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Banana Island Is a Peaceful Oasis Amid Hanoi, but for How Much Longer?

As the xe ôm is about to reach the halfway point of Long Biên Bridge, I tell him to stop.

He is surprised; he tells me he can take me all the way across the bridge. But I decline, as I don’t want to cross the Red River. I am looking for a narrow staircase that would take me to my destination: Banana Island.

Banana Island, or Bãi Giữa as Hanoians call it, is separated from the mainland by just a sliver of water. Flowing between the island and the city center, this splinter of the Red River is no longer red, having long-ago turned black with a sewage odor that I can smell even while standing on the bridge. Pollution is often the place at the edge of prosperity. 

Luckily, the island is still beautiful. Here is a rare place in Hanoi where the tallest things are still trees and not buildings; rows and rows of banana trees stretch as far as the eye can see. 

The narrow staircase where I'm heading is easy to miss; I have crossed Long Biên many times without knowing it is there. I doubt the stairs were in the original design when the bridge was built a century ago. It was probably built by those who needed it daily.

Most of the island is farmland and banana plantations, with narrow paths snaking here and there. Following one path for just a few minutes, I realize how tranquil it is here. The constant noise of traffic and construction has faded to the sound of leaves rustling and birds singing.

The island is a rare place in Hanoi where one can still go to the banks of the Red River, and many people come here to swim in the water that is called dòng sông Mẹ, or the Mother river. Though this Mother is not always forgiving. At a swimming spot, I read a harrowing sign: “Here every year there are people who drowned. If you don’t know how to swim then don’t be foolish.”

A few dozen steps away from that swimming spot lies a shrine called Miếu Hai Cô, or the Shrine of Two Ladies. As the legend goes, a few decades ago, two women were found on the banks of the river; they had drowned and drifted here from upstream. The people here didn’t know who the women were, still they recovered the bodies and built a shrine for them. A plaque nearby tells me that the Red River Swimming Club has restored the shrine recently. It seems perfectly understandable — inevitable even — that those who love to swim would pay respect to those who drowned.

The vast open land of the island is also an unofficial eternal resting place of many deceased furry friends, as pet owners across Hanoi come here to build make-shift tombs for their beloved companions. 

Leaving the shrine, I come upon a small lake that is home to some 30 families — Xóm Phao, or Buoy Village. The families live in shacks built upon floating barrels, relying on solar panels for power and a well for water. They have drifted here from all over Vietnam, all just trying to cling to Hanoi to make a living. 

Xóm Phao used to anchor along the riverbank, but then the river changed its course, so they are caught here in this lake. Their lives will change again soon — all of Banana Island will change for that matter. The city is looking into an urban zoning plan for the Red River. People will be moved to make way for construction and urban expansion; tranquility and peace sacrificed for economic growth.  

As I leave the island, I see three kids playing with each other. They don’t have any toys, just a few tree branches with them, yet they have much more fun than any kids I’ve seen with an iPad. 

It saddens me to think that in the near future, all of this might be gone: the trees replaced with buildings, dirt paths with concrete. As an expectant father, I wonder if my kid will ever get to see this much green in Hanoi, or will it just be another soulless urban landscape, perched on the edge of its own waste?

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Chris Humphrey

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