Words by Lan Huong
(The original version in Vietnamese can be found here)
Whenever talking about a beautiful Hanoi, I wonder why it is always a uniform image for almost everyone: some tiny street corner which must be in the Old Quarter. Once a holiday comes, there also comes a bundle of photos sharing one theme implying “Hanoi – the more deserted, the more beautiful”; and the caption runs “just like old days”. Publishing houses are busy digging up books on Hanoi in early years of the last century. One of them is “Old Hanoi” by Doan Ke Thien. So how about Hanoi of today? Is there anything to miss?
Never before has nostalgia been such profitable. A series of coffee shops whose decoration reminds of the subsidy era have been opened and enjoyed a boom. Modern restaurants imitating the 80s’ trading food stalls selling dishes of poor and humble days attract flocks of customers despite the market economy price. People in and out feel happy being able to recall their old memories as if without subsidy, Hanoi were no longer Hanoi.
There has not been any official survey yet I think if 10 people are asked what Hanoi is, 9 will automatically refer to the peacefulness and quietness of some small lane, some tiny street. Or a wandering flower carrier. Or some high-pitching crispy voice of a hawker during a quiet night. The last answer may be about skyscrapers, luxurious urban areas or newly built westward roads.
Yet, personally I think the chance for me to get such reply is very low. Now, Hanoi seems to receive complaints rather than empathy: congestion, pollution, overpopulation… Some even limit Hanoi within only one or two quarters of old streets while Hanoi actually occupies over 30,000 hectares according to the city’s masterplan.
In fact, it is like a Mission Impossible when one expects Hanoi to stay the same. It is the author of “Old Hanoi” that wrote in his preface 70 years ago that: “It’s true. Hanoi today is completely different from Hanoi yesterday… If being away for several decades, someone can’t help feeling taken aback and alien when returning”.
Hanoi has been undergoing numerous transformations: From the tube house architecture with a small open-aired area in the middle of the house during the French colony to blocks of apartments defining the doimoi period, and now Western royal complexes upright at the heart of Hanoi.
Nonetheless, Hanoi never stops moving. What we are so sure that used to be of Hanoi thus may be just something coming out from our fading away memories. We are missing some day far away, and at the same time forgetting that one day “today” will also become the past for us to dwell in.
Yet, it is the fact that there is disruption in archiving documents and images of Hanoi’s architecture and history. The question of what an old and authentic Hanoi is, therefore, remains unrequited, or else limited within as old as tale debates on using vinegar or lime for beef phở, or if eating intestines is a proper way to enjoy chả cá (grilled fish)?
To wrap up, if you still feel Hanoi of today has nothing lovable, perhaps youcan think about Pho Duc Tung’s words. For this architect who has just decided to return to Hanoi after having lived in Berlin for 15 years, the city is always changing and moving, a living city. And being alive is a beauty per se. Who knows after several decades, only when Hanoi finally becomes organised, may one long for the perplexing skyline today, may one realise that the once chaos was actually full of attitudes as much as shades and compositions in contemporary installation artworks?
Translated by Thu