Symphony Web Exclusives: New York Philharmonic in Vietnam

Symphony Web Exclusives: New York Philharmonic in Vietnam

Symphony magazine’s exclusive coverage of the New York Philharmonic’s visit to Hanoi, Vietnam

Symphony Managing Editor Jennifer Melick, reporting from Vietnam, scouts out the scene in Hanoi in advance of the Philharmonic’s October 14 arrival as part of the orchestra’s Asian Horizons tour, led by Music Director Alan Gilbert. The October 14-18 residency will include two concerts at Hanoi Opera House—the first ever by the Philharmonic in Vietnam—with free outdoor simulcast on adjoining plaza open to the public, and master classes for local students at the Vietnam National Academy of Music. Asian Horizons is the orchestra’s first international tour under Gilbert.

(all photos: Jennifer Melick)

Hanoi Opera House
Hanoi Opera House, Oct 13 2009

Tuesday, October 13
This morning, my first morning in Hanoi, I was awakened at about 7:30 a.m. by the sounds of Vietnamese songs, played over loudspeakers and aired directly to the street. If what I am told is true, this is how every day begins in Hanoi, with that music followed by the daily state broadcast, which today lasted about 30 minutes. I’ve arrived here a little in advance of the musicians of the New York Philharmonic, already embarked on their wide-ranging Asia tour with Music Director Alan Gilbert. They are set to arrive on Wednesday for their historic concerts at the Hanoi Opera House on Friday and Saturday.

Street scenes in Hanoi

Street scenes in Hanoi
Street scenes in Hanoi

Several things are immediately apparently upon landing in Hanoi. First is the thick and smoky atmosphere, which you can smell the instant you hit the tarmac. Second, if you arrive at night, you may be shocked at how little electricity is used; it can be a bit unnerving not to have any street lights whatsoever on certain blocks, and only minimal light on others. Because it’s so hot and muggy and there’s little evidence of air-conditioners in use, vast numbers of people sit on sidewalks, day and night, on tiny plastic stools (the type you might see in a preschool). Some are talking, some are eating, some are drinking, some are smoking tobacco from two-foot-long wooden bongs. On the taxi ride from the airport last night, a man sitting on the sidewalk was burning or cooking something right on the sidewalk, with flames about two feet high. Third—and I had been warned about this ahead of time but it is hard to convey it fully in words—the streets are indeed wild and chaotic, with motorbikes and cyclos (pedicabs) and pedestrians and buses and garbage trucks all fighting for the same street space, and sometimes sidewalks too. Horns honk constantly. All this happens for the most part with no traffic lights (and those few lights that exist are sometimes ignored anyway). When it’s time to cross the street, you slither/run across in between the various vehicles and hope for the best. 
The third immediately apparent quality of Hanoi life is the front-and-center role of the government, which can be seen in things like the daily street broadcasts and red national flags and signs everywhere commemorating various anniversaries of the country’s independence. Right now flags are flying over by Hoan Kiem Lake (one of several lakes in the city), celebrating 55 years since the Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule. There are also flags counting down the days (362 days, as of this afternoon) until Hanoi (also known as Thang Long) turns 1,000 years old, which is expected to be a big event on October 10, 2010 (10/10/10). In fact, the country plans not only to celebrate its 1000th on next October 10, but to make the celebrations last for ten years, beginning on October 10, which I guess would make it 10/10/10/10. Interestingly, red flags are also still flying in the street from last year’s celebration of the city’s 999th anniversary.
I decided first thing after breakfast to walk down from the my place in the old quarter to check out the Hanoi Opera House, in the so-called French Quarter, about a half-mile away. That is when I discovered how freewheeling the whole walking-in-the-city experience is here, which is heightened by the fact that so many people are unemployed or underemployed that you are constantly being accosted by someone trying to sell you a motorbike ride or cyclo ride or a package tour to someplace like Halong Bay. Meanwhile, the pale yellow Opera House sits majestically in the Parisian manner at the head of a circular plaza with a bunch of neighboring streets feeding into it. In general, the French Quarter is more broadly laid out and spacious than the old quarter, and it does evoke Paris (the Opera House is directly modeled on the Palais Garnier), but for an American used to more orderly street behavior it is not exactly an oasis of calm. Upon arriving at the box office I discover there is an extravaganza on offer this evening, called Peach Blossom Ballet (Chien Thang Mua Hoa Dao), with singers, dancers, musicians, and what look from the posters to be sword fighters or some kind of stage combat. On a whim, I decide to go; why not? Later in the week, I’ll try to get over to see the famous water puppet theater, on Hoan Kiem Lake. There are puppet shows every day of the week, and they are popular enough that you need to buy tickets ahead.    

Hoa Lo Prison
Hoa Lo Prison, which American soldiers referred to as the Hanoi Hilton

So, with tickets in hand for the evening, and an afternoon to explore the city, I take my cue from the independence banners flying in the street, and stroll over to the Hoa Lo Prison—the one where the French incarcerated Vietnamese political prisoners during their long colonial rule, and, later, where the Vietnamese imprisoned Americans during the Vietnam War. (John McCain was detained there.) It’s the one American soldiers sardonically referred to as the Hanoi Hilton (not to be confused with the Hanoi Opera Hilton). The prison, now a museum, is housed in yet another of the yellow buildings you’ll find throughout Hanoi, and inside its exhibits include everything from a guillotine to men’s and women’s cells, including a dungeon area, plus a list of diseases listed as cause of death: everything from cholera and fever to typhoid.
Surprisingly, I did in fact have an appetite after visiting Hoa Lo, so I sampled some local pho (soup with noodles), a dish said to have been invented in Hanoi. No, I did not eat my beef pho (Pho Bo) on the street on a little stool, but in a pho restaurant overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, followed by a local version of “ice cream” which turned out to be sort of a milk shake with yogurt, good for cooling down after the pho.
Most retail establishments of the non-fancy sort do not take credit cards, so upon arriving here you have to learn the currency conversion pretty quickly: 15,000 or 16,000 Vietnamese dong to the dollar. So, 22,000VD for a bag of citrus fruit, another 5,000 or 10,000VD for some bottled water, and 220,000VD for lunch. To ride on a motorbike, I paid what is considered here to be the exorbitant rate of 150,000, but it was so much fun—hair flying, the wind cooling off the sweat, and a cacophony of car horns blaring everywhere—that I decided to hire another motorbike to take me down to the Opera House for the Peach Blossom ballet later. After an exhausting day of crossing the street, I’m beginning to learn that this is the right way to get around here. 

Hanoi NY Phil posters
Posters outside the Hanoi Opera House promote the New York Philharmonic’s concerts there

Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll be heading over to the New York Philharmonic’s press conference at the Opera House, with Music Director Alan Gilbert; Philharmonic President and Executive Director Zarin Mehta; Michael W. Michalak, the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam; officials from Credit Suisse, the orchestra’s global tour sponsor; Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism; and the Vietnam Contemporary Music, Dance, and Theater. Then, on Thursday and Friday, the Philharmonic will participate in master classes at the Vietnam National Conservatory of Music and rehearse at the Opera House for their two concerts here. By the way, the latest report from the New York Philharmonic is that the concerts are sold out.
Next up: The New York Philharmonic in the Opera House, and the new-music scene in Hanoi, which this week is hosting (with Ho Chi Minh City) a festival called New Music Meeting 2009, said to be the first event of its type for either Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi.