North Vietnam

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Lair of the Dragon
Hanoi, North Vietnam

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Ancient myths and mysteries have lost none of their traditional influence in modern Vietnam,
writes Sarah Shuckburgh

I didn't believe in dragons until I went to Vietnam.

Almost 1000 years ago, a dragon soared into the air, and showed Emperor Ly Thai To exactly where to build his capital. Today, Hanoi - the City of the Ascending Dragon - is an intoxicating mix of tree-lined boulevards and higgledy-piggledy streets. In pavement cafes and cupboard-sized shops, families crouch on miniature plastic stools by steaming vats of noodle soup. Groups of ancients play Chinese chequers in the dark recesses of narrow tunnel-houses, while overhead, tangled cables obscure once-elegant colonial facades. Women porters in conical hats scuttle past with baskets of vegetables dangling from poles, as motorbikes weave noisily through the crowds, with whole families clinging on behind. Wandering in the labyrinth of the old town, we step over high thresholds into temples decorated with coiled dragons, and linger at stalls selling dragon’s eye longans and fire-dragon fruit.

Dragons are central to the daily life of Vietnamese people. One of the twelve astrological signs of the lunar calendar, and a key element of Vietnamese mythology, fire-spitting dragons appear on buildings, furniture and fabrics, bringing supernatural power and blessings. Vietnam has 83 million inhabitants, from 54 different ethnic groups, but, as our guide, Long, explains, they are all related. In their veins runs the blood of their common ancestor, the dragon king, Lac Long Quan, whose hundred robust sons founded every kinship group in Vietnam today. Not all dragons are kind - white dragons cause disease and death, black dragons bring typhoons and other disasters, red dragons are aggressive, five-clawed yellow dragons serve emperors; but blue dragons are peaceful, and Long - whose name means Dragon - is quick to explain that he is a benevolent blue dragon.

On our first morning in Hanoi, my husband Guillaume and I join worshippers of another Vietnamese dragon leader. We join the tourist queue (much shorter than the queue for locals), shuffling forward with chain-smoking French, Japanese in face-masks, Chinese parties in matching baseball caps, and track-suited Americans. Uniformed officials keep us all behind a red line, and loudspeaker announcements urge decorous behaviour. Passing through a metal detector, where soldiers are sipping tea from tiny cups, we are marched forward and up the steps into a mausoleum. Guards stand to attention on both sides of the plastic carpet, but they are keeping a beady eye on the visitors, and they spot my hands disrespectfully thrust into my pockets. I am reprimanded. Someone else is told to remove his hat.

Upstairs we enter a darkened hall, where soldiers guard the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh, apparently peacefully asleep in his glass coffin, but in fact dead since 1969. His white goatee beard is neatly combed, and his hands rest on his chest. The Vietnamese revere the memory of this godlike man of modest needs, who defeated the enemy and unified the country. Long, who plans to call his son Chi Minh, has a touching faith in everything Vietnamese, and hates all historic adversaries – Russia (a nation of violent villains), France (unreliable and arrogant), China (uncivilised), America (destructive). But we notice relics of French rule everywhere, from baguettes, berets and louvred shutters, to the words such as ‘ga’ (station), or ôtô (car) - and when Guillaume apologises for being French, Long reassures him that Vietnam welcomes her former enemies as tourists.

We visit a wooden pagoda, rising from a pond like a lotus flower, and then a Buddhist temple - a riot of colour and confusion, crammed with statues, flowers, fruit, incense sticks, flags, Chinese calligraphy and gold dragons. Old ladies kneel barefoot on a carpeted dais, banging drums and swaying back and forth in prayer. Ancestors are sacred in Vietnam, and one wall is covered with photographs, posted by grieving relatives to bless the spirits of their loved ones. Next, Long shows us a Daoist temple, where worshippers bless themselves by touching a statue’s shiny foot and then rubbing their own face and hair. In the eleventh century courtyards of the Temple of Literature, students hoping for high exam grades burn incense at a shrine to Confucius and finger stone slabs engraved with ancient alumni. I notice that Long prays at every temple, lighting joss sticks, leaving money on altars, and stroking statues. He tells us that, like everyone he knows, he is very superstitious, and consults a fortune teller before making any decisions, such as when to buy a motorbike, whether to apply for a job, or whom to marry. He explains that a fortune teller told him to have his first child in 2008, but that, most unfortunately, his wife has already fallen pregnant. Long says that this inauspicious baby will certainly be sickly and unintelligent, but hopes that their second (and last – taxes discourage more than two children) will be born in 2008 - their rightful firstborn.

That evening, Guillaume and I take a rickshaw to the water puppet theatre. The audience is entirely made up of tourists, but the show is charming, funny and unique. Originating centuries ago in flooded paddy fields after the rice harvest, the puppets are worked by poles under the water. To an accompaniment of folk music, wooden farmers plough with buffaloes, wives plant out rice seedlings and dragons breathe real fire.

The next day we drive east, past brick kilns, coal mines, and endless paddy fields where men are ploughing with buffaloes, and women bend double to plant rice, just like the water puppets. We pass few cars, but bicycles wobble under extraordinary loads – three fat pigs, or wicker baskets of squawking chickens, and once even a cow. The roadside is dotted with half-built ‘matchbox’ houses – tall but narrow, to avoid tax, with blank concrete sides, and extraordinarily ornate and garish facades, with pediments and pillars, fanlights and flagpoles, balustrades and balconies. Halfway to the coast, Long suggests a ‘comfort stop’, and, with busloads of tourists, we find ourselves in a sweatshop, staring uneasily at war orphans and disabled children who are embroidering intricate pictures of dragons.

At noon, we reach the bay of the Descending Dragon – an extraordinary geological site of 3000 limestone crags jutting out of the sea. There are many legends explaining the eruption of these islands in Halong Bay. Some say that a malevolent dragon cursed those who fought against him, turning them into variously shaped rocks, which are, to this day, known as the monkey, the dog, and so on. But Long believes that a benevolent female dragon came to the aid of the Vietnamese as Chinese invaders approached the coast, and spat out thousands of pearls, which became islands and provided a safe defence.

Leaving Long on the shore, we board a colonial-style cruiser - all polished wood, cane furniture and potted palms - and set sail. Fog often shrouds this bay, but we are lucky – a sepia sky, streaked with pale cloud, merges into a silvery sea, and the jagged rocks loom in slate-grey silhouette, like rows of pointed dragon’s teeth. As the islands approach, we spot gaping caves, and tufts of green-grey scrub on steep, wrinkled sides. Black kites wheel overhead. Floating villages of brightly-coloured rafts nestle beneath the cliffs. The bay is dotted with boats – fishing coracles, each with a straw-hatted wife cooking on a smoky fire; long barges, low in the water; a string of tiny fishing boats being towed out into the bay; tourist junks, with winged dragons on their prows.

At dusk, our boat moors in a secluded cove, and despite the chilly air, Guillaume and I clamber down a ladder and swim. Craggy cliffs tower above us, blackening as the light fades, and the sea turns a deep emerald green. Nearby, a lone sampan bobs on the ripples, red flag fluttering, a fisherman huddled under a tattered canopy. We climb back on board, change into warm clothes, and sit on deck, watching the night fall. The sampan lurches as the fisherman hauls in his nets, and then the little boat chugs away, leaving a dark ripple in its wake, like the sweep of a calligrapher’s pen. Pointy islands punctuate the silvery horizon all around us, and through the gloom we suddenly see a dragon, her massive head turned towards us, her undulating body and long spiky tail an inky zigzag between slate-blue sea and sky. Coloured Chinese lanterns have been lit on deck, and sounds of jazz from the lower deck drown the hum of the engine. We stare out into the moonless night, as our dragon descends into the utter blackness.

First published by the Telegraph

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