Hanoi’s Trees

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A banyan tree creates dappled light on a street in the old quarter

One of the special features of Hanoi which make it such a beautiful and atmospheric city is its trees. The French introduced the western concept of boulevards lined with trees planted along the pavements, although trees were already an important part of Vietnamese culture particularly in the context of temples and pagodas. Enthusiasm for tree planting along roads continued. After the French left in 1954 there were some 10,000 trees, yet by 1980 there were over 200,000. Numbers continue to increase as Ho Chi Minh launched an annual tree planting campaign back in the 60s which continues to this day.

The intersection of Dien Bien Phu and Hoang Dieu

The intersection of Dien Bien Phu and Hoang Dieu in the early 20the century

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100 year old mango trees at Quan Thanh Temple

Because of Hanoi’s extremely dense population, 800 people per hectare in the Old Quarter, trees are so important to a people who spend most of their time outside – living, working, and socializing on the pavements.  The trees provide shade in the hot summer months, a habitat for birds and squirrels, a green space for exercise, a way to offset pollution, as well as handy places to hang plugs and barber’s mirrors amongst other things.

Certain streets are also associated with specific species of trees. For example the street I live on, Tran Phu, is known for its sau trees which produce a bitter fruit which is surreptitiously harvested in early summer. More about them in my past post here.

Another characteristic tree found a lot around the city is Xà cừ or Khaya senegalensis. Interestingly it is not native to Vietnam and was brought from West Africa by the French during their initial urban planning and planting. They grow incredibly tall and are found particularly along Hoang Dieu, which runs along the Citadel, and Ly Nam De. As shown below almost all of Hanoi’s trees are numbered and labelled even if the signs sometime fall off or turn around…

Bang lang or lagerstroemia speciosa is another tree particularly associated with the end of the school year and final exams as its beautiful lavender coloured blooms come out in profusion in May. More about them in my post here. Although some are scattered throughout the old Quarter more have been planted recently all along Kim Ma.

Some of the oldest and most striking trees around Hanoi are strangling members of the fig family including – ficus, bodhi, and banyan trees. These trees are all very significant in Buddhism and Taoism and so are often found near or in front of temples and pagodas. Around the old quarter particularly old ones often have small alters on them where offerings can be given to the spirits and sometimes homeless ancestors who are believed to reside inside these trees.

Trees are so important that often buildings are built around the trees rather than cut the tree down.
P1020939 Hoan Kiem Lake, in the centre of Hanoi, is surrounded by some lovely trees made all the more striking as many seem to be growing into the lake – some quite literally when they have fallen in after storms.

Trees unique to Tet (the Vietnamese Lunar New Year) include kumquats and peach trees which add a different dimension to trees in Hanoi as they are brought in by motorbike from fields along the Red River. Past posts about them here and here.

I love the trees in Hanoi but the city is changing quickly with roads being expanded and a mass transport system in the pipeline. A recent article in the news here suggests that there are plans to cut down thousands of trees in theory because of rot but I think wider roads and more room to park cars may well be the real reason. The changes happening brought to mind Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Yellow Taxi’

‘Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got Till it’s gone

They paved paradise And put up a parking lot

They took all the trees Put ’em in a tree museum

And they charged the people A dollar and a half just to see ’em’

See below a ‘tree museum’ of sorts in the form of a collection of bonsai at Thang Long Citadel.

Hopefully Hanoians have enough respect for their trees so that the city doesn’t go down the road of becoming a grey urban mass like many other major cities in Asia.

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