Hanoi turns one thousand years old this year, and the city’s just on the cusp of summer. The point where the heat begins to turn from velvety to steamy, the rainstorms open up, the Red River starts to rise and turn burnt orange with silt, and the fields which still surround this turbo-charged city turn as green as the cottage gardens which flourish on islands in the stream.
Hanoi is a city of lakes. Hoan Kiem, at the heart of the old quarter, where balloons hang over the medieval pagoda, and an embalmed tortoise in a scarlet temple commemorates the sacred turtle — an incongruous fourth partner to the more obviously sacred trio of dragon, unicorn and phoenix that were emblems of old Tongking — which rose to give King Le Thai To his personal Excalibur long ago.
There’s Ho Tay, or West Lake, the gargantuan freshwater expanse around whose borders young couples promenade and pet on scooters, as steadily hooting taxis forge their way through, where drinker sup the cheap draft beer, bia hoi, at kindergarten tables, and the high-rise condos of the Western expats sit sealed behind their grandiose gates.
Even the reflecting pool at the heart of the Temple of Literature, the country’s first university, set up on solid Confucian principles to breed generations of homegrown mandarins using sacred texts first codified 1500 years or so before the city’s birth, seems to mimic the city’s watery promise.
The street vendors, too, have felt the onset of summer. There are live crabs for sale in buckets in the alleyway outside our guesthouse. Women in conical hats carry yokes weighed down with mangosteens, soursop, green mangos and fresh pineapples past the courtyard where some entrepreneurial car dealer is raffling off an implausible limousine.
And in the long, narrow garden outside the Temple of Literature old men practise callisthenics by abstract fountains, children scoot and shout, and countless badminton duels take place without the slightest overlap. There are dancing classes in Lenin Park every morning at this time of year, where partners tango with verve from 6am.
We’ve spent four days in Hanoi, so far, and we’ll be back again soon. We’ve wandered around the old lake, Hoan Kiem, the heart of the ancient city of Thang Long, visited the temple, and discovered the Vietnamese hero Tran Hung Dao, who beat back Kublai Khan’s forces when they came surging south from China.
We’ve been to the Ho Tay Lake, a rather newer lake, and its waterpark. Death slides are framed by skyscrapers, wandering rivers pass under abstract rock bridges, teenagers wind in pairs down lazy slides, or race down sinuous scarlet and gold slides, little kids play in the baby pool, sinewy chaps test their muscles on monkey bars or flying foxes, and mothers and babies enjoy the hot tub besides the lake.
And then, of course, there’s the diving pool… We’ve been travelling for over four months now, and my spawn is getting bolder by the second. The diving board stands over four metres tall, or about three times Z’s height, with clusters of muscled, compact guys waiting their turn, or simply crowding by the pool.
I have vertigo. So to see his skinny little form ascending a ladder whose rungs are far too big for him to a board that feels on a level with the high-rise blocks across the shore, leaves me with a strange combination of pride and fear.
He makes the ascent. The lifeguard lets him on. There’s some tittering — not unfriendly — among the guys at the top, which intensifies when one of their number loses his nerve and decides to descend. First guy goes: a tentative step from the top, nose held. The second bombards through backward somersaults into space and lands with style. The third? A classic cannonball.
And then, for some reason, it’s already my baby’s turn. He walks the board. It’s long. It’s scary. I know it’s four times higher than anything he’s jumped before. He pauses at the end. I want to call his dad to look, but I can’t find him, and anyway I’m too busy projecting my own fears onto Z, thinking he’ll bottle the leap, hoping the guys up top and in the two-deep semi-circle crowding the rail around the pool will be kind. He’s half the age of the other chaps up there, after all.
I do the embarrassing mother thing of yelling up to him to hold his nose. He holds his nose. Takes a small, delicate step into the void.
And breaks the water effortlessly, almost elegantly, his skinny frame creating a suitably streamlined splash.
He surfaces to the warmest, most genuine, round of applause I’ve ever heard. From the lifeguard, the guys on the board, the crowd around the pool.
And swims to the side, beaming. It’s really wonderful…
I don’t know why the Vietnamese should do waterparks so well. But they do: Dam Sen in Saigon’s even better than this one (though it lacks, of course, the view). They have the art of compressing lots of fun into a stunningly compact space, with slides that span the gamut from leisurely to adrenaline-fuelled to “Holy Christ!”.
What else? We’ve explored the Temple of Literature, the country’s first university, where we made friends with a chap called Koa, and his two “black sheep” — the type of charming little boys who cannot be let off the leash for one second without (to take but one example) opening the gates to climb into the pool of serenity and endeavouring to catch some turtles. We’ve wandered its tranquil gardens, with trees that just beg to be climbed.
We’ve eaten snails at kindergarten tables on the street. Whizzed on the back of motorbikes through the eight-deep walls of scooters which clog the highways. Got a handle on the city’s bus system, and the vague sense of belonging which always comes with knowing a route. Z has played beyblades in the medieval Courtyard of the Sages. We’ve meandered past crumbling old IndoChine edifices, tall, narrow hotels, and narrow alleyways, taken our lives in both hands to inch across the road.
It’s summer back in London, but it’s summer, in its way, here too.