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The voice of Hanoi

With a long rich history and a fascinating mix of architectural heritage, Hanoi is a truly unique city in the world. Even its “voice” is distinct. Nguyen Viet Ha pays tribute to the capital’s enchanting atmosphere and charming accent.


In an ancient city, each old corner and street has its own story to tell. We can hear it, even feel it as we walk through the streets that have been shaped by the hands of its people over hundreds of years, if not thousands. There is no city on earth like Rome, London and Paris — each has its own tone, its own voice. Hanoi – a city first founded in 101OAD – is no exception.

In terms of its architectural heritage, the city has a fascinating multilayered appearance. Wander through the streets of Hanoi and you can instantly see and hear how truly unique this city is…

At night Hanoi is at its most enchanting and mysterious. Raucous by day, after midnight this huge city can feel as quiet as a small village. You will feel as if should tread softly lest you disturb the peace. A mix of moonlight and street lamps give just enough illumination for you to wander down the road.

On the steps of the Opera House, you can appreciate the stillness in one of the city’s most salubrious neighborhoods built in French colonial times. Not far away, the Red River flows silently and slowly through the edge of a city deep in sleep. One can only imagine how once upon a time, the river roared with traders and merchants, and at other times, with soldiers armed ready to risk life and limb on a battle to protect and preserve the country.

Elsewhere, you can let your mind drift over West Lake, the largest body of water in a ‘city of lakes’. But Hanoi is also a city defined by its people and their stories. There is a poetic melody to the cries of each street vendor prowling the small streets of the Old Quarter, the heart of Hanoi. By day, the streets here are teeming with life yet here and there you will also find hidden cafes that swerve as small sanctuaries — for the price of a coffee or tea, you also find peace and tranquility.

Hanoi in the 21st century can feel like a fast-paced city. Many ancient traditions prevail but the city is now also defined by a youthful energy – the vast majority of residents are under the age of 30.

For young couples with high incomes want for nothing in Hanoi today. They can eat out in restaurants, or pay for a cook as well as as a nanny to look after their children or a nurse to care for the elderly parents but they must work hard for these luxuries.

Do people still have the time to stop and enjoy the sounds of a chirping birds or appreciate the feel of a cooling breeze on an autumn’s day? Do they have the time to admire the leaves turning yellow or the dew hanging on the leaves of a tree? Perhaps, just not as much.

Not long ago, you could hear birdsong on the streets of Hanoi. Certain streets would be known for a certain bird. Now, the only birdsong you will hear will come from a cage hanging off a balcony or awning.

In recent years, when summer comes, the thrilling song of cicadas is less noticeable. Long walks and bicycle trips have passed up for computer games.

But Hanoians remain fiercely proud of their city and its traditions — even their accent, which they will insist is utterly distinct though they oft unknowingly, use central or southern tones.

According to the Vietnamese dictionary, “tone” is what we hear while “Voice” is what we express by language with a certain sentiment and behavior.

On the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and around Hoan Kiem Lake, you can hear the same sentimental voice spoken by traders, hucksters and vendors. Witty, proud, fun-loving, and at times even a bit rustic. The ladies at the traditional markets of Dong Xuan, Hang Be, and Hang Da are always ready to crackdown on, scold or give feedback with a sneer and a sharp tongue to those (especially anyone who dares to haggle over the price early morning).

You can also see the groups of ladies doing their morning exercises around Hoan Kiem Lake at dawn, speaking loudly about their family affairs as their hands swing in the air.

The voice of Hanoi—discounting some of the more crass residents! – is marked by sophistication, elegance, and smooth turns. They are very, very proud of their accents, which can be heard throughout the country as the capital accent is also the standard for national television channels. Of course, there is no “right” or “wrong” accent but but the voice of Hanoi truly bewitches everyone. It can be as fragile as a sweet kiss of a young couple at a hidden corner or as tender as a tiny fruit falling to the ground on a quiet summer’s night.

In spite of the rush of modern life, the voice of Hanoi, first formed a thousand of years ago, still rings true, and I am sure will resonate for another thousand years and more.

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