With such contrasts at play, putting together the following list required us to believe that there really could be as many as a 101 obvious things to celebrate about Hanoi. As we discovered, the problem was agreeing what to leave out.
Hanoi is a place where you don’t have to dig deep to find the cracks of light. All you have to do is leave your front door and walk to the end of your alley to see, smell, hear or taste something curious. It’s where smiling at a stranger can trigger a series of events which might improve your day, or even your quality of life, where taking a left when you should have gone right could lead you to a startling new place that you would never have known about before, where simply keeping still can turn you into a human magnet, prompting people to move towards you with their stories, their questions or their wares.
It’s tiring and it’s exciting, it’s vibrant and it’s stressful, it’s rewarding and it’s frustrating. But it’s just not the same as any other city anywhere, even in Vietnam.
So this month, we’re shouting about some of the things that make Hanoi one of the most unusual and enticing places to live in the world. So, in no particular order…
No. 1: Lakes: As a city built around lakes, we all know next to one is the best place to catch a breeze in the summer. Sitting beside a lake is also the best place to see a game of chess get nasty, or to guzzle a coconut or tug on a banh my trung. They might not be the cleanest lakes in the world, but the mere presence of them sets Hanoi apart from other concrete jungles that cannot boast the murky magic these bodies of water bring to the city.
No. 2: Wedding Shots: In other countries you might go to the Botanical Gardens to spot squirrels or a blue tit, but in Hanoi you go to see a gaggle of wedding dresses frolicking in the park. From the Botanics, to the Metropole, to the shores of West Lake, every day in Hanoi, scores of couples aren't getting married yet, they're just popping out in flowing white wedding gowns for their engagement photos, which all makes for an incongruous sight to beautify up your day.
No. 3: Clubs: There’s no need to ever feel left out in Hanoi. Trying to decide which club to join is as challenging a task as deciding which street food to eat. Rowing, bridging, cheerleading, frisbee-ing, footballing, climbing, dancing, laughing yoga-ing, miniature helicopter flying, Scrabbling… The list goes on, and the more odd it is the more likely there is a club for it in Hanoi.
No. 4: FLora: Hanoi has its own spots and seasons full of flowers. Heading down from Au Co to the Red River on any given day, you’ll find yourself surrounded by fields of flowers and wedding photographers making the most of the petals. Perhaps most spectacularly, every June, the Bang Lang and Hoa Phuong trees bloom. The sight of these striking purple and red buds, which ring Truc Bach Lake as well as many other places in the capital, is strong in the popular consciousness of the city as it represents the graduation and the coming of age of another year of school leavers. And of course, they look absolutely beautiful.
No. 5: Starting Something: Want to open a clothing shop? Get in touch with my friend who knows someone. Want to listen to music that mixes dub step and industrial punk? Let's start a band. Want there to be a place where people read poetry to each other? Make one. Hey, we need a model for our new line of business casual, can you do it? Can. I want to make a short film about the migration of colour across the city. ME TOO. Hanoi is a place where if you say you are something, you become it. Where if you need something, you can get it. Hanoi is a place where you get to be and become something that you might never have expected.
No. 6: Young Love:Teenagers perched on motorbikes beside lakes, on bridges and in parks being totally in love. This is young love in Hanoi — the blushes, the giggles, the camera phones and the staring off reflectively into the distance. Being a teenager in Hanoi and being in love is the endeavour to find a private place among millions of kindred spirits, who all happened to pick exactly the same spot as you on the very same star-lit night.
No. 7: Ba & Ong: In other cities in the world, old people stay inside and watch daytime soap operas and order hand creams on the Home Shopping Network. In Hanoi, they play cards by lakes, shop in markets, wield butcher knives, and do trunk twists. In other cities in the world, old people yell at the kids in the streets to “turn down that damn music”. In Hanoi, they dance to it. And most of all, in other cities, old people just don’t look as good. From tweed jackets, berets and smart ties, to starched button down blouses with black silk pants and pearls, Hanoi’s elderly population is without doubt our fashion and energy inspiration.
No. 8: No-one Cares What You're Wearing: Though one may get a week’s worth of fashion tips from spending a few minutes observing some key octogenarians around town, there is little pressure to rise to this standard. Though everyone may comment on your appearance here, there is a surprising lack of judgment behind those comments. Everyone notices, no-one cares as a mantra for dressing each morning allows one much space for experimenting. So from the flamboyant floral print tie and striped vest made out of duck fur, to the beaded ball cap and paisley polka-dotted button down, all is fair game. Here the bedazzled evening gown-high heels combo gets about as much attention as the sweat suit-sandals. With the space between kinds of attire as vast as it is, one may plunge into the fashion gap wherever one wishes.
No. 9: Public Grooming: Nostril exploration, squeezing of spots and unabashed belching from even the sweetest of sweet old ladies sets Hanoi apart from all the other cities in the world where personal hygiene has been sent to private bathrooms. Like the tweezing of grey hairs. It is gentle, it is primal, it says “I pay attention to myself” and “I don’t care if you’re watching.” Aging happens, nose blockages happen, gas happens, and we all try to pretend like it doesn’t, and when we pretend in private, sometimes it makes us sad. Public preening reminds us that, though we may be losing some melanin in our hair follicles, we are not alone. It’s hard to name; one word might be sweet, another, edgy. And still another might be liberated. Perhaps even character defining. We live in a place that is all of those things.
No. 10: Hair Washing: The family kind. Handily doubles as a head and face massage, leaving you relaxed and warmed up in winter, or cool, coiffured and stress free in the summer. It’s also a great opportunity to catch a nap.
No. 11: Girly Boutiques
No. 12: Manicures & Pedicures
No. 13: Dogs Wearing T-shirts in the Winter
No. 14: Autumn: Summer's too hot; winter's too cold; but autumn, autumn is absolutely perfect. Enjoy 20 — 25-degree weather, low humidity and no rain for practically the whole of November. Not too hot for jeans, not too cold for shorts, and you can even move without sweating.
No. 15: Belly Weather
No. 16: Life Outside: A place to eat; a place to get your hair cut; a place for a family feud; a place for a wedding, or a funeral; a place to set up a business; a place to park. In Hanoi, everything has its place and everything’s place is out on the street, or more specifically, on the pavement. Whether you’re after the best café or the best restaurant, you can be sure it won't have four walls.
No. 17: Being Tactile: Why can’t you play with children that you don’t know? What’s wrong with two men touching each other’s thighs? In Hanoi, being tactile doesn’t make you suspect, it makes you friendly. Compared to other cultures where sexuality has invaded all interactions, the casual closeness with which Hanoians hold each other (literally), is a breath of fresh, Hoa Sua infused air.
No. 18: Bao Ninh: This celebrated writer, made much more public as a result of the photocopied book sales around Hoan Kiem Lake, is a living legend of Hanoi. Though it’s pedaled alongside the Lonely Planet that we all want to pretend we never touch, The Sorrow of War is prolifically photocopied for good reason. Published first in its English translation in 1991, the book had to wait over 10 years for approval to be published in Vietnamese. The waiting was a product of the book’s unbiased account of the American War as told through a nuanced and reflective lens.
Bao Ninh’s novel is one of the few texts of the war from a North Vietnamese soldier’s perspective that doesn’t carry the rhetoric of propaganda. Through a fractured narrative, moments of war are recounted with a pained honesty while running throughout is the slightly more chronological story of a romantic love that holds its own kind of heaviness. Since The Sorrow of War, Bao Ninh has remained quiet in his home in Hanoi.
No. 19: Funeral Music: As the proverb goes, “the living need light and the dead need music.” The evocative, atonal music that can be heard emanating from alleys all over the city, provides safe passage for dead souls to travel from the land of the living to the land of the dead. Accordingly, funeral music typically starts early, from the moment the deceased enters the coffin, until the corpse is lowered into the ground. Cashflow permitting a troupe of around eight musicians will play the strains that accompany one on these trans-realm journeys using a variety of evocative Vietnamese instruments like the ken bau, dan bau or dan nguyet. The sound they create is unlike anything else.
No. 20: General Giap
No. 21: Lady Borton
No. 22: Phung Hung's Rail-side Houses
No. 23: Mannequins
No. 24: The Noisy Shop on Wheels: One of the most evocative sounds in the city. Whether cried, or coming out of a crude cassette player hooked up to a battery that seems to be made of wood and held together by elastic bands, the hawker’s cry is a very welcome reminder that you’re in Hanoi, the most convenient city in the world. “Who wants to buy a toad? A toad to make ruoc.” That’s real poetry.
No. 25: Old Stuff: Nothing lasts in Hanoi. Build a new road and in a few months it’ll be as pot-holed and cracked as any other. Wash your clothes and in a few weeks they’ll be greener than month-old milk. But some people have gone to incredible lengths to preserve some very old stuff. The cult of do co was born out of necessity in a time when everything had to be fixed as no replacement could be found; a time when everything had value and was built to last. The fact that French soldier’s velvet helmets complete with metal spikes, cast iron fans, vintage reel to reel cassette players or beautiful Singer sewing machine table legs can still be found in Hanoi, is down to the perseverance of the people. It’s also the reason they’re so incredibly expensive.