particulars in bird care and competitions. Not only do birds require special food and grooming with warm water twice a day but the process of training a bird to sing beautifully is one of great care and technique.

Young birds are placed near the elder birds so they can learn from their superiors. It is important, however, not to put them too close. The young winged pets risk not only straining their voices when they try to match their superiors but they may also become self-conscious in their lesser ability, causing them to suffer an inferiority complex and rendering the birds mute. Unable to compete in the prestigious competitions, these creatures become essentially useless to their owners.

Learning about all the care and support made me almost believe that the life of a songbird is not so bad. After all, owners are spending considerable time and money ensuring the birds’ welfare; surely they only want the best. They love the birds. They dote on them. These pets can be worth thousands of dollars, with rumors of particularly rare birds selling for over a billion Vietnam dong (near USD $500,000). And then there is the cage, an often elaborate work of art crafted out of anything from bamboo to elephant tusk for materials. There is even a Vietnamese saying that developed from this: “Valuable birds have to live in beautiful cages.”

But then I remember that these birds were once free.

“The majority of song birds are captured from the wild,” explains Minh. “It is believed that wild birds have stronger and more beautiful voices, as they have grown up hearing the sounds of nature.” Now kept in cages and trained to compete in competitions, they are no longer  free; even the most beautiful cage is still a prison.

“People need to change their mindset. Just because it’s a small part of our history, it doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t mean we can’t change,” says Minh. “You don’t see people walking instead of driving a motorbike just because walking is more traditional. Bird owners can find new hobbies.”

Despite the beauty of the bird cages lining Hanoi’s streets and my fascination with the culture of bird keeping, I can’t help but agree wholeheartedly when Minh says that it is always “nicer to see the bird fly freely”.


This article first appeared on the AsiaLife website on April 19th 2015, click here to see the original.


Christine Anu in Hanoi


Photo: Australian Embassy Hanoi, 2015

It’s not everyday one gets the chance to see their childhood idol perform, especially not on Australia Day in a foreign city. In fact, if my ten-year-old self had been asked if she ever thought she’d see Christine Anu, her favourite singer – OK, co-favourite with the Spice Girls – perform at the Hanoi Opera House on Australia Day, she probably would have rolled her eyes and told you to get a life.

But to my great surprise, this actually took place a few months back. Usually, 26 January is not a day I pay a lot of attention to, especially now that I no longer get the day off and can’t listen to Triple J’s hottest 100, but this year was different.

Born in far north Queensland to a Torres Strait Islander family, Anu is one of Australia’s most identifiable pop singers and prominent Indigenous musicians. Internationally, however, she is relatively unknown. So when she got up on stage in front of a theatre filled with people from around the world, I wondered how they would react. I wasn’t so certain that the audience, largely made up of middle-aged Vietnamese men, would share the same musical tastes as a rural Australian preteen girl.


Photo: Australian Embassy Hanoi, 2015

The performance was a testament to the power of music and its ability to connect people. Not only did Anu manage to get the audience to sing with her, but throughout the show I frequently saw those middle-aged men perched eagerly on the edge of their seats, grinning and clapping in time with the music.

All of this got me thinking about the universality of music and how enriching it is to celebrate diversity and strengthen connections between countries through arts and culture.

Cultural centres around Hanoi embrace the arts as a way to share a part of their home country with their Vietnamese hosts. But for those of us who are neither Vietnamese nor the nationality of the cultural centre, it is equally interesting.  Currently, the Korean Cultural Institute is showing an art exhibition by a Vietnam-based Korean artist and L’Espace is holding its usual array of French films, art exhibits and music concerts. Last week, I visited the Goethe Institute for an exhibition of exquisite ao dais that have been lovingly preserved by a Vietnamese-German woman. In the first few months of the year, the Japan Foundation is staging a performance of Vietnamese and Japanese operas, as well as hosting a traditional Japanese drum troupe.


Photo: Australian Embassy Hanoi, 2015

One of the joys of living in a foreign country is that I find I actually attend these events. At home I am less likely to visit a cultural centre, not because I’m not interested but because I get stuck in a routine. Here in Hanoi, I am constantly seeking activities that give me insight into Vietnam. Through these events I not only enjoy myself but learn more about both the host country and its cultural collaboration with Vietnam.

Music evokes emotions and, in many cases, the same music can evoke similar emotions across a wide audience, regardless of age and background. So when Anu strutted around the stage clapping her hands and singing “Why don’t you come join my party, let’s move until the break of dawn”, it wasn’t just me who was enjoying it. Although I was probably the only one who knew all the words, everyone appeared to find her fun and entertaining. And in that moment, we were all connected in our enjoyment.

This article originally appeared on the AsiaLife website on March 7th 2015, click here to see the original.


Heaven on Earth: Vietnam’s Newest World Heritage Site

IMG_7416 (600x800)Sheer cliffs surround the boat in every direction. Limestone karsts sprouting with dense vegetation tower above.  I see nothing but nature and hear nothing but silence. Bobbing on the water, the captain slowly steers the boat to what looks like an impassable tangle of rocks and vines. Not until we are a few metres away do I see our escape: a cave, less than two metres high, emitting only darkness. We are going in.

Welcome to Trang An, Vietnam’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place where the water is crystal clear and pink flowers bloom along the shallows. Temples rest on a precipice of rock and water. Here, for 30,000 years, people have lived amongst these limestone giants. To the unfamiliar, this area is a maze of confusing waterways and impassable hills, a place where one could easily disappear from the world. However to the emperors of the 10th and 11th centuries, this was the ideal setting for a capital city where the inhabitants could be controlled and enemies rebuffed.

This combination of stunning natural beauty and ancient history has led Trang An to be recognised as Vietnam’s eighth World Heritage Site. Unlike the previous seven, Trang An is notable for being the only UNESCO site in Vietnam to be classified for both its cultural beauty and natural integrity.

IMG_7330 (800x600)At the ticket office, we are met by the sight of thousands of wooden boats bobbing along the shoreline. Stepping gingerly into the closest dinghy, we are greeted by a young woman whose ability to paddle three adults – all in the midst of Christmas feasting – for three straight hours left me in awe of her strength. What followed was a string of beautiful caves of varying heights and lengths, interspersed with scenes of a peaceful beauty that can be hard to come by in Vietnam.

Dubbed ‘Halong Bay on land’, Trang An’s landscape is reminiscent of its coastal World Heritage neighbour. Dominated by similar karst geography, Halong Bay and Trang An both provide a stunning backdrop to a tranquil boat cruise. Unlike Halong, however, the boats at Trang An are small, seating no more than five adults, and weekday crowds are minimal. We emerged from a particularly low cave opening and into a small cove ringed by flowering reeds and waterlilies. The steep limestone cliffs block all outside sounds. Underwater reeds stand tall in the clear water beneath our boat, their green spongy limbs waving gently in the current as we paddle past. Brown-and-gold fish dart between grass, their scales glinting in the sunlight, before plunging into the shadows of the towering hills above. Water movement is imperceptible, with the steep hillsides, plunging valleys and clear sky mirrored in its glassy surface. It is as though a parallel world of deep crevices and underwater mountains exists just below our feet.

IMG_7419 (800x600)A parallel world does, in fact, describe how it seemed as we floated through the caves of Trang An. The journey through the first hollow felt like stepping through the back of the wardrobe and entering Narnia. We were suddenly transported into a beautiful, magical world. So at odds with the industrial limestone factories that dominate the Ninh Binh landscape, this small pocket of serenity is surprising.

IMG_7343 (800x600)With more and more visitors flocking to Vietnam’s World Heritage Sites, I worry that Trang An will suffer the consequences of unchecked mass tourism. We can only hope that tourism officials will learn from the experiences of other popular tourist destinations and ensure that this place remains as close to paradise as it was on that sunny afternoon in late December.

As our boat paddled slowly back towards the ticket office and the noises from surrounding roads and villages returned it was as though we were emerging from the wardrobe. Tranquility and history can be experienced at the Trang An complex and I hope that its designation as Vietnam’s newest World Heritage Site will help the area retain its magic.

IMG_7385 (800x600)This article originally appeared on the AsiaLife website on February 5th 2014, click here to see the original.


My Top Ten Buildings in Hanoi

Below is a new blog post from a good friend who also shares my love for Hanoi’s beautiful and diverse architecture. I have never re-blogged a post before but this one just seemed too perfect. Thanks Jura!

Travels with a Nubian Hound

One of the things I love most about Hanoi is its architecture. It has a charm and character unlike anywhere else. Many cities in South East Asia have become all too generic, with the domination of glass, steel and concrete. Hanoi still has a much more eclectic mix of buildings, in part because there were other priorities during the thirty five years of war while Vietnam fought the Japanese, the French, the Americans and finally the Chinese.P1030875

The Word magazine recently did a feature entitled ‘The Elements of Style’ where Katie Jacobs and I described the various architectural time periods – pre-Colonial Vietnamese, early French Colonial, Transitional, Soviet-influenced, and Contemporary. My favorite buildings fall in the first three categories. I have spent so much time photographing buildings over the last three and a half years that it was hard to narrow down my favorites, but here we go – some are famous, others more obscure.

View original post 1,234 more words


The Imperial Citadel


Thanks for my friend Jura Cullen for these photos

This year the city of Hanoi turns 1,005. I know this is not news to many, but let’s just stop to consider that for a moment – 1,000 years is a very long time. One thousand years ago, Medieval Europe was flourishing, the Byzantine Empire in Eastern Europe was expanding and the new Khmer Empire had yet to build Angkor Wat. In what is now modern-day Vietnam, Emperor Ly Thai To, first emperor of the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225 AD), founded the dynamic city now known as Hanoi. This makes Vietnam’s capital (with the exception of a brief interlude in Hue) one of the oldest continual seats of power in the world. That’s a pretty big deal. Yet many people, myself included, forget the deep history that lies beneath our feet.

I pass the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long daily, drive by the flag tower on my way to work, circle the faded yellow walls on my dog’s evening walk. I even live on the edge of what was once the Forbidden City, now just another urban block. But then there are moments – passing the main entrance as it lights up at dusk or watching shadows catch the craters left by canon fire on the north gate – when I remember that this is not just another city block. This is the heart of ancient Hanoi.

I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until months after moving to Hanoi that I visited the Citadel. Despite living a five-minute walk from the Imperial complex, I was unaware of the impressive piece of history next door. As it turns out, I’m not alone. Many other expats guiltily admit to the same ignorance. In all fairness, there’s not a lot left of the citadel, so the visit takes a little imagination. With so much renovation and remodeling – not to mention war – most of what is still standing is no more than a couple of hundred years old. However, excavations which began in 2007 have since revealed artifacts not only from the founding of the city in the 11th century but also from as far back as 767 AD, when the Chinese built the citadel of Dai Lai on the same site.

Visiting the excavation site is interesting, allowing one to imagine the palaces, gardens and lakes formerly occupying the extensive grounds. According to legend, the city was named when Ly Thai To saw a dragon rising from a bend in the Red River. At the time, the capital was 100km south but, with no room for expansion, the emperor sought a new location. After seeing the apparition, Ly Thai To moved his city to the banks of the Red River and named it Thang Long, or rising dragon.

When it came time to construct the Imperial city, however, Ly Thai To found that the city walls kept collapsing. One evening he dreamt of a white horse galloping across his land. The horse left marks in the ground and the following day the Emperor instructed his workers to build the walls on the footprints of the horse. The construction was a success and Hanoi’s oldest temple, Bach Ma, was founded in the horse’s honour.

These stories and the history they represent can seem a little abstract on the bustling streets of today’s Hanoi but if you look closely, remains of the original city layout are still evident. The old quarter reflects the historic guilds that serviced the Royal Citadel and the three sections of the palace – ceremonial, military and living and consultation palaces – are still loosely followed. The main gate and grassy field that are today used for festivals and graduation celebrations is a remnant of the ceremonial grounds for which they were once used.

My favourite part of the citadel, however, is much more recent than the ancient foundations. Towards the back of the compound, below one of the many French-era buildings constructed on the site, are the war rooms used by Ho Chi Minh and General Giap. Decked out in 1960s furniture and decorated with maps used to plot war strategies, one can see where they worked, sheltered and slept.

These rooms are not in my guidebook, nor have I read about them online. In fact, if I hadn’t been with a guide I would have passed right over them. Like so many interesting parts of this city, it was thanks to a little exploration and luck that I found them.

As 2015 dawns and my remaining time in Hanoi starts to slip away, I worry that there are still places in the city that I have not properly explored. While I will never visit every corner of Hanoi, there are still many things I wish to learn and places I want to visit (and re-visit). Starting with the Imperial Citadel, it is my New Year’s resolution to make the most of the few months I have left and delve deeper into Hanoi’s fascinating past and vibrant present.

This article originally appeared on the AsiaLife website on January 3rd 2014, click here to see the original.


Hanoi’s Hemingways

IMG_1208Writing a novel is something I never thought I would do. Or, to be more specific, attempt to do. Then I moved to Hanoi and suddenly it was all I wanted to do. There was this urge to create a story, imagine my characters, and delve into research. I would be Hemingway a la Hanoi — only with marginally less alcohol.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing myself to Hemingway — he wrote some of the English language’s great literary pieces, whereas I’ll be thrilled with a $1 paperback. But there is romanticism in being a writer, especially in a non-native situation, that I wanted to try out.


I don’t have any photos to liven up this post so I’ve gone to my back-up – shots of Marmalade out and about!

So, booting up my laptop, I became a regular at a small library and joined a writers’ club. During this process I found that I not only love writing, but I love writing in Hanoi. The city has a gritty charm that I find intriguing and inspiring. There are stories all around me and I love imagining the lives of people I see daily — the lady selling pho, the men playing checkers in the park. I integrate them into my novel and let the city lead my writing.

I was curious to see if my fellow writers felt the same. So I asked them, why write in Hanoi? Then, as I typically do nowadays, I wrote an article about it. Although each responded in his or her own voice, they all have in common a fascination with Hanoi’s charm. It’s been said a million times, but it doesn’t make it any less true — Hanoi is, as Alex writes, “preposterously charming”. But charm does not make a writer.

I don’t usually post the articles I write for Word on my blog but I so enjoyed reading what my friends had written that I wanted to share it with you. Not only are they wonderful writers, but they give a taste of what it is like to live and write in this city. To read what they have written, checkout the online edition on Word website by clicking here.

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