A Walk in the Park.
Yesterday I decided to go for a walk. The third-largest park in Hanoi sits just across the street from my flat, and by crossing I’d walk right into the central district., heading straight along one large avenue on the other side of the park, I’d hit the old town. Taking another avenue, I’d reach the famed Hoan Kiem Lake. I could even pass the luxury mall along the way, plenty of coffee shops, and a diversity of street-food stalls en route, too. That is how I’d planned to spend this Saturday. But, I got entangled in the park.
During the day there’s plenty of hustle and bustle in the park. As a backdrop, the grounds are meticulously maintained by a large team of workers. There are motorbike parking-lots just inside each entrance, where an attendant is stationed well into the night. Plus, there’s always some tidying up going on, such as blowing leaves, trimming trees, gathering rubbish, and planting. Each dawn and dusk the park fills with patrons doing an array of physical exercises, from running and walking to groups of ladies doing aerobics. There are people fishing, running, gyming, napping, skating, skate-boarding, dog-walking courting, gaming, etc. Periodically, there are a range of festivals in the park, including the vegan fest just a few weeks ago. Late nights, I’ve even seen large-scale fishing with huge nets dredged out by boats across the entire lake.
Two nights ago, I got to see my first Vietnamese chess match. Two older men played while hosts of folks looked on. Sat beneath one of the park’s large lamps, they used a canvas ‘board’ rolled out on the ground, and round chips of wood (plastic?) painted with Chinese characters to mark each position.
There are plenty of tea kiosks and stalls serving everything from fresh coffee and ice-tea to bottled drinks – including beer – and packaged snacks to charcoal roasted sweet potatoes. This only increases with moderate weather throughout the year.
During the day, there’s loads for kids of all ages. There are playground areas for different age groups from toddlers to adults. Heck, there’s an entire set of bright yellow outdoor gym equipment for adults bordering the huge sand playground for the smallest kids. Featured in the park’s online advertisements, there’s a merry-go-round, paddle-boating on the lake, bumper cars and a toy train around the park with stations named after each large Vietnamese city. Day or night, there are generally people wandering. Notably, however, there are always plenty of men and women walking in the park at night even late-night, including women walking alone – a sight I’ve rarely seen in most parts of the world. The park has its own sense of time and it don’t cost a dime.
This Saturday, it was already after 2 o’clock, and I had arranged to meet the B-boys at 7:30 in a corner of the big amphitheater at the center of the park. So, time was limited. It’s a large park and without thinking, I started along my regular walking route, as opposed to heading directly across through town. I was operating on autopilot from my regular after-dinner walks in the park, and turned left when I should have turned right. This detour lasted 4 hours.
My daily walks are awesome. I get to pass a plethora of healthy temptations as this park is an authentic site of sociality and physicality. Schools are closed due to Corona virus so the park was eerily empty the first few days at one point. Now, the park’s chock full of folks.
The first pause at the exercise areas so took a few moments to stretch. My muscles were all aching from my first B-boy tutorial the night before, so this was more of a compulsion. They have two parallel bars that are a great height for Barre. A dancer can’t pass up a good Barre. That lasted another half hour, then I was on the go. Just a few steps away from this exercise area are the hacky sack courts.
The courts were full, so I couldn’t resist catching a few matches. The game fills me with sheer wonder, not least of which due to the athleticism. When the area around the lake in the central district (Hoan Kiem) is pedestrianized on weekends, circles of hacky sackers form in the middle of the wide avenues. There’re typically teens of all ages going ‘round and round. In the park, however, there are courts painted on the ground at many of this park’s nooks and intersections, extending far beyond the biggest collection. The courts allow for a whole host of net games from badminton to volleyball, and of course hacky sack. Though none of the regular players I watch on my morning walks was around, the courts were filled with people of all ages playing doubles or triples. Age is no bar in this game!
After a few matches, I moved on towards town. Along the way, there is a long straight stretch of the park along a major avenue bordering the lake. Where this stretch finally bends, there is another outdoor theater area, complete with a raised stage. Between uses, the stage area houses giant animal sculptures made of plants, which decorate the park during Lunar New Year.
The animal figures are revived annually in rotation. A monkey, snake, rat, dragon, pig, tiger, giraffe and more all stand at least 3X3 meters. Their large bodies are often covered with ever-greens, while the faces and other features are filled in with different coloured/textured plants each year. The large, organic animal sculptures provide a wonderful backdrop for dancing on the stage, but also, they are evidently an apt obstacle course for drones.
Droning is incredible! There were both kids and adults practicing navigating drones using the Virtual Reality head-gear. It was mesmerizing, so I ended up sticking around for nearly an hour. One guy was practicing loops between the giraffe’s legs, then free-falling over the surrounding high canvas of trees. A little girl was using a visually controlled drone. Whew!
Time was ticking, so I decided to give it a go and at least make it to the nearest coffee shop to sit and write. I continued on my way along the shortest route towards town and along the way, were more courts, two large rectangles painted on the ground. In passing, I approached 3 boys playing badminton on another court. One of them, the shortest, approached me holding out a racket and birdie, as if to say: Wanna play? Why not, I thought, how often does one get the chance? Then, the little dude placed the racket on the bench atop the others and gestured towards them for me to choose. I hadn’t played this game in decades.
At first, the short dude and I played while the other two watched; after displaying my lack of skill, I gestured for the others to join in. We played doubles for a while, again, my first time in decades. What surprised me was the level of instruction each boy offered me. As we played, my teammate would call at me, then demonstrate different ways to serve. Our teams even swapped players, my new teammate offering more pointers. There were no rules and we didn’t keep score; the objective was to keep the birdie in play. We all laughed at each other’s mistakes and cheered at each one’s wins. When I passed a group of adults playing on the next court, I was reminded that I am a genuine amateur!
Badminton is a popular game here. At the very moment that I am writing, I am sitting on one of the concrete benches just eyeshot from my exit towards town. The benches encircle one of many large gazebos in the park, where a family has just shown up and set up a net. I didn’t even notice that there were three courts painted around the gazebo. Two older guys quickly get a match going, and on the other court two women get warmed up, while 4 kids play under the gazebo. Then, the older woman hits the birdie back-n-forth with the smallest kid, while on another court, the younger woman plays doubles with the other three kids. Now, a middle-aged man approaches with more rackets in tow. He quickly puts down his bag, strips off his jacket, grabs his racket and jumps in the match. Others filter in and eventually all the courts and benches are full.
By then, I was at another cross-roads. I had eaten up nearly all my time. How could I have spent the whole day in the park? Now, I barely had time to eat, as the B-boys said that I should do so at least 2 hours before practice. I headed home, had a beef Pho along the way, dropped off my backpack, and got changed to go back to the park and dance!