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The Hidden Temple of Hanoi - Vietnam - by Poppy Helm
The Hidden Temple of Hanoi
By Poppy Helm
We dutifully traipsed down the dim alleyway in single file with the incessant beep beep of Hanoi's traffic fading behind us. It seemed an unlikely location for a tourist attraction but without enough light to consult the guidebook again, our only choice was to move forward. Eventually we emerged, with a slightly apologetic air, in the middle of a kitchen. A group of deeply wrinkled Vietnamese elders sat sharing a pot of green tea and spotting us, gestured frantically for us to go upstairs. Obediently we followed the tantalising curls of incense smoke drifting down from above and entered the temple.
Having become accustomed to the subdued tones of Vietnam's ancient pagodas, the altar's overwhelming riot of colour was mesmerizing; brass candlesticks held vivid yellow candles, pink flowers sat in blue vases, and green lanterns with silver coins trailing from them hung overhead. Under the watchful eyes of pale-faced Gods encased in golden frames, I let each element of the display jostle and compete for my attention, content to stand there all day, discovering each shining statue and fairy light in turn until I knew them all. Before I could, we were hustled forward and encouraged to sit down amongst the other worshippers.
A band sat crossed-legged against the opposite wall, beating drums and singing a haunting melody. The words were unfamiliar but the language of faith and spirituality were bell-clear. One of the women turned to me and nodded in validation of our presence. Another crawled over to us, careful to keep her head lower than the deities on the altar.
“This lady. Eighty-five years,” she whispered, pointing at a woman in the centre of the stage being gently dressed in a black coat embroidered with golden flowers. “Food, money... blessed. You take lucky money please. But do not spend. It is very lucky for you.”
The music reached a crescendo and the crowd began to clap. We did, too. A drawer in the central altar was opened and a wad of crisp notes pressed into the elderly woman's hand. She circled the stage in small shuffles, tossing money into the air and delighting in the resultant scramble to retrieve it. We were pushed to the front and urged to collect our share of the blessed currency, tucking it safely into our travel diaries and pockets. Bitter green tea was poured and shared with us as we watched each costume change and blessing ritual with increasing fascination, trying to understand what we’d joined.
Two hours later we returned to the bustling streets of the Old Quarter, a little dizzied by the surge of scooters and the call of pineapple sellers after the serenity of the hidden temple. In the moments between the two I reflected on our precious discovery; a first-hand appreciation of Vietnamese generosity and a treasured (if fleeting) sense of belonging in this exotic city.
This temple is located at 'House 102' on Hang Bac, deep in Hanoi's Old Quarter – an easy place to lose a few hours wandering round the crumbling streets. Shopping areas are named after the goods they sell so if you're looking for a specific item, check the translation of the road name first. Roadside food stalls comprising of a few plastic stools and a camping stove are a popular (and delicious) dining option, but if you're after something a little more formal, try the Green Gecko on Ma May Street – particularly the rooftop dining area where you can sit on cushions and look down on the city. We stayed in the brand new Asia Pearl Hotel which had clean, modern rooms and staff who went out of their way to assist us – heartily recommended. If you're travelling onwards from Hanoi (or arriving here from the South), consider booking a sleeper carriage on the train – it's a great way to see some open countryside as you chug sedately onto the next destination.
Poppy’s Local Recommendation is, who runs Buffalo Travel in Hoi An.