We know a city by what we see and feel upon its surface. But what do you find when you venture underground? Words by David Mann. Photos by Trung Del and Julie Vola
Yen Thai Temple, Ngo Tam Thuong, Hoan Kiem
Behind Hang Bong and down a small lane lined with food stalls serving everything from stir-fried dog to snake, a quiet escape awaits.
Deciduous trees cast leafy shadows over this sleepy haven of tranquility, largely unknown to the city outside. Old xe om drivers sit cross-legged on their bikes watching as bo bia vendors donning conical hats cycle past.
There are no tourists here, with most failing to venture further than the snake restaurant. Alone we cross the threshold into the 300-year-old Buddhist temple, known as Yen Thai.
Navigating a small maze to the building’s rear, we find what we’re looking for: a 953-year-old well that is largely unknown.
Truong Sinh, who has been the temple’s custodian for more than 23 years, ushers us into his living room for tea and to regale us with stories of the well’s history.
“The well was built in AD 1117 more than 900 years ago to provide water to construction workers who were building the citadel to protect Queen Y Lan,” he says.
Empress Mother Y Lan, as she is known, was the imperial concubine of Ly Thanh Tong, Vietnam’s third emperor. She was also the birth mother of Ly Nhan Tong, the fourth and longest serving emperor in Vietnam’s history.
After the house surrounding the well was destroyed, the site was deemed holy land and in its place Yen Thai Temple was constructed in 1718.
“The water that runs underground and comes to that well is considered sacred: the blood of the dragon. It’s good luck.”
The Sacred Well
Ho Khau Village, Ngo Thuy Khue, behind Thuy Khue, Tay Ho
Buried behind one of Tay Ho’s busiest thoroughfares lies a hidden treasure. It’s a 60-year-old well that connects to the underground pipes that once funneled water to a system of wells that ran along Thuy Khue.
Built almost 70 years ago in one of the busiest villages in Hanoi, this secret water source has become a sacred spot for locals. It lies in the midst of a quiet alley, tended to by an old janitor who emerges periodically to clean the well.
As Ho Khau Village has had running water for over a decade, the well remains largely unused. But when the taps run dry, as they did during a water shortage three years ago, the well resumed as the village’s primary water source.
Yet the borehole’s history is steeped in superstition, with many villagers believing the well is sacred and is “connected” with those who live nearby.
“Three years ago the well was neglected and filled with rubbish,” says 67-year-old Loan, who lives across from the well. “Everyone in the village soon got sick, even though they weren’t using the water.”
“We thought the well was sick, so we collected money to refurbish it and put a steel grate on it to keep the leaves out. Afterwards, everyone was healthy again.”
As we were leaving, an elderly man pokes his head out of a nearby window. He scurries across the lane and closes the steel grate shaking his head and muttering under his breath.
The Neighbourhood Well
Phu Doan, Hoan Kiem
It’s not every day that you meet a salsa dance class teacher, especially in Vietnam. But on our final day, when we decided to knock on a stranger’s door to find the last hidden well, we did.
“I teach at Hang Che every Friday at 8pm,” says Lien, a dance instructor in her late 40s. Lien’s family has lived in their French-built colonial townhouse for almost four generations.
The same applies for the other 10 families that inhabit the neighbouring apartment block and share the same well. It has been in use for nearly a century.
Hidden behind a high wall, the water source is reserved for private use by each household. Thanks to cheap bottled water, the well is now used for household chores, anything from irrigating toilets to washing motorcycles and cleaning dishes, says Lien.
“This well is still part of our daily lives, almost the same way it was part of my grandparents’ lives 50 years ago. You could say it’s been a tradition.”
My Dinh Bus Station, Ton That Thuyet, Cau Giay, Hanoi; Opposite Re-Unification Park, Le Duan, Dong Da
Stumbling into My Dinh’s underground walkway is no easy feat for newcomers. For one thing the walkway is partially covered by locust trees. It’s also quite small. Inside, you may actually think you’ve walked into a Soviet-built subway. The entrance is beige, the lighting dull and the walkway is eerily quiet.
When it was first opened in 2000, commuters ignored the tunnel, instead choosing to brave the four lanes of high-speed traffic to cross from the bus station to the other side. Of course, disaster ensued.
Not long after, a high fence was installed to divide the traffic under the causeway. Now, the subway is used, but still not all that often, with hoards of xe om drivers waiting for customers as they disembark.
The same can be said for the subway on Le Duan. Dark, dank and largely ignored by the public, large groups can be witnessed walking straight past the entrance and into oncoming traffic to reach the other side of the road.
Yet on weekend afternoons, the subway comes alive. Young hipsters and teenagers wearing their hats backwards brave the steep staircases on fixies and skateboards, mounting railings and zipping down bike ramps.
The Bunker in The Metropole
The Sofitel Legend Metropole, 15 Ngo Quyen, Hoan Kiem
On a night in December 1972, a group of hotel guests crouched 13 feet underground as American B52’s swooped over the capital. Among them sat American singer Joan Baez and actress Jane Fonda.
When the war ended three years later, the secret bomb shelter was sealed and forgotten for nearly 40 years until 2011, when it was rediscovered during renovations to the hotel’s Bamboo Bar.
After months of excavations, seven adjoining rooms were discovered, with little more than a light bulb and a used wine bottle found inside. But it’s the bomb shelter itself that is the real hidden treasure.
As you descend the steps and the opulent lawns of the Metropole fade away, vaulted metal doors swing open to reveal solid concrete rooms with low ceilings that once housed up to 50 people.
“People would stay here, silent, waiting for the siren to go off again so that they could go back outside,” says Hien, our guide. “They would sometimes be down here up to six times a day.”
The tour ends with a harrowing recording of an airstrike that was recorded by Joan Baez on the roof of the Metropole on the night of the Christmas Bombings in 1972.
Central Military Commission Bunker
D67 Bunker, Hanoi Citadel, Hoang Dieu, Ba Dinh
Constructed in 1967 at the height of the war, the D67 building housed the General Headquarters of the People’s Army of Vietnam, complete with meeting rooms for the Politiburo, the Communist Party’s chief policy-making body.
The facility was built with a flat roof to make it indistinguishable from a single-storey house from the air, its roof lined with sand to protect it from shrapnel. But its plain features concealed an even more important facility that lay hidden underground: the Central Military Commission Bunker.
Deep beneath the offices used by General Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnam’s most famous military figure, a system of bunkers was dug under the citadel, the most important section forged in 1967. It linked the bunker with an underground tunnel system that forms part of Vietnam’s revolutionary history.
One of three steep staircases will take you nine metres below the surface where a series of vaulted metal doors and submarine-style corridors lead to rooms with everything from crates of ammunition and old transistors left in their original place.
Even the ‘war room’ where the Politburo, the Central Military Commission and army chiefs would meet to plot their next moves has been left in tact, with the same maps and charts left behind for visitors to see.
However, only a small section of this underground maze has been opened to the public. Most of the tunnels remain closed off.