Hanoi is now a sprawling urban jungle of the 21st century spanning an enlarged territory that is home to over 6 million people. Despite the pace of development there have been great efforts to protect Hanoi’s architectural heritage and much cherished lakes, which make the capital city so charming and picturesque.
Hanoi’s green spaces are a vital part of Hanoi’s aesthetic and poetic charm but some of the city’s oldest trees are under threat from urbanisation and increasing pollution.
But perhaps the unsung heroes of Hanoi’s aesthetic charm are the silent green giants around town. The city’s tree-lined boulevards are fondly regarded by both residents and visitors. Franz Xaver Augustin, the former director of Hanoi’s Goethe-Institute, believes the wealth and variety of green in the city gives the capital city an advantage over most other major Asian metropolises.
All across the city there are old and mighty trees offering vital shade to the courtyards of pagodas, opulent French-period villas and narrow alleys of the Old Quarter. The trees also absorb dust, decontaminate the air and muffle some of the incessant noise.
Some of these trees are both respected and protected. Trees inside the grounds of pagodas and temples are worshipped and praised in song. Citizens see the trees as old friends and guardians. “When I was born, this tree was already standing here,” says Pham Thanh Ngan, a 65-year old street-side barber from Duong Buoi in the city’s West Lake district.
Ngan’s ‘salon’ is under a xa cu (khaya senegalensis) tree. He’s hung his mirror off the tree for 40 years. “It is my friend. I have watched it grow through the years. I used to gather its leaves and take them home to fire up my stove at home,” says Ngan.
“I met my wife in the late 1960s. We often waited for each other before going to school by this tree,” he says. “We enjoyed walking along the road under the trees on Duong Buoi, feeling the peace and freedom in the shade. At night I used to love smelling the milky scent of the flowers in the quiet streets.
“I often climbed the tree to cut down rotten branches to prevent travellers from danger,” he says.
Deep in the forest
Before the French arrived in northern Vietnam, much of Hanoi today was a large forest which surrounded Thang Long Citadel and its satellite villages. As the city grew, the forest inevitably made way. But when the French colonial administration remapped the city and built salubrious boulevards, they also planted trees along the streets defining the future landscape and character of the city.
There are trees with a history – from a branch of one tree at Thang Long Imperial Citadel a provincial chief by the name of Hoang Dieu hung himself. The muom (bachang mango) trees in Quan Thanh Temple are said to have been planted in 1680 during the reign of Le Hy Tong (1676-1704). Other trees have great meaning. The loc vung trees encircling Hoan Kien lake symbolise good fortune and prosperity. The trees which turn from yellow to red are famously said to make Hoan Kiem blush.
“Loc vung trees are like valuable assets in your house – you will never suffer a loss with them,” says Nguyen Duy Chu, who owns Trung Khanh Ninh flower garden in Nghi Tam village.
In Hanoi’s Cong Vien Bach Thao (Botanical Gardens) there are approximately 100 species of trees. Over 2,000 are more than 100 years old. However some of the trees are said to be on the verge of extinction.
Despite Hanoians deep rooted affinity with the city’s trees, experts have warned many of the oldest trees are in need of urgent protection. As the capital city develops, green spaces are under increasing threat.
“It saddens me to see rare trees cut down to make way for new buildings,” Chu says. “Although landscape artists replant other trees, it will be a very long time before they are as beautiful.”
Although there are large fines on developers cutting down trees without permission, these green areas of the city are still in danger. Many trees are ill. Inclement weather and storms have taken their toll. Air pollution and groundwater contamination are also a growing threat to the health of Hanoi’s green giants.
There is a project underway to make a map of Hanoi’s “ancient trees”. The project, which is being run by the Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Associations’ Centre for Education and Communication of Environment, will record the origin as well as determine the economic and cultural value of each tree.
The centre’s director Nguyen Nguyen Cuong hopes by early 2010 the map will be completed and available to the public and tourists. “Hanoi people and visitors need to know the trees’ value so they will behave properly towards the green spaces that they enjoy seeing,” he says.
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