My normally trusty Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam suggested that early each morning around a lake in central Hanoi, devotees gather for outdoor t'ai chi exercises. So as the sky brightened to a dull gray this morning, at around 6 o'clock, I left my hotel and walked toward the lake. It turns out Lonely Planet was wrong. I didn't find practitioners of t'ai chi, which is an exercise routine related to Chinese martial arts. Instead, I found practitioners of joy.
Next to the lake is a towering statue of Ly Thai To, the Vietnamese leader who founded the city of Hanoi a thousand or so years ago and is credited with persuading China to recognize Vietnam as an independent, though vassal, kingdom, rather than a mere province of China. Bouquets of fresh flowers were strewn around the statue. (Later in the day, I walked past a statue of Lenin, which had no flowers, and past Ho Chi Minh's Leninesque mausoleum on Hanoi's equivalent of Red Square. Ho's tomb had a couple of official wreaths and an honor guard, but no evident expression of spontaneous public affection. I got the feeling that in Vietnam, quarrels with people like the French and the Americans come and go, as do ideological fashions. But the looming presence of China is eternal. That, however, is not the subject of this post.)
This post is about a group of about two dozen Vietnamese, ranging in age from the middle years to old and gray, who were gathered in the plaza under Ly Thai To's bronze feet. Some wore exercise clothes. Some wore neckties. They were engaged in an activity that would be hard to imagine in a Western city, an activity that seemed to be one part exercise class, one part prayer service, one part ring-around-the-rosie and a whole lot of parts of happiness.
Their leader was a short, sturdy and very dynamic woman whom I judged to be about fifty years old. She is wearing the blouse with the red and black stripes in the picture above. She would call out something in Vietnamese, and the group would respond by following her movements. Sometimes they seemed to be stretching. Sometimes they seemed to be playing, pantomiming things like wiping their faces. After each exercise, she'd lead them in a round of applause, saying something that contained, if I am not mistaken, the words “Velly good, velly good.” which I take to be a term of approval the Vietnamese have borrowed from English.
Sometimes she would lead them in an exercise that climaxed with a sharp exhalation, as if everyone were trying to blow out a candle (or exorcise bad humors, perhaps). More often than anything else, though, she led them in an exercise that culminated in everyone throwing back their heads and laughing loudly and heartily. Then they'd wave their hands in the air and dance around in a circle for a while. More laughter. More dancing. More clapping.
At one juncture, however, the event seemed to get more serious. An elderly man, dressed in an orange shirt and a necktie, stepped into the center of the circle and began what struck me as a prayer. The others closed their eyes and listened, swaying slightly. I might be imagining this, but I thought his orange shirt was significant. In Thailand, which has not had a communist government, one often sees Buddhist monks in saffron robes, a hue close to that of the old man's shirt. I have yet to see a monk in Vietnam, a country that has both Buddhist and Confucian religious traditions, so I suspect that while Vietnam's government officially tolerates religion, the clergy is not as open as it is in Thailand. Maybe this orange shirt was a discrete way of showing the old man's religious affiliation. Maybe not.
At any rate, the prayer, if that's what it was, soon ended, and there was more dancing, more stretching, more laughter. As the hour approached 7 o'clock, the group moved around in a circle that resembled a conga line, except that in this case, the participants appeared to be offering the person in front of them a bit of massage.
And, in the grand finale, everyone hugged everybody else.
The people in this group didn't mind outsiders. A few pale faces, either tourists or expats living in Hanoi, joined the party and tried to follow along. At one point, early in the hour, a light misty rain started to fall and the group seemed to dissipate. I started to pack my camera. The leader rushed over and, mostly with gestures, informed me that the group was re-forming under the protective branches of a big tree, and I should keep taking pictures. I did.
This was by no means the only group activity going on in the early morning hours. Nearby, a woman with a boombox led a dancercise class that featured “The Macarena.” Around on the other side of Ly Thai To's plinth, another boombox was playing ballroom dance music, as devotees of that discipline waltzed around (at least I think it was waltzed) in a sedate circle. (As I've heard happens in the West, there was a shortage of men and some of the women had to dance together.) Next to the ballroom dancers, a group evidently devoted to some traditional Vietnamese folk art was moving in circles while wielding colorful flags and wooden swords. No one seemed to mind another group's boombox, at least while I was there. Everyone seemed to get along.
The scene reflected, I think, a certain sweet innocence in Vietnamese culture. Make no mistake. These are tough people in a fight, as the United States learned to its chagrin forty years ago. I suspect it would be very difficult to get the better of a Vietnamese business person in a transaction that required negotiation. But, perhaps because they've been a little bit isolated from the rest of the world, and perhaps because the government doesn't allow some of the more pernicious aspects of Western culture to invade here (I haven't seen a McDonald's. The horror!), the ambience in Hanoi has overtones of a time long gone in the West. Boys and girls shyly hold hands in the park around Hoan Kiem Lake. People rely on one another for entertainment. They're not jaded. They seem to enjoy one another.
But Vietnam is changing. Its economy is growing. In a cautious, crusty and communist sort of way, the regime seems to want to be more open to the world. I imagine that in the decades to come, the country will reach the point where its people will sleep in on Saturday mornings. When they want exercise, they'll go to a proper country club or a proper health club and take a proper Pilates class. Then they'll be happy, just like us.