One way to view Hanoi is as a city of layers — a place where sheets of history are piled up on top of each other and all the mad upheavals of the 20th Century are written in the buildings and streets.
One place that represents this perfectly is the Halico Liquor Factory on Lo Duc. No one is sure exactly when the factory was actually founded, but records show that it was producing liquor in 1898. Originally a French business, Hanoians used to say that the factory was intended to keep the populace drunk and placid. Or perhaps even to poison them.
Many of the buildings on the site show the hallmarks of their French designers, including the beautiful whitewashed villa that has always been the director’s office. These days it is surrounded by Soviet-inspired buildings from the 1990s, with garish tiles and curved edges that seem to have attached themselves to the original villa. A parasitic looking walkway connects these Brutalism-inspired structures to the second floor.
During the Second World War when the Japanese overran Southeast Asia, the site was transformed into a prison. After independence, the factory once again began working as a state-run enterprise producing liquor and pure alcohol for medicinal purposes. During the American War, the production of pure alcohol was maintained and several of the second floor walkways had roofs put on them so they could become bunkers for shooting down B52s.
With the liberation in 1975, wine production became the primary function of the site. During the years of international isolation, the factory took part in international liquor fairs with Eastern Bloc countries such as Czechoslovakia and Russia.
Dung, who is now head of administration, began working in the factory during this period and can remember producing coffee liquor, rice wine and a variety of fruit flavours. These flavours have since become less popular as the local populace has turned to vodka — a liquor that taste-wise has a more palatable match with food.
While talking with Dung in his home and tasting some of his and the factory’s special blends, we ask him how he feels about the imminent destruction of the site. It is due to be moved to a new location in the countryside and a new Vincom-esque high-rise is scheduled to be built in its place.
“It’s normal,” he says. “There is nothing historical about the place. It’s just a liquor factory.”
This attitude isn’t shared by the factory’s present director, Ho Van Hai. He’s delighted to have somebody come and record the history of the site before it is all torn down in a few months. Walking around the factory he tries to make some sense of the site’s timeline, but it’s barely possible. The outline and the arches of the older buildings still surround their newer replacements like scaffolding that someone forgot to remove. The newer buildings in turn have mould, trees and bushes growing out of them creating a Russian doll effect.
We pass by a cement water tank built by the French that hasn’t been used in 30 or 40 years. It’s too expensive to tear down so it still stands, leaking on the ground. Next to the brick, French-era cooling chimney is a cement structure that was erected in the 1980s. When you enter, it reeks of fermentation. Rusted pipes and tanks with circular windows like portholes loop around between the floors, bringing to mind the overgrown tree roots in the Angkor Wat temple of Ta Prohm. As the machinery hums, steam rises from pressure valves and water drips freely from the ceiling. You sense you could be underwater.
We pass old French warehouses still with the original metalwork intact. Inside are the remains of various generations of decaying machinery — French, Russian, Chinese, Taiwanese, German, Danish — all waiting to be sold as scrap. The concrete remains of a French era cooling system still drips water. Fish are living in the pools which surround it while steam rises off the surface of the water.
We enter a building which director Phan Dang Di used in the 2010 film Bi, Don’t Be Afraid. Massive copper vats reach up to the 2nd floor while steam leaks from the pipes that line the walls. On the second floor, Ho Van Hai shows us an iron steam tank that is over 100 years old, still working and stabilizing pressure. It has massive circular pressure dials and large wheels to open and close valves. Today it’s covered in the pink rubber gloves of its present worker who we find in a nearby canteen with his feet up, smoking and drinking tea.
How does Hai feel about the imminent destruction of the site and Halico’s removal to a new 50 million dollar factory in the countryside?
“I feel very sad,” he says, “because of all the history in this place; the memories of the many generations of workers. It’s very sad.”
After this summer, Hanoi will lose another one of its layers. It will be a little bit less like Hanoi and a little bit more like everywhere else.