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 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.