Hanoi residents bluster about millennial party

HANOI, Vietnam — A few hours after a container of fireworks blew up outside My Dinh Stadium on Oct. 6, people milled about outside the stadium as if nothing had ever happened.

The fireworks, which were meant to be used as part of the grand finale to Hanoi’s millennial celebration on Oct. 10, exploded in a field next to the stadium during a kite festival. According to media reports four people died, including three foreigners. Three were injured. Officials blamed the window-shattering explosion on “carelessness.”

News of the explosion was pulled from websites within the hour, but the large cloud of smoke was more difficult to hide. So were the Twitter feeds, Facebook updates and YouTube footage.

But for the tens of thousands of Hanoians who streamed past young military recruits and into the stadium later that evening to watch practice lion dances, nothing would stand in their way. 

The many government-sponsored events marking the capital's 1,000th birthday this week have cost $63 million, which has many locals calling foul — not to mention griping about the crowds and the chaos. It is with a loose sense of history that Hanoians mark the day.

Many young people complained about the traffic jams the 10-day celebration has caused before they enthuse over other events, like exhibitions of ceramics.

“It’s too crowded, the traffic’s bad. There’s no space to skate,” said Nguyen Tuan Linh, 24, a designer and skateboarder, over beers at a suburban beer hall far from the celebrations, a few days before the explosion. “It’s a waste of money. The people who go to the 1,000 years weren’t born here. They don’t understand real Hanoi.”

“You don’t need to celebrate.,” he added. “Hanoi is every day. It’s in my blood, my family, my friends. Everything.”

Though speaking after a few bia hois — a beer made fresh each day and more commonly found in the north — he was voicing a sentiment common in the capital, which prides itself on its history and culture over southern commercial hub Saigon. Hanoians are Hanoian and the rest are not.

“They — the authorities — make Hanoi different. If you never come here before and come for this day everything you see is not Hanoi.”

Vietnam’s capital was moved to Hanoi in 1010 by King Ly Thai To from Hoa Lu, in what is now Ninh Binh province some 90 kilometers south of Hanoi.

Vietnam values its history and names its streets after its heroes, some from thousands of years ago, with a few Party people thrown in. At the same time students don’t always learn, or remember, much of Vietnam’s thousands of years of history.

“I learned about Vietnamese history but only the war part, not the culture of Hanoi,” said 19-year-old Tran Kieu Trang, an economics student and waitress. She said that many of the historical, government-sponsored exhibitions were of little interest, though she does plan to attend the food festival.

The $63 million has gone toward covering the streets, trees and lakes around the capital with lights. Government-issued flags hang from nearly every house and shop. Extra whistle-blowing police and military have been directing traffic and swinging their batons to keep revelers from getting too close to events and dignitaries.

Large television screens by the lake showed the opening ceremony this week, which was closed to the public but could be heard across the water. A fireworks display on Oct. 10 was planned for 29 locations, though there are reports that they've all been cancelled

Many say it’s a waste of money. That the central region of the country, which was not a part of Vietnam when Hanoi became its capital, is suffering terrible floods right now only highlights the waste for some.

“In a word: lots of wasted money. Better to save that for flood victims,” said restaurateur and hotel manager Nguyen Thanh Hai. Despite the fact that tourism was touted as an integral part of the event, there was no campaign run prior, he said. He has not seen an increase in capacity overall, but said his hotel is full during the celebrations.

“I don’t think my country knows how to spend money,” said banker Dinh Phuong Thao, 25. “Like, you’re happy here and people are dying and don’t have clean water or food to eat there.”

Many of the thousands wandering the streets are from the countryside, some of whom were bussed in for free.

Vuong Van Phu, 65, was in town with family, dressed in grey suit jacket and crisp white shirt. A former soldier now retired, he lives in Ha Tay province, about 18 miles away. It’s technically part of Hanoi after the city was rezoned in 2008, but it is still mostly farmland and quite rural.

“It is very precious to have a celebration like this. I want to participate in the big celebration of the country,” he said from his lakeside park bench.

He and his family have spent their days here visiting the various historical exhibitions. “I’ve been to the ceramic festival and the exhibition in Van Mieu [the Temple of Literature, a university established not long after Hanoi was made the capital].”

The lack of enthusiasm among locals could be due to bad marketing. No list of events was made public until the last minute. 

Other young Hanoians share Phu’s enthusiasm for the event, if not his appreciation of history.

“Most people are very happy about this festival but they complain a lot about traffic jams. They are very irritated,” said Tran Kieu Trang, the student and waitress.

But Phu said he didn't think people from the countryside were the only ones to appreciate the celebrations. They were just the ones at leisure to do so, he said.. 

“We’re from the countryside so we have a lot of free time. City people are all in offices.”