Vietnam - Hanoi

We fell in love with Hanoi the moment we landed , the moment our feet touched the streets of this old old city, a city with such a history that manages, like a black hole,  to distort the fabric of time and to stay blocked between eras, between occupiers, between periods. As a tourist you always feel that you are working on different time, different pace, more relaxed, less burdened by timetables, deadlines, meetings, more flowing. In Hanoi it felt as if everybody was working in the same pace, as a perfect example of Asian time and  the true rhythm of life.

As I was going through the photos , trying to conjure up memories from our trip there, I realize that I remember very little of anything outside the old quarter, and more than that, I realized it was ok. There is a reason why some things are more memorable than others, and the old quarter is where the uniqueness of Vietnam is evident. The rest of the city is just like any other modern developing city, and there is nothing more boring than that.

Vietnam is a rapidly changing country with unstoppable torrent of foreigners coming to develop the third world country, and the old quarter is the last place where the real heart of Hanoi is being conserved, where layers of history add up to the fascinating tale of an ancient country , occupied over and over again, always managing to keep its original charm under oppressors and bloodshed, always waiting out each invading force, outlasting all of them, continuing forward no matter how many scars it carries with it.



Each Asian country, other than my current resting place, the kingdom of Thailand, is a mutation of the world power that occupied it at one point or another, and it is that mutation ,that make them so interesting, so organic in nature.

Hanoi is the perfect example of that mutation, with the French architecture blending perfectly in the Asian street life, where European culture dictated the layout of the city, the functional and philosophical way of life.

And what a wonderful life that is. One of the best things about traveling in Asia is that life is laid out for you on the street. Family dinners, business, romance, children playing, life.


When I shoot I am always attracted to the exotic, to the colorful, to the image that will leave and impact, but in Hanoi, my favorite photos are of the everyday life, the normal everyday moments  that  make that big puzzle. In some places it is harder to find those moments, in some places you need to know the secret knock to enter that world, but in Hanoi It is just there, without a thought, just life.

It is hard to avoid the war memorials, museums, souvenirs, flags and other marketable pieces of semi historical value. This is after all Vietnam, you know, with the helicopters and jimmy Hendrix in the background, we have seen so many Vietnam movies we can almost taste the noodles. Right?

Vietnam is an interesting country on the verge of capitalistic breakthrough, be it good or bad, but the signs of progress  seem to be still under control , at least in places where history is part of the tourism industry, with Hanoi's old quarter being more symbolic of the Vietnam we thought we knew than any  war museum or underground bunkers.

For example, you can imagine my delight when I found out they actually wear those large Chinese hats in the markets and streets and it is not only a tourist attraction. I know it is stupid, but that, for me, says something very important about the place, about the people, about the strength of a culture, of a tradition. It might be the white man in me, it might be the photographer always looking for the next clickable focal interest, but I really think these hats are not only charming, but patriotic and helping keep the soul of the country alive.



Another small example for the charming artifact of the past, is the wonderfully pedestrian barber shops, er, ok, not shops… how do you call a chair and a mirror hanging on a wall? I know, again I am being romantic and soft hearted because it is so picturesque, but what can I do, I am a picturesque person. Besides, do you have a street barber on your block?

We checked out the local art scene, which peaked a couple of years ago with a handful of talented painters who managed to break out into the global art market, but found that  the sad result is that Hanoi is full of small galleries showing painters who try to be like these three… you can expect a lovely afternoon in galleries, as these fakes are rather good, but you will not find too much originality there.

when it comes to crafts, woodwork, silk etc, you have a much better chance of finding something unique and reasonably priced. We spent many hours looking for interesting artifacts, and as I am normally not a big fan of shopping as a pastime, you can understand there was indeed a lot to see even for someone like me.


One of the greatest skills the Vietnamese artisans perfected through the centuries is the silk production, and my wife still wears the long shinny silk dresses we made for here there, beautiful material, hand tailored figure, and for the rice of a tshirt in NYC, made on the double in one of those hole in the wall twenty four hour tailor shops.

They do know their silk, and it is of a softer kind than the Chinese one, more leaning toward the famous smoothness of the Thai silk.  Girls, if you want your man to hug you , put on a silk dress. Boys, if you want your girl to hug you buy her a silk dress. See how it works? Just for that it is worth having a long weekend in Hanoi.

Hanoi is the real Vietnam experience. It has the story you are looking for, or at least the good parts of it. You are welcome to roam around the country, go to the museums and the memorials , see the paddy fields and the forests, but for the story of Vietnam? For the short precise version of what is Vietnam? I recommend a long lazy sunny day of walking through the old quarter of Hanoi, under those big trees giving shade and relief from the south asian sun,  Stop for a good cup of coffee. Maybe a croissant.  Just for history's sake.



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