The Hanoians in my heart

By Hoang Hoang   August 12, 2016 | 02:23 am PT
A deep sense of what it means to be a true Hanoian. 

The term "Hanoian" doesn't simply refer to people who live in Hanoi, even if they were born in the capital. Simply living there doesn't guarantee one the Hanoian title. It is a term conveying the idea of a unique lifestyle that “authentic” citizens of Hanoi are really proud of and makes them different from people from other places. The way maybe a little bit old fashioned, maybe a little bit weird, but it is what gives the capital the nowhere-else-to-be-seen romantic, chivalrous charisma.

1. The Grandpa

“Even if it doesn’t smell good, jasmine is still jasmine.

Even if he isn’t elegant, a Hanoian is still a Hanoian.”

My grandpa used to recite this poem to me when I was a little boy playing on the second floor of our old, rustic house located on Hang Ga Street. We are fifth generation Hanoians. We weren’t rich back then. We were actually poorer than the migrants who came to do work in the capital. Nevertheless, he did not allow me to be messy, unpleasant or unrespectable. “We can be poor but we cannot be raffish,” he told me. Occasionally he would save up money to take me out for dinner at a restaurant, sitting alongside people who were better off than us, but I didn’t feel inferior to them.

Across Vietnam, the impression of people from Hanoi being gallant, courtly and elegant is acknowledged widely in literature and music. The swaggering, slightly extravagant and proud Hanoian gentleman does not lower himself for a favor. Money and status do not better honor, intelligence and ethics.

When I was young, my friends and I used to steal food from a local sidewalk shop when we did not have any spare money. I got caught and my grandpa beat me for the first time in many years. I knew it wasn’t only because I stole, it was because of my behavior. I damaged my way of life as a Hanoian. My act of stealing food was plainly unacceptable.

2. The Headmaster

The headmaster of my small middle school, Mr. Xuan Dung, was a veteran. Along with many other Vietnamese youngsters from Hanoi at the time when the American-Vietnam War was escalating, he abandoned his university studies to pick up his gun and go straight to the frontline. He was one of the lucky survivors. He came home with only one arm after having been discharged from the Vietnam Liberation Force to finish school and became a teacher. Mr. Dung was a strict, benevolent person who loved his students and was respected by many.

During my time in school, receiving money from students in exchange for good grades, accepting money to have spots guaranteed and extra-curricular classes were huge tumors in the education system. Parents visiting a teacher without a "gift" was nearly unheard of. The nation was young, poor and immature after being closed off from the world for a long time. The trade embargo had only recently been lifted and teachers were low-paid, so it was hard to blame them. It was an unspoken rule and nobody cared enough to prosecute the culprits.

His position at my school meant it would have been easy to exploit the system for money, if not a fortune. But he had his own values as a Hanoian that didn't allow him to do so. “Stay clean even in hunger, stay pleasant even in poverty,” he told us.

Even after he retired, he was still seen walking around or drinking ice tea with his grown-up students in an old white shirt, green army pants and a pair of sandals that had been fixed multiple times with string and duct tape, his prosthetic arm hanging from his shoulder. Amiable, quiet and discreet, no need to put on a pair of designer shades or expensive Italian shoes, his beautiful Hanoian soul surrounded him in a simple, casual way like an antique book that makes you want to treasure, to get closer, to look up and to adore.

3. The “Pho” Madame

Hiding under the flickering lamppost, deep inside a small lane near Ngoc Ha Village, Mrs. Cam and her tiny pho stall have been hanging on the spot for many years. Everyone, no matter rich or poor, a CEO of a big company or a manual laborer, are all delighted and welcomed to sit down and share this small pleasure. “VND25,000”, that’s it for a huge, generous bowl with both flank and rare steak to appease the late night growling stomach of a poor college student, when the normal price is 50 percent more expensive.

Photo by Hoang Hoang/VnExpress

Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Hoang

Cheeky college students and construction workers renting houses nearby used to ask her for more noodles and extra broth to make even bigger portions. But she never charged them an extra penny. Sometimes towards the end of the month, they had no money to spare. “You can pay me later when you have the money,” she said. “Why?”, I asked her once after years of seeing her generosity. Humbly she smiled.

“I moved to the devastated city when I was very young and left my family behind, just to make a little bit, you know. After the war, life was hard,” she told me.

She came here with just a small amount of money that soon ran out and was living from meal to meal before she got her first job, just like the kids she's been giving extra portions to for free. Her Hanoian landlady back then did not kick her out.

"She told me to stay till I could get a job and I could pay her later," Madame Pho recalled.

The landlady found her a job as a cleaner.  

"A meal won’t make me any richer but I know how much it means to someone when they are hungry.”

She might have not been born in Hanoi, but she is undoubtedly one of the people who share the warmth, generosity and humane heart that make a Hanoian.

No one knows if they will ever go back to repay the money they owe, but I know that they go home feeling full.

It's not like she’s rich or some kind of a philanthropist. She’s doing her job to support her family of three at the age of nearly 60. Money, nevertheless, is important regardless of time and place. But above the materialistic wave that is sweeping the modern city is love, gentle gestures and humanity that helped this city survive the bombs and bullets with dignity. 

More Hanoi stories:

Hanoi, a beautiful mess (a love letter)

Hanoi, the city of lakes

Old-school Hanoi opens foreign eyes

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