Postcard from Hanoi: A city of a thousand fig trees

I took a stroll in Hanoi today*. It’s a beautiful city. But parked motorbikes and perched purveyors of foods and goods possess its pavements. So to walk one must step into the streets and have faith in the swirling mass of motorists whose pulse keeps the city alive.

The constant sounds of their car and motorcycle horns beep and parp and wahdah-wahdah-wa-wa without pause. They tear the air and probably save lives, but they also kill a bit of a wanderer’s pleasure by drowning out other noises.

The only birdsong I heard today came from bulbuls and babblers and magpie-robins that hung from storefronts in little wooden cages. There’s an irony in their lonely captivity because Hanoi is also a city of trees, a city of fig trees that owe their existence to the some of the same species whose caged members no longer fly free.

In more than three hours of walking today I didn’t see a single street without a fig tree on it. Their aerial roots dangle like matted hair, or grow thick as they grip and encircle the host trees in whose crowns they arrived as seeds pooped out by birds. These sinuous roots are like molten wax that has run fast and then frozen hard.

There’s a great ugly beauty in these trees.  In spite of their ghostly appearance, they are trees of life. Their figs feed more animals species than the fruit of any other group of trees. They are also sacred across Asia. Many of Hanoi’s have hollows full of incense sticks and other offerings. The trees matter on many levels.

Nature has scattered these living sculptures across the city. Most of them have grown from seeds that bird species dispersed long ago. It’s a shame for the trees and the people who pray at them that those birds have grown quiet. They seem now to live largely in cages that hang in plain sight of the trees from which they would like to feed.


For more about fig trees: My book was published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future. The hardback is out now and the paperback is out in September but is now available to pre-order. The US/Canada edition is called Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The secret history and redemptive future of fig trees. The hardback is out now and the paperback is out in April 2018 (pre-order here).

*I was in Hanoi on a work trip to learn and write about how communities are dealing with changes to the climate. See my other posts from my visit to Vietnam: A tale of typhoons, trees and tiny creatures that stood between a community and climate resilienceand — Where honey means money and climate means change

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