Wheel of life in Hanoi

Thursday, 2017-04-13 16:41:35
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A range of greeting cards on sale (Credit: Jennifer Isern)
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NDO - Tirna Ray from India feels the pulse of Hanoi’s Old Quarter while taking a stroll around the lively streets in search of a birthday present for her sister.

I was looking for a birthday gift for my sister. Something from Hanoi would make her smile. I was confident my gift would find a special place among her prized possessions from across the world.

Excited at the possibility and almost hearing her squeal of delight, I started walking around the Old Quarter with a sense of purpose. My eyes drifted from the stacks of raw silk and delicate chopsticks to exquisite wall-hangings and dazzling lacquer ware. Before I could settle on something, a beautiful postcard caught my attention. Wow! How did I miss this stunning piece of jewellery!

As I looked around, my eyes scanned a hundred other things that vied for my attention — purses, hand-crafted tea cups, colourful canvases, paper lanterns, woodblock prints, traditional Vietnamese hats, and the prettiest of Ao Dais. I stood in a corner, wishing I had gigantic hands to scoop it all up for my beloved sister.

The street pulse around me was so infectious, and I inhaled the energy on the streets. That’s what I like about Hanoi — the city’s life force. So much is happening at any given point with vendors, rickshaws, eateries, students, and expats creating an intricate lattice of daily life. There is so much to the city that the more I try to soak in, the more it spills over.

My mind returned to my sister’s gift. I could definitely buy a few things for her birthday, but would it convey the psychedelic colours and exuberance that I was seeing right now? How would she know the magic of melody in cacophony? How would I carry across the smell of delicious nems that were being fried here?
With a 12-hour lag in our time zones, she must be in deep sleep now. Only if Queen Mab — fairies’ midwife — could transport her to Hanoi in her dreams. I am sure she would have dug into the nems with brazen relish and dreamy eyes.
Snapping out of a reverie, an idea flashed into my mind. Maybe an ‘imagery’ of the city and its people could make her gift special this year. But, the challenge was to find one that I could carry across continents and hand over to her personally.

I kept walking, a little distracted. Had she mentioned anything that could serve as a clue? I tried to sift the soundbites of our weekly chats. On my first day in Hanoi, she had asked me with childish enthusiasm: ‘do you see a lot of cycles around? For me, Hanoi evokes images of a large frame with people on cycles — spinning the wheel of life.’

So now I knew! I needed a painting with a repertoire of images — cycles, people, and colours — that represent the sublime energy of Hanoi. I started walking again, trying to spot an artist with a magic palette in one of the walk-in galleries.
Suddenly, I saw something that took my breath away — a Vietnamese woman on a cycle with a bunch of flowers. Next to her was a rickshaw, in a cheerful red-and-yellow colour-combo. A little away was a young girl on a bike in a non la, the wind giving her Ao Dai a curly sail-tip. A man in the vicinity was balancing his baskets on a traditional carrying pole. The colours merged into overlapping images of butterflies, the tree of life, and even more flowers. Just like in real life, each of them was negotiating his or her way amidst a web of life and creating a unique rhythm. Only, these were greeting cards!

I had rarely seen anything so fragile. Here was the finest assortment of Hanoi’s imageries — right in front of me, laid on a little table. As I literally gasped, an unassuming lady softly tapped me on my shoulder. Before I realised, like a true magician, she swiftly produced a deck of cards from her little satchel. They looked like ordinary cards, until she opened them and the images popped up, springing into life. I was delightfully surprised and kept grinning.

Finally, I zeroed in on a pile of cards for everybody I knew. However, I picked a very special one for my sister — two women on a bike in pastel shades of blue and yellow Ao Dais, the blooming flowers in their basket spreading a ray of sunshine. Now, that’s what you call a true gift from Hanoi — a handcrafted metaphor for sibling love.

As I kept the cards carefully in my bag and hailed a cab, I could imagine my sister opening her card, and looking at me, brimming with happiness.

Tirna Ray