Little Yen Phu

by aengelson | July 15th, 2013

I’ve been trying to discover what leaving Hanoi means. After living for less than a month in Geneva, the four years I lived in Hanoi have  taken on a unreal quality; it’s as if it were all one long, marvelous, frustrating, beautiful and incredibly vivid dream. Life in Geneva feels familiar and yet very foreign, in ways different from Hanoi. Geneva has its clean air, gorgeous mountains, and trains that depart with precision. But Geneva has its frustrations: high prices, strict rules, fondness for bureaucracy, and a palpable sense of isolation.

One way of dealing with this strange transition is to return to a project I started near the end of my stay in Hanoi. I’ve called it Little Yen Phu. There’s a street not far from where I lived in Hanoi known as “Little” Yen Phu street, to differentiate it from the bigger thoroughfare with the same name further south. In less than a kilometer, you can find nearly anything for sale on Little Yen Phu. I tell myself: If you can’t find it on Little Yen Phu, you probably don’t need it. It’s one of my favorite Hanoi streets, and one I’ve traveled by motorbike many times. I’ve threaded its traffic, breathed in its scents of grilling pork skewers and sliced durian stinking in the summer sun. It’s a cacophony of life, a street that represents the chaos and beauty of Hanoi for me.

What I set out to do a week before I left Hanoi was to photography every address on Little Yen Phu Street. It took the better part of an afternoon, and I received plenty of odd looks as I completely this admittedly obsessive project (some of those looks find their way into the photos). Each shop has its story, invites the viewer in. There’s an amazing visual elegance to Hanoi that’s probably unintended but very present: a rainbow of assorted chip bags, the placement of plastic stools, the shoe shop packed from floor to ceiling with high heels. Hanoi is a feast for the eye: living in such a densely populated place means there’s very little room for minimalism, and each shop must compete for everyone’s very distracted attention.

I hope Little Yen Phu will preserve a sliver of Hanoi as it existed on June 13, 2013. Who knows how long this place will last? Hanoi changes rapidly. As the city embraces more cars and fewer motorbikes, I wouldn’t be surprised if Little Yen Phu street disappeared in a few years.

If you’re familiar with Hanoi, you’ll see a lot you recognize in these photos. If you’ve never been there, I hope that as you browse  you’ll get a sense for what makes Hanoi so refreshingly real. We live in an increasingly phony world where the quirky and independent and gritty are being erased and replaced with sterile, corporate-created environments. For now, Hanoi still has a lot of grit and a refreshing lack of pretension.

I’m glad I was able to capture this moment. And I don’t claim this project is especially original: Google Street Views and Ed Ruscha beat me to it. Still, my approach was a bit different: unlike Google Street Views, I wanted people in there, wanted the incessant motorbike traffic and ladies selling brooms from bicycles blocking your free teen sex videos xxx view sometimes. Because a bunch of photos of Hanoi without people would be like taking pictures of a redwood forest without any trees in them.

My apologies if it takes a while for these slide shows to load. Have patience. Use the arrows to move east or west (hitting the play button usually results in slow loading, I don’t recommend it). I would also encourage you to take your time while exploring these photos. I find myself continually getting lost in these images, discovering things I hadn’t seen before: faces peering out from unseen nooks, patterns of color and form that continue to amaze me. Maybe this project is an impersonal, slightly autistic way to document Hanoi, but it’s one that I’m excited to have captured and can always inhabit now that I’m away.

One note: the first series of photos is of the north (dong) side of the street, and progresses approximately from west to east. The second series includes all the buildings on the south (nam) side of the street, moving the other direction, from east to west. Those who know Hanoi well will perhaps note there are a few addresses missing, or that I’ve included a bit of Thanh Nien Street in the south-side series because, well…I wanted to.

Anyway, enjoy exploring.


One Response to “Little Yen Phu”

  1. Andy,
    Our family had a name for Pho Yen Phu: Crazy Street!! Nice post. Brings back great memories. We are missing Vietnam, too.

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Hi, I'm Andy Engelson, a writer and editor who lived in Hanoi for five years and now lives in Geneva Switzerland. This blog is no longer active, but you can find more of my writing at The Lost Salt Atlas. I'm currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. In a former life, I edited Washington Trails magazine. I like to hike, travel, and play with my family.


Do the barnacle larvae care? Does the lacewing who eats her eggs care? If they do not care, then why am I making all this fuss? If I am a freak, then why don’t I hush?
Our excessive emotions are so patently painful and harmful to us as a species that I can hardly believe that they evolved. Other creatures manage to have effective matings and even stable societies without great emotions, and they have a bonus in that they need not ever mourn. (But some higher animals have emotions that we think are similar to ours: dogs, elephants, otters, and the sea mammals mourn their dead. Why do that to an otter? What creator would be so cruel, not to kill otters, but to let them care?) It would seem that emotions are the curse, not death—emotions that appear to have devolved upon a few freaks as a special curse from Malevolence.
All right then. It is our emotions that are amiss. We are freaks, the world is fine, and let us all go have lobotomies to restore us to a natural state. We can leave the library then, go back to the creek lobotomized, and live on its banks as untroubled as any muskrat or reed. You first.
— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek


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