Landscape is entangled with history and people’s lives. No matter how young we are or what social position we have, we all have very interesting stories that can touch others no matter where we come from.
Recalling Hanoi is my vision of Hanoi, a tapestry weaved out of portraits, people’s stories and the urban landscape that hosts them.
It can be said that the project started in 1880 when my great great grand father came to live in Vietnam with his family. My grand father was born and raised in Hanoi along with his sister. When my grandpa died I inherited his old photographs. These photos and long lost history behind them inspired me to come to Hanoi and look for my family ghosts.
Initially, when I arrived in September 2010, I intended to tell the stories of my family’s past along with stories of my time in Hanoi. Yet while I was here, I began to perceive that Hanoi itself is a collection of stories and locations interlinking with each other over time. It was a shift in perception from being introspective to becoming retrospective.
I ask people living in the city to tell me about a place in Hanoi that holds one of their memories. It can be about anything, a personal story intertwined with history; a great event or everyday little stories that our lives are made of. These stories, along with the photographs of the storyteller and the location give depth to each other.
Through this collection I am attempting to create an intimate, multi-layered portrait of Hanoi through its collective memory. It’s not just a place in Hanoi but it’s a place that holds a memory; it’s not just a photo of a random person but a portrait of someone who reveals their self to you; it’s not the big events that make Hanoi’s history, it’s a history of the inhabitants stories which make Hanoi.
The hope is that the audience will connect to another person’s life and also to their own memories to understand this beautiful city.
My Grandmother’s House
Hoa Lo Prison - 1990
In the early 90s my grandmother was imprisoned for illegally giving a loan with a high interest rate. She spent five years in the infamous Hoa Lo prison, formerly a French prison for political prisoners and then for American prisoners of war.
I was very young and did not understand what it was really about, but my grandfather would bring me to see her every weekend. To me it was like going to my grandmother’s house.
Every year during Tet Holiday it’s almost like tradition in my family to tell the story of my third birthday. That weekend my parents decided I would not go visit my grandmother cause it was bad luck to do such a sad thing on a birthday. I was so young that I couldn’t understand and I was very upset. So I decided to take my birthday cake and go by myself to see my grandma. I ran away from home at 3 years old with a cake. Somehow I could remember pretty well the way until an intersection where I became very confused and got lost. I asked a policeman if he knew where my grandmother’s house was, but I could not tell him which street and I did not know it was the prison. Because I could remember how to go to my house, he brought me back home. My family were worried sick and some had gone looking for me. The next day I made my parents buy the exact same cake so I could bring it to my grandmother over the weekend with my grandfather.
Dragonfly Bar - 1997
In 1997 my friend Natasha introduced me to the Trang An Gallery and they invited me to show my work. As my first solo exhibition in Hanoi, it was really important to me and as the time got closer I got more excited and nervous. As usual, two or three days before the big day I started to panic, thinking it might have all been a big mistake to agree to do this. However, the exhibition was well received. At the time my son was five years old, and I remember his kindergarten teacher came to the opening. He took her around and showed her everything, he was very proud. On the way home he said he had chosen a piece he wanted to keep for himself; he described it perfectly. The piece follows him everywhere and is still hanging in his apartment today. Sometime later the gallery closed down.
When my son was 16 years old, he would often go out to a nightclub called Dragonfly. It became a place I wasn’t allowed to go because it would be embarrassing for him to be in the same bar as his old man.
I was out one night with Vietnamese friends who decided we should go to Dragonfly. I hoped my son would have gone home by the time I arrived, and he had. Two years later, while my son was partying for his high school graduation, we, the parents, went on a tour of all the bars from which we’d been exiled and I found myself in Dragonfly again. Suddenly, I realized that I was in the old Trang An Gallery, the very place I’d had my first exhibition. It was a cool moment because that place holds a lot of memories for me in Hanoi and also played a part in my son’s teenage years.
A Moving Scene
Little lane (Ngo hep) 1988.
The movie I was working on was shot during Doi Moi, a time when everything was changing in Vietnamese society, and the subject was very rare: a girl decides to marry an old but rich man instead of choosing love.
The scene I remember the most is the one where local people are lining up to take water from the communal tap in a very narrow lane. That communal area was like a small society. People would fight and be aggressive to get to the water first, but whenever the respected teacher would come to get water, the people would let him get it first and they would stop fighting and show a lot of respect. That movie scene makes me think of the behaviour and the relationships between people and how they have changed.
I remember the time before “Doi Moi”. Hanoi’s streets were empty; there were less people than now and life was very difficult, but relationship were more important; people were closer to each other and love stories were simpler. I remember the image of the bicycle was a symbol for love: simple and immaterial. I feel like now society is more money orientated and it wasn’t at that time. It was simpler like a bicycle. I am a bit nostalgic, I reckon “Doi Moi” brought more material comfort and before it life was really difficult. But though in the past there were power struggles, nobody had money, so it was a level playing field and there was less corruption. Everything has two faces.
The Village Well
It was in the Chuong village on a market day, the famous traditional conical hat market, which only opens according to the lunar calendar. The market still maintains the features of a countryside market among a buzzing and busy Hanoi. I was wandering there when I saw a man showering beside the village well.
Village wells are hard to see now in Hanoi because they have been covered to build houses and streets. The wells used to provide water for the whole village. The one or two wells in each village were closely connected to the simple daily activities of the village. Wells, banyan trees and communal houses’ yards are symbolic images that represent northern Vietnamese villages. I spent my childhood in these places until I left for the big city.
That man just naturally scooped the water, filled a bucket and took a shower. He looked like an innocent child unaware of the crowd. He was there just taking his shower between the crowded market and a brick wall worn out by time. I stopped. What a tranquil moment: in the middle of this noisy and hectic urban area, I thought that there are things which still exist though we thought they were long lost. I stood there for a while and took a photo. It seemed to me that fatigue was swept away by each drop of water.
Hanoi Amsterdam School (Nam Cao street)
We are 4 girlfriends like sisters. We have known each other for almost 20 years now.
I met Ha in primary school. We disliked each other for almost 5 years; she was a formal and studious girl; I wasn’t. When we went to the Hanoi Amsterdam School we ended up in the same class, we didn’t know anybody and because we came from the same school the teacher sat us next to each other.
I met Anh the year after. She was very shy and the other kids made fun of her. Her birthday was one day before mine. To be nice I decided to bring her flowers that day at school.
I met Linh around the same time as Anh. One day, after school she was alone waiting outside the gate for her father. To keep her company I waited with her. For over one hour and a half we talked non-stop.
That summer, my father past away. With their support and friendship they helped me get through that very hard time. Now I understand how important and deep a friendship can be. Though we’ve all grown up and left the school we have managed to stay close.
Noi Bai AIrport
I first saw Ashley in March 2009. He was on his way back to Cambodia from a friend’s wedding in China. He took the train and had a quick stop in Hanoi. I saw him sitting by Hoan Kiem Lake, so I went and talked with him for a while. Then he gave me his email address because he wanted to keep in touch and I wrote mine in his notebook. One day, I received an unexpected email from him. We kept on talking nearly everyday for around 2 months via the internet and he wanted to come see me again. When we saw each other again at the airport I instantly recognized him because he had become so familiar to me. We ran into each others arms, we had been looking forward to that moment for such a long time. He was very gentle and I was so happy to be with him. Time passed by, we were in a relationship which lasted for nearly 1 year. He was travelling from the UK to Vietnam quite often until November 2009. Everytime he landed, I was there at the airport. Sometimes flights were delayed. I had to wait for hours, having coffee and looking out the windows at all the airplanes taking off and landing. A few times we even went to the airport early just to spend time together. Eventually, he decided to live in Vietnam long term; but it didn’t work out because he didn’t like Hanoi. He got depressed and we broke up in March 2010. When he left Vietnam for Japan in May I went with him to the airport. He wanted to check in as early as possible to avoid spending too much time with me. We kissed each other goodbye. This last kiss was so fast and lacked emotion from him. He was so indifferent. He told me abruptly that he didn’t love me anymore and I should never think he would come back. It was painful. We gave each other the last kiss and hug. They were not like the first time, they were fast and full of regrets.
A Night in the Candy store
Kim Lien neighborhood
In 2006, 4 months after arrival. I was drinking too much at that period, several times a week until 3-4am. I was living in Kim Lien (near the French Hospital) and drinking in the Old Quarter at Half Man Half Noodle or Baracouda (the old dragonfly).
My Vietnamese friend and I were driving around on his Minsk. The city was deserted at 3am so we could drive like maniacs - really fast. By the end of the night he gave me a ride back to Kim Lien and dropped me by the main street which was just 2 alleys away from my home. My guess is that I didn’t make it because next morning I woke up in the back room of a candy store with a 90 year old Vietnamese man standing over me giving me a glass of blackcurrant juice - a cure for hangovers. He spoke pretty good English which he had taught himself from a computer program. He introduced me to his married daughter on vacation from HCMC and he videotaped the three of us speaking English. For half an hour I gave him a little English/computer lesson. He didn’t tell what really happened but it seems that I fell asleep totally drunk in front of the shop.
Living in a Glass House
Tuc Mac street
There are 16 families in the house. It used to be a French house, one of the oldest in Hanoi. After the war with the French, it was divided into apartments. I have lived here my whole life: first with my mother then alone after she passed away. When I used to come back home from France where I was studying, I would always have this strong feeling of being where I belong, a familiar feeling of being home.
When I was a child we played on the staircase imagining it was a big house where each stair was a new floor. In the courtyard we used to play soccer or badminton. In the kitchenette we would make rice.
There is a lot of jealousy between people in the house. When I renovated the apartment I had to hide it from my neighbours so the older people wouldn’t try to stop it. They didn’t want me to renovate; they talked about me behind my back to the workers in my house to make them stop working for me. They said horrible things about me just because they were jealous - I could pay for the renovation and they could not.
I love my apartment; I’m very attached to it, but I will move out because it’s too complicated. Every time I have guests around, the whole neighbourhood knows about it and they watch me. When they realise that I will stare right back and not back down, they stop annoying me and they are all smiles, but I ignore them.
The girl and the Lake
Nghia Tan lake (#2)
Me and my friends used to have a favourite spot on Nghia Tan Lake. We used to go there often, not far from the park’s gate where Nghia Tan middle school is now. One day a young girl committed suicide: she jumped into the lake right in front of our eyes. A lot of people where sitting around the lake but by the time her family brought her body out, she was already dead. Since then, I’ve never been back to that same spot on the lake.
Hoan Kiem Lake:
In the 30’s Hoan Kiem Lake was surrounded by a big tree-shaded park. I remember the beauty of the street flower vendors with all the flowers on their bicycles. It was the place for the traditional Sunday drive. Our family would go around the lake in the car, stop to get some fresh air and chit chat with the other families.
Ho B52 Hoàng Hoa Thám
It was 1972 and I was 23 years old, working for a factory producing cotton shoes for soldiers in the Ngoc Ha quarter. The lake was surrounded by single-storey houses at that time. On the other side of the lake, were the flower gardens of Ngoc Ha – famous for supplying flowers to Hanoi. 5 or 6 air-raid shelters were built by the local authorities to protect the people every time the sirens sounded the arrival of American bombers. Each bunker had a cement roof with steel in the middle.
We heard on the radio that a new attack of American bombs had leveled the whole of Kham Thien street. Old people and children had to take refuge in the suburbs. A few people stayed to carry on production and guard the area. During the evacuation, my two daughters stood on the back of a bicycle, arms round my husband’s neck, on their way to the camp in the suburbs. My husband and I stayed at home. We stayed because people were still needed to guard the area. For a few months, I didn’t see my children, they had to stay in the camp. The living conditions were harder, the water was muddier, but the kids were safer there.
The day before the airplane came down, everything was normal. I woke up at 5.30am, cycled to the factory at 6.00am and worked till 2pm. We had lunch at the factory: noodles, a little bit of meat and vegetables. I came back home in the afternoon to prepare dinner for me and my husband. Everyday we had dinner together.
That night, I was sleeping when I heard the air-raid siren. Suddenly, everybody was rushing to the shelters. It was very dark inside – I could hardly recognize the person right next to me. After about ten minutes, I heard from above the rumble and the roar of planes mixed with the sound of flack cannons from the ground. Half an hour later, when it seemed to be quiet, we started to climb back out. Right in front of my eyes, an enormous ball of fire was burning in the middle of the lake. It was part of downed plane, the petrol in the engine was burning and lit up the sky. Some other pieces of the airplane had been torn off and fell in the quarter next to ours – two people died from the falling debris. We stood there for a while observing the scene, then walked quietly home. The overall atmosphere was tense; we’d lived so many years of the war, but this was the first time we’d witnessed it with our own eyes.
It has been 45 years since I lived in the house in front of this lake.
The Haunted House
Au Co street
One day, I met a Fortune teller from Saigon. When I heard that he could read the past, present and foresee the future, I wanted to ask about myself. He let me ask only 3 questions. First, I asked about my love life. Then, I asked him about my family.
For the last question, I asked him about my house. He said: “your house is at the end of a small alley. The alley has a small temple on the right. There is an intersection at the beginning of the alley. On the left of your house is a small pond, on the right is a smaller house shorter than your house. It is also the house of your landlord. Inthe middle of your house, there is a star-fruit tree, the distance from the wall to the tree is 70cm”
When he finished, I couldn’t say anything, I bet my face had turned grey because what he said was correct. He continued, “your house is fine but the landlord’s house has a spirit living in it; the ghost of a woman, a young girl. She died in the pond next to your house. A few months ago, the landlord had decided to fill in the pond, accidentally covering her grave. She is very angry now. She caused the owner to die suddenly.”
I thought about what he said for a few seconds. The landlord had died 3 months ago on the toilet in his house, at the age of 43. I was about to faint.
The next morning, I showed him the way to my house. When he arrived, he didn’t seem surprised at all, like he had been to the place before. He hung a mirror on the tree in front of the door. After that, he visited the neighbor’s house and hung a flute from the middle of the ceiling. That was all he did, no worshiping or ceremony. After that I didn’t dare go home for a week.
Haut les mains
Truc Bach Lake.
During the war I was in the civilian forces that protected the city and I worked in a factory in Thuy Khué. October 26th, 1967 it looked like it was going to be a typical day. I went to work for my 8am shift and had a two-hour lunch break during which I went home as normal. Then I heard the city alarm start telling us an air strike was underway. I headed to the block shelter. I heard an explosion and looked outside to investigate. A plane was coming down over Trúc Bạch Lake and the pilot’s parachute was in the air. I ran out of the shelter screaming ‘There’s a pilot!’ I went to my house to get a knife in case the pilot had weapons. I dived into the lake. When I got to the pilot I grabbed his hair and put his head on a bamboo floating rack. I didn’t speak English so I screamed at him in French ‘Haut les mains!’’ I put my knife against his face, he didn’t put up a fight. He was still attached to his parachute which was very heavy so people helped drag him to shore. We pulled him out of the water. John McCain was very lucky to go down near a police station. No harm would come to him there. If he had fallen into the city he could have been badly beaten. The police took him away and handed him to the National Defence Force. I went home, finished lunch and returned to work. The day after it happened it was all over the newspapers and journalists wanted to interview me. When John McCain ran for President of the United States the story resurfaced and I was interviewed again. I don’t mind, I like sharing the story.
Le Huu Chi
Cafe 252, Hang Bong
I opened this coffee shop in 1986, after Doi Moi, when I was already retired. It was for the new foreign tourists, but today more vietnamese come here instead. Our specialty has always been the yogurt, because it’s healthy. Before, nobody was eating yogurt, but since we opened everybody eats yogurt - I do yogurt propaganda! Nowadays it’s my daughter-in-law that takes care of business, I only come to speak with the customers. We want to keep the atmosphere of the café as it is: working class, authentic, and simple.
I am often asked about Catherine Deneuve. When they were filming the movie Indochine, she came here to have breakfast. The production team was ordering their lunch from us and she really liked our yogurt. Back then we only used to serve plain but she asked us to put some honey in it, so now we sell a variety of flavors. She used to come everyday; we would talk and became friends. A year after she left, she came back to promote her movie and she invited me to the premiere of the movie at the French Embassy.
People often ask me where she sat - right where I am now.
Truong Chinh Street
It was just a normal day on Truong Chinh Road: a packed street, traffic backed up for a couple of kilometers, and wet from a heavy shower in the early morning. I was on my way to Hanoi University from home. Glancing at my watch, I realised that I needed to hurry for the teacher was well-known for being strict about punctuality. I’d had a fight with my boyfriend the night before which, along with the terrible weather and traffic, was making me stressed. So I decided to do what everybody does when the streets are choked with traffic: that is randomly choose a small alley to take, since normally it will lead you to your destination after a few winding detours.
As soon as I turned into the alley, I see that I had never gone that way before. After some corners, I suddenly realized how strange the surroundings seemed to me and how hard it was to find the right direction. I was confused and tried to find someone who could show me the way. I saw a man riding. I tried to catch up with him but fell into a puddle. The man did not notice and carried on.
Lying in a puddle in a dirty alley, soaked, late, angry with my boyfriend and alone, I felt utterly dejected and full of bitter self-pity. But I stood up, and in my oversized raincoat, picked up the bike and continued, following my guesses in the winding alleys.
Since then I’ve graduated from university, so I do not need to travel on Truong Chinh Road anymore. I have split up with my boyfriend and quit my job. Everything seems like a fresh start to me. Unexpectedly, it recalls me of the alleys along Truong Chinh Road: Whichever the alley you take, one way or another, you will reach your destination in the end.
Doi Can Street
I’ve been a wandering fruit seller in Hanoi for over ten years now. Almost every day I get up very early to go to the wholesale market under Long Bien Bridge. The atmosphere is noxious, it is full of sellers in competition with each other, fighting and swearing. I just focus on buying, and try to keep in favour with some wholesalers in order to get the best goods. Once you’ve made your choice, there’s no chance to return or change it no matter how good or bad the quality of the fruit is.
I still remember my first day. My sister-in-law took me to the market and we bought some huge watermelons in a hurry just to get out of the place as fast as we could. When we got home we realized the watermelons were far too big, so we cut them into pieces. Thus my career began one early morning next to La Thanh guest house, waiting for customers. By the time my nephew brought me my lunch no one had even looked at the watermelons. I felt so sorry for myself that I burst into tears.
Life is much easier for me now. In the early days, everything seemed so hard because I was all alone, still coping with bitter homesickness in a strange new city. I would wander up and down Doi Can Street with my bicycle and basket of fruits. Slowly I gained regular customers who trusted me for my honesty.
I feel grateful to my husband for his willingness to share all the housework so that I can work. With my stable job, we have enough money to get by and can afford for both of our children to study, while my husband takes care of the house. Although we have to live separately, we have the same goals and we never feel alone because when we do share some time together we absolutely get what we yearn for.
Phuong Mai Street.
I was ten years old and living in an apartment on the fifth floor, with one of my cousins who had just turned eight. An old man would pass our apartment every afternoon, calling out to customers to sell the delicious dessert “tao pho”. We would try to imitate him comically. The kind man just laughed at us and carried on his way. It turned into a daily game for us.
My mum had a half of a 5,000 Vietnam Dong bill that had been torn apart, which she kept in a drawer while she was looking for the other half. It gave us an idea. When the tao pho man came we shouted down at him to send us up a bowl in a bucket on a rope and then we would send the money down after. He put a full bowl of tao pho into the bucket and straight away we sent him back the torn half with an explanation that it equalled 2,500 Vietnam Dong, which was the price. The man laughed so loud and told us to talk to my mum when she got home.
Of course we tried to keep it a secret. However one day, on her way home from the market, Mum met the tao pho man. Arriving home, she pretended to look for the half-bill and asked if I had seen it. Full of guilt I confessed immediately. She told me she had paid him the real amount and had got the torn half back. She told us that children were not allowed to spend money and we should certainly never cheat people. Our punishment was separation but we sneaked out after a day and still secretly played together. One thing changed though: we stopped teasing the tao pho man.
Sen Ho Tay Street.
I can still remember those days when the road around the lake was not paved. Every time we came there after the rain, it was so muddy only a really skilled driver could take his girlfriend to the corner of the lake on a motorbike to enjoy the cool breeze from across the lotus fields. Strangely, we had never been there when the lotuses were blooming, although we had planned to many times. After we broke up, I felt like the invisible connection between us and that place had been broken and all that was left for me was just the laughter and tears, happiness and sorrow, and the music we had shared through the years.
Some time after, I started my dream job. By coincidence, my shortest route to work is through those lotus fields. Seeing those blooming pink lotus flowers against a deep green background, gives me such a fabulous picture every day. Travelling alone through that familiar place, I cannot help shedding a few tears. My memories of our time together are still so strong. I can begin to see a way through from the love that has been lost to my desire to contribute to society. It’s as though that path around the lake is a part of my journey through love: from the passion of past times to something greater, which I hope lasts for a lifetime.
The man in the lane
Lane number 68, Cau Giay district
Ten years have passed since the day I set up my small street-side business and became alley 68’s hairdresser.
There is a man in his seventies who has been coming here since I first opened. We’re both from the central region of Vietnam, the land of graceful folk songs. When he sits in my chair I sing for him and he closes his eyes. Both of us came to this city after falling in love with Hanoi women. It’s hard to put into words but there is something that brings us close and has allowed us to share so much over the years. He is like a second father to me.
Some time ago he had an accident and could not move. I took my equipment to his house and cut and washed his hair there. After a while, he told me he wanted to be able to sit in my chair in the alley again, reminiscing over his childhood through the lyrics of my songs. This is how the sight of a middle aged man carrying an old man on his back became familiar in alley 68.
I might not earn much but I love my work, it gives my life meaning and my role is far more than just a hairdresser. In alley 68 I am a bridge of information, a transformer, and even a fixer of misunderstandings between neighbours.
University of Foreign Languages
It might be my bad luck to have been born disabled, but I have never felt sorry for myself. Instead, I had a marvellous dream. I loved football and football players from England – “the land of fog”, or so I was told. My own difficulty prevented me from running after the ball with all my body and soul like those great players, so I decided that I could “run” with them from backstage instead - as a football commentator.
My dream meant I was very interested in studying foreign languages, starting with English and then later Japanese. In the afternoon, I used to walk with my crutches to the stadium in the University of Foreign Languages, to watch my friends playing and screaming their hearts out on the pitch. I desperately wanted to play with them too but I could not, so I used my crutch to ‘kick’ the ball instead – just to make myself feel less idle. A few players saw me and came to talk to me, we soon became friends. After that we played football together every afternoon in the campus of our university, passing the ball between foot and crutch.
It’s been six years since I left university that I loved. I have worked, yet my dream has not come true. I am now working at a football newspaper office and more importantly, I am a motivational speaker. In all my seminars, I never forget to mention my friends and the very first place that nurtured my dreams: The University of Foreign Languages.
Ben Xe Gia Lam
Being a war veteran who worked for the army until retirement I could not just sit around at home. Since I have a daughter who was affected by Agent Orange, I had to continue working as much I could.
The job requires few specialised skills, just commitment and hard work. It has given methe chance to meet all kinds of people. There were times when I was treated so well by some and others when I had to use my skills from the war, like when I was robbed by clients.
I will never forget four years ago just before the new lunar year when I was taking a client to Gia Lam bus station. When we reached the station he asked me for help to move stuff up on the roof of the coach and I was happy to do it. The coach had hardly left when I realised that my wallet had gone too. It was a terrible moment. I had just received my wages and annual bonus in preparation for the new year celebrations. When I got back home, I received a phone call saying that they had my documents from my wallet and I had to go to Hoang Mai district to get them back. Unless I paid 200,000 Vietnam Dong via a woman selling drinks I would not get my papers. And so I did, but I still was not given my car driver’s license. I had to be optimistic. I said to my family I was still lucky that we were able to have one container of banh chung for the new year.
Since then I stopped taking strangers.
La Place, Au Trieu Street.
Coffee shops play a real big role in young people’s lives in Vietnam, as they spend a lot of time in them. I started going to La Place eleven years ago. At that time it was at number 4 Au Trieu, next to the cathedral in the old quarter. It was a very special time in my life. At 18 years old, my life was changing. After graduatingfrom high school I had always obeyed my parents but by the first year of university, I decided to do what I wanted. I threw myself into enjoying life.
One night in a bar, I saw a really good-looking guy. I was a stylist for a magazine and I approached him saying he should model for us. He laughed and said it was the most common pick up line in Germany where he lived. We became friends. I found myself missing him. I fell in love for the first time. I was into girls and I didn’t think I would fall for a boy.
One day we met at La Place. The moment I entered I was breathless. It was a small cosy room with wooden tables, comfortable couches and glass doors. With its warm yellow walls and wooden ceiling, it felt Mediterranean. I had never seen a place like it. I imagined myself living somewhere like that. He ordered a latte for me and I got lost that day.
From then on, I was hooked. I became connected to the place because of the time he and I spent together there. It was like a relationship in itself. Over time it moved next door, but the place is still the same to me. I’m a very emotional person. When I find a place I like I spend a lot of time there and I become very attached to it.
Thanh Nhan Lake.
Before my boyfriend left for Singapore, we started a project about the lakes in Hanoi. We started it as a hobby because we didn’t want to meet each other and just sit around. We both like to travel and because he was leaving he wanted to see as much of the city as possible. We were just interested in knowing more about the environment and people’s lives in the neighbourhoods of each lake. We went to eleven lakes in total,
Thanh Nhan Lake in Dong Da district stood out the most to me. It’s a small lake and the residents around it take good care of it. When we went there it was a sunny afternoon and despite the usual cacophony of Hanoi, it was really quiet. There were old people and kids playing around. I wondered why the kids were not in school. We went around and asked people about the lake and whether it was polluted. There is a temple next to the lake and the houses around are in a bad condition. But people seemed to enjoy living there. It is quite different compared to other lakes like Ho Rua (Turtle Lake), where there is a lot of construction and pollution, and people park their cars. We discussed our different points of view. We disagreed on the presence of geese or ducks, I don't know. I think it makes the lake more interesting and brings wildlife into the city. He thought that they were stupid and do not fit with the setting of the lake.
Bo sua shop, Nam Cao Street
When we were living in the Czech Republic, my brother and I were really into skateboarding. Coming back to Vietnam, we used to skate in Lenin statue park every day until late. People would gather to watch us, it was energizing. Our generation formed the roots of skateboarding in Hanoi. Western culture was starting to come into Vietnam, with MTV, hiphop and skateboarding but there was nowhere to buy skateboarding clothes.
We began our business online at home. This proved hard so we decided to open a shop. That shop changed my life. The youngsters welcomed our style. The shop was only 20 m2 and we decorated it ourselves. It was next to Hanoi Amsterdam High School - right beside the entrance there were houses that ran all along the street. A few years ago they destroyed all the houses and now it’s just pavements. The street looks so different now.
After two years we had problems. The owners saw we were successful, so they kicked us out. They had relatives move in and open a similar shop. It was the first blow. It was very hard. We were quite naive. Luckily we found a location across the street and were able to keep the business.
At the beginning we were more skateboarders than businessmen, often closing the shop for a few hours each day to go and skate. We were becoming famous and attracting lots of attention, especially from the girls, which we liked when we were young. We did everything ourselves. Every day I would go around Hanoi, especially the shops called “Made in Vietnam”. I knew the value of things and could find good products to make a profit. It’s an interesting experience; sometimes you find great products you never imagined, like finding treasure or going fishing. Now people come to me to sell their products, I don’t have to go fishing anymore.
Vinh Ho collective housing
When I was in the fourth grade we moved to an apartment in Vinh Ho collective, Thing Quang commune. In the old days it was small and plain, just like my far away home village with its gutters and rough pathways. One day in 1985, it rained heavily for a whole night and almost all of the next day. The roads were completely flooded.
I, the little 12 year old girl still so determined to go to school, set off to my beloved Thinh Quang secondary school, despite the rain and floods. But when I reached my school, it was deserted. The school yard was like a sea and when I stepped into my classroom the water came up to my ankles.
I spotted another girl at the school gate. It was my classmate, Huong. I called out excitedly to her. And then, after sharing our misery that school was closed, we walked home. The water was up to our knees for almost the whole way back. Suddenly, Huong stopped, looked around and excitedly showed me the lost anabas fish swimming around in the huge puddles. “Wow, let’s catch fish”, I said. So we, two diligent students, turned into two mischievous girls playing on a rainy afternoon. We emptied our books into one of our bags and used the other to hold the fish. After hours we were exhausted but so excited as we had filled one whole bag with fish. When we reached home, we fried our “trophies” and quickly enjoyed them all.
It has been thirty years since that day. Still, when it rains, it takes me back to that special, very rainy day in my childhood.
The Night of the Bombing
Kham Thien Street
Perhaps I’ve seen more men die than children born. At about 11pm on the 26th of December 1972, we heard that B52 bombers were coming so we ran quickly to the shelters. Thirty minutes later, bombs were raining down heavily in ghastly, destructive waves. It felt like it would never end. In the deafening noises of explosions, my heart was torn apart by the panicked cries of children, the mournful screams of women. After an hour the bombs stopped but not the cries and screams. I was so frightened. I lost consciousness until dawn.
When I woke up, I went with people to clean up the street. My once familiar route to the market had been transformed into a path strewn with grief. Dead bodies covered with nylon lined the street. When I reached the market, I saw hundreds of pigs lying around, their blackened, charred bodies had been blasted out in every direction.
Several days after the bombing, things were still so bleak. One day at the market we were standing in line to buy some rice. We saw an 8 year old girl. She timidly held out her rice register book to the sales clerk and said that all her family members had been killed in the bombardment. She begged the sales clerk not to erase their names from the book; she wanted them there forever. None of us could hold back our sorrow.
Kham Thien is an old street, with the greatest numberalleys in Ha Noi. Forty years on it still holds some of the most unforgettable and painful memories for me.
Thich Nam Chung
Kim Lien Pagoda
I came to the shelter of Buddha when I was 13 years old, only becoming a monk in 1988, when I turned 20. Several years after I came to live in Kim Lien Pagoda, the head monk passed away. The authority to supervise the pagoda was handed to me.
We had to grow our own produce to sell at the market for some money. The kids who lived in our neighbourhood, hungry in hard times, used to sneak over the wall of the pagoda. They would climb the trees and steal fruit from them. Of course now they are all grown-up and responsible adults, one even became president of the ward.
In twenty eight years of living and meditating here, the course of life passes slowly in my pagoda.
Crossing the river
Long Bien bridge was very important, being the only link in the city between the two sides of the Red River. It was the only way the train could to Hai Phong and to the northern provinces and it also broughtammunition and supplies from China. So when Nixon targeted the bridge with his laser guided bombs to try to destroy it, the train had to stop in Hin Vien or Don Hang stations on the other side of the Red River. During repairs, the army would build temporary bridges five kilometres up or down stream. All the trucks and cars would form small lines and soldiers would show them how to cross the river. Only having one bridge to cross the Red River! You can’t imagine it now.
The Cham ferry was very close to where Thang Long bridge is now, just a few hundred yards away. It was the only other way to cross the bridge. As teenagers who had been evacuated from Hanoi, we had to cross the Red River by ferry to return to see our parents.
The ferry was quite big: sixty to eighty tons. All the trucks could unload into it. Of course it was dangerous but not because of the ferry itself. The danger came from the B52s - if the ferry was in the middle of the river and the planes dropped bombs on it, we wouldn’t have stood a chance. The Red River itself posed a threat, especially during the rainy season when it became fierce. At those times you had to work with the flow, moving up or down stream just to get across, then readjusting your course when you were near the other side.
Sticky Rice for Breakfast
University of Transport Student Housing.
When I look back, I’m surprised that I’ve held this job at the university for so long. Twenty years ago, my village was famous for the traditional firecrackers we crafted. But when firecrackers were banned, we lost our livelihoods overnight. We had to adapt to survive. I tried my hand at making alcohol from sticky rice. Everyone in my village was as poor as me, so I rode my bicycle into Hanoi, carrying the fiery liquor through every corner of the city. I often passed through Nguyen Chi Thanh Street, where business was good.
One misty morning, the gate of the University of Transport’s dormitory caught my eye. I thought about the students getting up early with no breakfast. “Why not sell sticky rice inside here?” I thought. Hurrying home I practised cooking huge pots of sticky rice. The next morning I took my warm rice basket to the dorm and the students, surprised at first, began to like it. Soon, my fellow villagers joined me.
So we became sticky rice sellers. But after two fruitful years, disaster struck. The entrance was locked and a new gate was built. It was the dorm managers. We had no choice but to climb the wall, we had to make a living somehow. The wall was quite high for women like us so we clambered on each other’s shoulders and passed our stuff through with our hands. It was exhausting but fun.
But word got out, we were caught and fined. Only then did the dorm managers come to know our story. In sympathy they made a deal with us, we were allowed to continue selling there for a small fee. Since then, I have had a stable job. The other sellers dispersed to neighboring areas to sell. Only I stayed with this university’s dorm, where to this day many students still enjoy my sticky rice.
Van Quan Lake
It was 28 December 2008, the day of the ASEAN Football Federation cup finalbetween Vietnam and Thailand. Although we were preparing for our exams, we just could not concentrate on our studies. The first match in Thailand had put Vietnam ahead of Thailand by 2-1, making people even more eager to win.
By early evening, we were all gathered at the café beside Van Quan lake. The restaurant was full of people with flags, banners and slogans saying “Vietnam - Champion”. The atmosphere was electric, particularly during the first half when Thailand suddenly scored, sending us all into turmoil at the prospect of losing. Although the Vietnamese team were physically weaker, they were playing their best, attacking ceaselessly. The Thai team were no less competitive, pulling stunts for the Vietnamese fans and showing off their skills.
Time flew by with no more goals, then in the final minute of the match, Vietnam took a penalty. None of us could sit still. Minh Phuong took the penalty, crossing the ball to Le Cong Vinh, and... GOAL! The cafe exploded. We hugged each other, singing and dancing. Everyone went into the street in celebration – even the taxis and the buses were free. The streets were packed with people, and everything was red, with the Vietnam star everywhere. We were shaking hands, hugging each other and waving flags to celebrate. Pots, pans, buckets…people used whatever they could find to make a noise in celebration. People lined the street. Sometimes they were chanting “Vietnam Victory, Vietnam champion” and sang the song “As Uncle Ho in the fun of victory”. Even now I still cannot forget that moment and the proud feeling of triumph. As a Vietnamese person, I loved my country even more. I was so proud.
Sons and lovers
Truc Bach Lake
It was a summer’s evening. I was selling tickets and we had so many young customers that night. Suddenly a lady appeared who seemed to be looking for something. After a while she came to ask me if her son was boating on the lake. I had no idea, so she explained that she was unhappy with him meeting his girlfriend in places like this when they were only high school students. His motorbike was in the car park nearby so she wanted to rent a boat to find him on the lake. I could not let her disturb the other customers by doing that so she just stood there silently looking out across the lake. After almost two hours of waiting, she called him for what seemed like the hundredth time, then ran off angrily. We were completely perplexed by these events.
The following day, a young couple turned up and the boy explained the previous day’s events. He had recognized his mum from a distance and had driven the boat in the other direction. He had asked someone on another boat to give him a hand by returning his boat so that he and his girlfriend could escape on the other side of the lake. After having taken his girlfriend back, he had gone home and had finally answered the phone to his mother. “Today is a school day so my mum won’t come to check,” he said, laughing, and off they went again on the boat. Watching them, we didn’t really know what to do - all we can do is to protect people from danger here on the lake and to be honest, sometimes love is crazy and beautifully guilty like that.
Hang Bun – Hang Bo
When I first came back to Vietnam in 1989 it was more peaceful than now. People had more composure, more patience; there was a spirit of community. Today I feel that the youth isn’t like that anymore. There is a rush now. I used to walk around the old quarter and intentionally get lost. One night, it was very dark - there wasn’t much public light at that time - I saw this young woman under the streetlight, she was standing there reading a book and selling oranges.
Now I still try to get lost but only at night and I still discover new things. It is then that I can find again this memory of a more peaceful Hanoi. The bright neon lights are turned off. I drive slowly; I can finally see the city.
In the streets of Hang Bun or Hang Bo around 3am there is a certain light. It’s very cinematographic. Under one streetlight there is a table with five people sitting around it, eating a late pho; there is a hotel, a street sweeper, a grandmother preparing food, a bicycle passing… Once I saw a well dressed old man with a straw hat. When I looked at him I saw life experiences: loss, joy and pain.
It seems to be like in the books I read when I was young that took place in the 30s or 40s. It’s not that romanticism of the colonial Indochina period, a nostalgic fantasy, it’s the spirit of Hanoi. It’s not completely lost, you just have to look for it. I know I will never find the Hanoi from 20 years ago and that I have to accept this fact, but sometimes I feel it, especially during these nights.
The worst day of my life
Nguyen Gia Thieu Street.
I got pregnant unexpectedly and I really freaked out. My parents told me that they would not support an abortion but – and few people would say this – they would not mind if I decided to keep the baby out of wedlock. However my boyfriend’s parents were very concerned about what people would think so my boyfriend and I decided on a May wedding. When his grandfather got very sick in February his parents pushed the date forward with no discussion.
So the wedding was in March. It took place in a big hotel and was simply an occasion for the parents to show off. There was nothing holy or ceremonial about it. We stood at the entrance with our parents; people walked in, shook hands with them and didn’t even look at me. They sat down, ate, and left.
The wedding consisted of us going on stage to exchange rings, cutting the cake and pouring a champagne tower. The cake was horrible, it wasn’t really made to eat, just to look good. When we had to pour the champagne, the MC, whom we did not know, got very impatient and took the bottle from us and started pouring. Then we walked from table to table. My husband’s parents had invited most of the guests; there were six hundred and I did not know most of them.
We knew this wedding was going to be a disaster, one big masquerade. It was not about us as a couple, it was more for our parents. It was the worst day of my life so far. We organized another one at Hanoi Rock City, more intimate.
To Hien Street.
My story is public and well-known in Vietnam. I am a living witness to Vietnam’s musical history. Before the war yellow music was very popular. After the French war it became illegal to play or make yellow music in the north of Vietnam. I was in a band that played yellow music, we played only for each other, never publicly. One day the police asked us to come to the station. We were arrested for attempting to undermine the government through music. I spent 10 years in prison. Our bandleader Phan Thang Toan was sentenced to 15 years in prison. When he was released in 1985 he stayed with me but I had a very small house and a family, there wasn’t enough room so he had to leave. I was heartbroken I could not help my friend. On April 23rd, 1994 I was walking on Pho To Hien with a friend, a photographer. In the distance I saw a man lying in the street. As I got closer I recognised Phan Thang Toan, I told my friend to take photos. I had not seen Toan in almost 10 years. We talked, smoked and drank. He had been sleeping on the streets for years. After that I went to see him every day. We would talk and try to forget our sorrows. He died suddenly seven days after our reunion. Now, yellow music is permitted and is considered historical. I opened a café on West Lake to promote this beautiful music and I play it as often as possible. I have been through a lot of hardships to keep the café open, I went to jail for my love of music and for that reason alone it’s important to me that the music stays alive and I will keep playing it as long as I can.
Birds in the Trees
Van phuc Street.
My grandparents live on Van Phuc street, close to where I used to go to school. so I would spend half of the week at their house and the other half at my parents’. My grandmother would take me to school on her bicycle, we would go through what are today tennis courts. When it rained everything would get extremely muddy, and it was difficult for her to ride. Once we fell down and got covered in mud.
I remember afternoons I used to spend with my grandfather in his garden. As a little girl it always seemed huge but really it was quite small. There were star fruit trees, roses bushes and a pond with fish. My grandfather used to tell me stories about the trees, the flowers, the butterflies. He would teach me about the turtles and the fish. He gave me a sense of inspiration and imagination, the ability to feel the beauty around me and not be dictated to by materialistic values. I am not driven by fame but by passion. My grandparents are intellectual, caring people. They value love and the protection of others. Thanks to what he taught me I can keep my feet on the ground.
At that time there was a small stream with trees around it. My cousin and I would explore the area and go on adventures. I used to love to catch grasshoppers. It was the suburbs of Hanoi, almost the countryside. When they open Van Phuc street my grandfather was sad, he said that the road chased away the birds that used to come to eat the fruits in the trees in his garden.
The rooster fighter
I used to be a boxer and one day I saw my friend playing a game. It looked to me like kung fu combat. Now I have been a cockfight master for 20 years. My great-great-grandfather was one too. I studied my art with one of the best: Long Lac master. I have students of my own, they call me Thanh Trang.
The cockfight is a noble sport, it’s about passion, pride, honesty, respect and fairness. There is always a vet at each game. The winner’s prize after a game is often a flag and a small pot to wash the chicken in, the loser gets a big pot in which to cook the chicken.
My best cockfight took place at Truc Bach lake in 2001. The ring was drawn in sand; there were so many people there to watch. This was my gamecock’s ninth fight - the last game they play before they retire. It was a tough game; the other was on his ninth game too. They were the top two cockerels in Hanoi. It was a very intense, close game, the longest one I have ever had. It reached eight rounds, each 15 minutes long. If the fighters make it to the ninth round the game is declared a draw - we all thought no one would win.
At the last minute of the eighth round, my cockerel jumped on the other and kicked it in the neck. It was a knock out. We had won the game. The other cockerel died a few minutes later.
The cockerel is still alive today – he is on my farm in the countryside where I train my birds. Like horses, chickens have a legacy: I train his chicks and they are really good fighters too.
Hang Bong Street.
I arrived in Hanoi in 1983 with a Russian delegation in charge of opening the Poutchkine Institute. When I arrived I had to sign a contract stating I would not contact any Vietnamese people or non-Russians with the exception of professional colleagues. I could not go to restaurants, cafés, anywhere. On Christmas Day 1983 I met an avant-garde Vietnamese artist, my future husband. It was love at first sight. From this day I broke the law every time I went to his house. At the time if I had a relationship with a Vietnamese person I would have been expelled from the country within 24 hours. My theory about why this never happened to me, if you aren’t frightened and act as if there are no restrictions in your life, people will be afraid of you and will leave you alone. We got married in 1985. In 1990 my husband Tan wanted to open a gallery in our home, an alternative space where we could show experimental art. We renovated the house and everyone called it ‘Salon Natasha’. Bui Xuan Phai’s son attended the opening and said ‘It’s so hot in here and you have no fan’. We told him we had no money for a fan and he said ‘I will bring you my father’s fan’. He offered us the fan because when Bui Xuan Phai was poor Tan gave him a pair of shoes- the last pair he ever wore. The son left and came back with the fan. Afterwards Tan told me he never gave him the shoes, another guy did. I tell this story often, I say ‘If you give someone something, it’s not always the same person who will pay you back’. We have kept the fan in the same exact spot and it still works today.
The old Embassy
Van Bao Street.
I have been selling tra da (ice tea) here for more than 10 years. The abandoned building at the corner used to be the Bulgarian Embassy, but before that it was a cemetery. When they built the embassy they moved the cemetery somewhere else but some tombs remained because they could not find the families. The Bulgarian government paid fifty years rent upfront that’s why nobody can do anything to this land until the lease ends. It was said that there were sleeping quarters in the basement of the Embassy. Every night at midnight the beds would move, they would stand vertical, no one could see how it happened. At a Christmas party a secretary heard a strange noise, he tried to move and see where it was coming from but then he was paralysed without any reason. The embassy stayed in this spot for only one year and then they moved down the street. A few years ago two young people climbed over the fence to look for ghosts. Just after they left the building they were in an accident and both died, I know this because I saw the accident. Three years ago a monk came to try and chase the ghosts away, no one asked her to come she just knew. She talked with them and diminished their power but they are still here. Ghosts are people who did bad things in their life, or people who have regrets, they need to finish something and they can’t move on. They bother the living. They are probably angry because someone disturbed their graves. I have a small altar for offerings on the tree for good spirits and ghosts to protect me and my small business. I am lucky the ghosts at this building leave me alone.
20 Nguyen Du Street.
I grew up in a big house near Thien Quang Lake on Nguyen Du. After Dien Bien Phu and the French war the communist party took it as their headquarters. Before the war my whole family had lived there- my parents, uncles, aunts and cousins. My grandfather Vi Van Bic was the governor of the Lang Son province and had five official wives. There were about ten kids living in this big house, we had a whole room of toys just for us. Though he was busy, my grandfather monitored our education closely. After school we had tutors and extra classes. He also asked us to keep diaries and write everything that happened throughout our day, that way he could know what was happening in the house and he could use the information to resolve conflict. I remember one naughty thing we did. At home we always ate western food and we were sick of it. One afternoon seven or eight of us sneaked into the kitchen during nap time and stole some sweet potatoes. We started to grill them on the stove when we heard some noises and knew Grandfather had woken up. I panicked and pulled the sweet potato off the stove quickly and accidentally burnt my sister who started crying and Grandfather found out. To teach us not to steal he made us sit in a circle looking at the sweet potatoes in the middle. We were not allowed to have them until we asked nicely.
Ba Dinh Meeting Hall, Ba Dinh Square.
When I was in third grade I was chosen to attend the National Meeting of Uncle Ho’s Good Children. It was a celebration of the best students from the north of Vietnam. It was the occasion of a lifetime- to meet Ho Chi Minh, such an honour! The night before my whole family was so excited, nobody slept. My father had met him during the revolution at Viet Bac and had a photo with him, he asked me to get him to autograph it. On the day, I was wearing my best clean clothes, my white shirt and my red scarf. We went to Ba Dinh Square meeting hall, where the Vietnam National Assembly House stands now. While waiting we rehearsed our songs. An officer yelled ‘He is coming!’ and everybody turned to look for him. He wore his white khaki uniform and waved. The students all stood up and rushed to him. I held my photo high and jumped to get his attention but he didn’t see me. Soon the ceremony began. He gave a speech, saying we had to study hard and be good as we were the future of Vietnam. Then an officer gave him candies to give to us, we all got two each. Some children held out both hands and tried to get more but he laughed and said he wouldn’t fall for that. At the end, he tried to leave but we all rushed him again. I tried again to reach him with my dad’s photo but I couldn’t. I felt so guilty that when I got home I gave my dad the candies. My parents proudly showed the candies to all the neighbours, everybody was speaking about my special day. I still feel the same chills and excitement when I think about it today.
158 Giai Phong Street.
I’m a nephrologist. A few years ago I worked in a private clinic’s dialysis centre. It was a small center with only 20 beds and we were always working over capacity but it was the first private clinic to accept public health insurance and to offer a discount to the poorest patients. In June 2007, I met a new client. She was a 56 year-old woman with kidney failure as a result of genetic cysts. She came from Bac Ninh, a town 50km from Hanoi and one without any dialysis facilities. This woman was very small and skinny and had a swollen belly. She was alone and looked like she’d been through a lot. She couldn’t afford to live in Hanoi so she commuted by bus three times a week for her treatment. The cost of the commute meant she couldn’t always afford to eat properly, if she ate anything at all. The summer of 2007 was very hot, the temperature rarely dropped below 40°C. In hot weather people sweat more and their blood thickens, making it harder to flow through the dialysis machine. We prescribe patients blood thinners in this situation. The heat was hard on the woman. Soon she could only afford one day of treatment per week, and soon her graft got stuck. She couldn’t afford the new graft or catheter she needed so we sent her the money. Eventually she couldn’t pay for the commute to Hanoi and pay for living expenses. She died three weeks after her last treatment. I’ve seen a lot of poor people struggle to survive but this woman was different. She was so poor she had to give up on her own life. Since then, more dialysis centres have opened up in the provinces.
Hang Ma Street.
When I was three years old my mum went to Russia to work. When she left it was the period of the mid-Autumn festival- a big event, dedicated to children, it’s like Christmas. That year the mid-Autumn festival was a very sad time for me. Dad was heartbroken too. He tried to cheer us up by taking me to Hang Ma Street to buy a traditional mid-Autumn festival lantern. From that year on, it was a tradition- every year until I was 16 years old my dad would take me to Hang Ma and buy me a lantern. When I was six years old, my dad didn’t have enough money for the lantern I wanted. It was shaped like a big, beautiful, red fish. I cried because I wanted this lantern so much. To teach me a lesson my dad said to me ‘If you really want this one you stay here, do whatever it takes to get it. You beg for it. Or, you stand here and cry all night ‘cause I don’t have the money to buy it for you. Now I’m going home. You stay here.’ He left and I stood next to my lantern and cried loudly. The lantern lady told me if I stopped crying she would give it to me, but I couldn’t care less about the lantern anymore. Eventually Dad came back for me and I didn’t even mention the lantern. The day after that he bought it for me. Now, I’m a single mum with a three-year-old son and I uphold the mid-Autumn festival tradition. Every year, my son and I go to Hang Ma street and I buy him a lantern, one more to add to his collection.