Hanoi resident chases pavement memories

(No.10, Vol.2, Oct 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Hanoi, 1980.
Photo: Eva Lindskog.
Provided by Le Thiet Cuong

In the 1960s, street pavement in Hanoi was divided into two distinct categories. The type made before the French left in 1954 was paved with red bricks and wrinkled diagonally to avoid getting slippery after showers. These pavements were curbed with blue limestone. In front of gates, the stones were cut neatly to make smooth ramps for vehicles to get in and out. Tho Nhuom Street even had places where the street encroached deeply into the sidewalk for cars to bypass each other.

Hanoi, 1974. Photo: Günter Mosler.
Provided by Nguyen Anh Tuan

Hanoi had only a few such streets, and the Long Bien Bridge. That was the earliest indicator for pedestrians in town to know their modest position. Only a few streets were paved after 1954. Most of them were on the big roads extending from the centre. Thirty centimetre-square-cement bricks were dirt gray, mixed with white pebbles. At the time, cement was more precious than rice and kerosene because it was a thing no money could buy. Somebody gives you a kilo, and you put it in a paint can, and then covered it carefully. Every now and then you would take a bit, mix it thinly in water to coat the water barrel, which every household had, to prevent leakage. And all water barrels leaked.
The following years, because of the American bombardment, Hanoi didn’t have enough people to walk the pavements. Adults evacuated with their service units or factories. The evacuated kids couldn’t recognize the pavements once so full of friends and games. Many begged to go back to the evacuation site immediately. Not until 1969, when the Americans officially stopped the first period of bombardment, were children allowed to come back to the pavements so dear to their hearts. Many boys could now borrow an adult’s bicycle to surf around the lake and down to Hang Bai’s streets to flirt with girls.
During five years of evacuation, many children were born and grew up. Pavements outside school gates now were crawling with kids during break hours, fighting over every square inch of space. Mingled in were peddlers with precious things like pickled apricots and apples, stir- fried peanuts, pillow cakes, ninth heaven cakes, crackers and stuffs. Boys sweated over balls of all sort. Girls skipped ropes and played ball and ice-cream sticks. Every few hundred steps there was a five-cent tea shop with scattered ankle-high wooden seats. A wide-rimmed glass jar held hand-rolled cigarettes, ten in each bundle. A bamboo hookah, made on order in Ngoc Trao, Thanh Hoa province shot smoke invitingly. Every street corner had a few bike repairers with flat bike tires hung on a tree as a trademark; they kept busy mending tires and inner tubes, oiling, fixing chains and rims. A few kids also came out to the streets after school to pump the tires to earn some money. Those with a Russian pump of the Molotova brand would attract more customers. They would jump rhythmically to make rational use of their little body’s weight and to conserve strength.
This time seems to have been only yesterday, yet it is so deeply into the past. The pavements have changed drastically. All are paved with bricks of different sizes, shapes and colours. Perhaps city dwellers’ strive for freedom was achieved first on the pavements. Rich ones choose bricks found nowhere else to pave in front of their houses. They even put two huge ornament tree pots in the middle of the walk path. As a pilot project, the municipality paved a few greyish streets with blue limestones, almost levelled with the asphalt drive lanes. The feeble, unsteady old people stumble. The height and abrasiveness of the pavement they knew all their lives can’t help them walk anymore.
Playing kids can rarely be seen on Hanoi’s pavements these days, because there is not enough space for them to run and jump. School gates are locked during the hours the pupils are in class. Helter-skelter hawkers become increasingly numerous. Disorderly motorbikes occupy the whole sidewalk unless forbidden. Funerals and weddings freely set up large tents as if in a village. During the opening of shops and buildings, live orchestras play right on the sidewalk.
The most ironic of all is the common three-legged iron sign: “Sidewalk is for pedestrians only.” It impudently occupies space on the sidewalk and can block at least two persons walking hand in hand.
The article was published on Tuoi Tre Cuoi Tuan, 4 August, 2012.

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