It is one of those questions that pop up whenever there is a new gathering of expatriates in Việt Nam.
Hà Nội or Hồ Chí Minh City?
Which one do you prefer?
This time it was at a soiree the day after Christmas, or “Boxing Day,” as the Brits call it.
Around the table were folks from Europe, North America, South America and New Zealand.
As the young German explained his preference for Hà Nội, I nodded my concurrence.
This is a question that divides my wife and me.
She was born in Sài Gòn and left a few years later, after it was renamed in honor of the late Vietnamese president Hồ Chí Minh.
So naturally she thinks of Sài Gòn as home.
She speaks with a southern accent and enjoys visiting not-so-distant relatives.
She finds the southern food more flavorful, the society friendlier.
She does not mind the heat and she likes the hustle and bustle.
But I have never lived in Hồ Chí Minh City.
And Hà Nội is starting to feel like. . . well, if not home, then maybe a bit homey.
But it is not a matter of sentiment and weather.
While some cities are blandly generic, others have distinctive personalities.
Visitors from Mars, I suspect, could sense the way that Hồ Chí Minh City leans into the future, toward globalization and modernity, while Hà Nội seems more resistant, more wedded to the past.
So like the German, I prefer the somewhat less hurried pace of Hà Nội and its mildewed charm.
Hà Nội can be frenetic, of course, but the lakes seem to provide a natural antidote.
What we both like about Hà Nội – Indeed, what charms many foreigners about Việt Nam’s capital – is the sense of antiquity, a living antiquity, and the way Hà Nội conveys that past, present and future.
Somehow the sight of a Rolls Royce or Ferrari seems stranger in Hà Nội than down south.
To me the difference between Hồ Chí Minh City and Hà Nội is visceral.
You can see it in the people, in the streetscape, in the architecture.
All leave an impression.
When you think about the people you see everyday that symbolize Hà Nội or Hồ Chí Minh City, which ones come to mind?
What do they look like?
Down south, the stereotypical Saigonese may be more stylishly dressed and ride a shinier, newer motorbike.
They work in offices and might follow the Hồ Chí Minh Stock Exchange.
These days they can also drop by Starbucks stores – still yet to arrive in Hà Nội.
Up in the capital, among the workaday masses, there seems to be more men in uniform –more military, more police, and more authority figures.
But even more so, there seem to be more women (almost always women) carrying gánh – the bamboo yokes hung with baskets at each end that in the morning can carry loads of produce and in the afternoon may carry cans and cardboard for recycling.
Think about the gánh for a moment.
Việt Nam is a young nation, dating to 1975 in its current borders.
But the culture dates some 4,000 years.
It is safe to assume that the ganh was used before the wheel.
It was used as a pram, of sorts, by my wife’s maternal grandmother.
When my wife was a toddler, she and her younger brother would be balanced on a gánh and carried during her immediate family’s visits to her grandmother in the countryside.
Now consider the architecture.
No landmark exhibits the aspirational ambition of contemporary Việt Nam more than the Bitexco tower in Hồ Chí Minh City.
So what works of architecture best symbolize Hà Nội?
It’s certainly not the 72-story Keangnam Tower, tall but boxy and far from central.
Nope, to me, two postcard images come to mind.
One is the austere, stately tomb of the late president Hồ Chí Minh.
The other is the old Turtle Tower on the tiny island in Hoàn Kiếm Lake.
This humble, photogenic landmark is fittingly under the gaze, from across the street, of a statue of legendary 10th century King Lý Thái Tổ, from the era when Hà Nội was known as Thăng Long, or “Rising Dragon.”
Hà Nội’s public art honors its history.
Lý Thái Tổ is credited with repelling invaders from the north, and here he presides over the legend of the Lake of the Returned Sword – and the remarkably true, living legend of the surviving Hồ Gươm turtle.
Meanwhile, a few miles away, the statue of Vladimir Lenin stands opposite the landmark Flag Tower, gazing toward an old MIG jet fighter from the American War era, as if wistfully saluting Việt Nam’s triumph over another great foreign power.
This is more poetic than the military history displays one sees in Hồ Chí Minh City.
Vietnamese, too, can go on and on about the differences between Hà Nội and Hồ Chí Minh City.
I prefer to apply my pet theory for understanding the yin and yang of Việt Nam, the duality of north and south.
Imagine a gánh that balances two creatures of culture’s folklore, the turtle and the dragon.
Hồ Chí Minh City is a dragon – quick, daring, creative and fanciful.
Hà Nội used to be “Rising Dragon,” but now it is more like a turtle – stolid, conservative, persevering, and as real as the old one in Hoàn Kiếm Lake.
By SCOTT DUKE HARRIS
Source: Tuổi Trẻ News