Saigon is to New York City as Hanoi is to Washington, D.C. Or at least that was what I was told. Yes, Hanoi and Washington, D.C., are both capital cities. Ho Chi Minh City (commonly referred to as Saigon in Vietnam) and New York City are booming financial centers for their respective countries. This analogy, while seemingly straightforward, implies heavy cultural criticism and assumptions that were later elucidated in conversation. The main assumption was that the capital cities were stagnant and dragging behind socio-cultural and financial development because of their heavy bureaucratic functions as seats of national government. What was often articulated to me was that, in addition to its lack of sophistication due to government hegemony, Hanoi was especially dry because it was closer to China than its southern counterpart Saigon, and that it has been long shaped by communist ideals that drained the vitality of the city’s cultural heritage.
These types of comparisons do not truly capture the life
in any of the aforementioned cities. First, Washington and Hanoi are not cities where culture goes to die. As historian William S. Logan notes:
One of the key additional roles a capital city plays is as the symbolic head (though perhaps not always sentimental heart) of the political territory and nation. The government and the people expect the capital to represent them—that is, to reflect their achievements, not just for themselves but, on the international stage, to the governments and peoples of other countries.1
It is true that the projection of a united front, in the form of national culture, often overshadows the idiosyncrasies of local traditions. It is equally true that local traditions exist in spite of this. Many of the cities I have visited throughout my journey were capital cities. Some of them had only a short history in the modern era, such as Addis Ababa. Others, their status as the primary city of a particular region, city-state, and later nation had roots back to antiquity, such as Mexico City. All were laboratories where culture was produced, contested, recycled, and reinterpreted to the whims of various political administrations. This is the reality of a city like Hanoi, which was the capital of North Vietnam during the most tumultuous period of the country’s history, and which became the capital of a united Vietnam after the war.
Cultural Practice and the Challenge of Heritage Planning
The Old Quarter of Hanoi is touted as one of the city's top tourist and heritage attractions. Cultural heritage specialist Alexandra Sauvegrain proclaims the government is promoting the city’s Old Quarter, as “an untainted representation of true Vietnamese identity.”2 I stayed in the Hoan Kiem Lake area, on the western edge of the Old Quarter proper. I was initially disappointed while walking through the heart of the Old Quarter. I had hoped to explore remnants of the historic fabric of Hanoi. Instead I experienced a twentieth-century agglomeration of modern facades and tight thoroughfares riddled with traffic. I imagined something more quaint, perhaps along the lines of historic Hoi An. The reality is that what is old about the Old Quarter is less the buildings themselves, and more the place names, street patterns, and cultural practices. This makes for a very complicated heritage preservation issue in the heart of Hanoi. Several scholars have researched the built environment of the Old Quarter in efforts to document the structures and, perhaps sometime in the next decade, inform the development of a cohesive heritage preservation program for the neighborhood.3
Figure 1. Map of Hanoi, 1873, Pham Dinh Bach. This section of the map shows the Thang Long, the imperial citadel to the left, and the Old Quarter to the right. Source: Flickr.
The Old Quarter formed as a commercial and market counterpart to Thang Long, the imperial citadel. Thang Long was constructed in 1010, and the city served as an important political center for most of its thousand-year history.4
Craftsmen from various villages migrated to the capital, and settled near the citadel. Members of the villages were skilled in numerous trades. Those of the same village and trade settled in close proximity to each other and soon developed craft guilds. The Old Quarter comprised of 36 streets, each of which was named after a particular trade guild—Hang Bac (silver), Hang Gai (silk), Hang Bo (baskets), and so on. The built environment of the Old Quarter morphed over time, changing most drastically in the twentieth century. What is particularly meaningful in the space is not necessarily the construction—it would be difficult to craft a statement of authenticity (along Western standards, that is) for these properties. Instead, it is the fact that commercial and craft trades are still practiced in the quarter today, though not to the same magnitude as in the past. Scholars Hoang Huu Phe and Yukio Nishimura note in their 1991 study of housing in central Hanoi “handicrafts still survive, but are in decline.” They continue by observing, “services, including restaurants, cafes and hairdressers are on the rise.5 The service industry now includes a proliferation of hotels, hostels, and tour agencies, which cater to the increasing tourist population in Vietnam.
Figure 2. Tan My Design, a designer store that sells high-end artwork, clothes, and furnishings. This business is located on Hang Gai, the silk guild street, and grew from crafting silk works to its current expanded offerings.
As preservationists take on the task of planning and creating policy for the Old Quarter, several issues weigh heavily in the planning process. The first challenge for preservation planning is that individual property ownership is low. The state owns most of the residences in the Old Quarter, and in the country for that matter. Property ownership was brought to the fore of urban planning concerns as Vietnam pushed forward economic reform in the Doi Moi policies. Moving individual properties from state to privately owned status is, and will continue to be, exceedingly difficult given the current economy of Vietnam.6 The second challenge is the fact that the history in the Old Quarter lies primarily in the cultural practices and the street pattern. Sauvegrain notes, “although its shop houses mostly date to the late nineteenth century the quarter is the only area of Hanoi that resembles in plan the older, precolonial city.”7 International development and design specialist Danielle Labbé recently studied the changes in preservation policy in the Old Quarter, observing how preservation projects have widened from a focusing on architecture to broader topics of tradition, including “the preservation of immaterial heritages such as traditional economic activities and lifestyles.8
Art, Culture, Everywhere!
The state has repurposed many of Hanoi’s French colonial public buildings for its own needs. Logan has observed these buildings “were given new capital-city but socialist and/ or nationalist functions, such as the old customs house, which became the Revolutionary Museum, the colonial army barracks, now the Army Museum, or the Lycee Albert Sarraut, now the Communist Party of Vietnam's Central Committee headquarters.9” Numerous grand French colonial villas, smaller in scale (though still quite large) were adapted for use as international cultural institutions. Casa Italia, for instance, an “Italian Country Promotion Center,” is situated on Le Phung Hieu Street, around the corner from the Hotel Metropole, the Hanoi Opera House, and the museums of Vietnamese History and Revolution. Several embassies occupy French colonial villas on the same street as Casa Italia. L’Espace, a French cultural center in Hanoi, offers a range of programming—exhibits, performance, education. This institution is housed in a former printing house that was constructed in 1907.
Figure 3. Casa Italia, housed in a French colonial villa.
Figure 4. L’Espace is located in a former printing house.
Hanoi is connecting to other countries and growing its international prominence through cultural exchange. It has teamed up with Cambodia and Laos in a “Common Heritage” initiative promoted through UNESCO. The city has formed numerous educational, cultural, and architectural partnerships with French cities and organizations. By expanding its sociopolitical dealings in Southeast Asia and in Europe, the city hopes to benefit from mutual support and promotion leading to increased tourism, research, and status.
Additionally, Hanoi has a vibrant art scene, one that captures the imagination, all the while reflecting on the past. I discovered this after a long day full of cultural and historical exploration. I wound my way west through the French Quarter, heading north to the Old Quarter on Nha Chung Street. I stopped to do photo documentation of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, then continued toward my hotel. A few blocks up, on my left, I saw a sign that read “Ly Quoc Su Art Cafe Area.” I was exhausted from my wanderings, however my curiosity got the best of me. I walked into an alley where I came across another sign for the Art Vietnam Gallery.
I walked up the stairs and went into the gallery. It was one of many magical moments of serendipity during my fellowship travels. The gallery was hosting a photography exhibit entitled “Vietnam – 25 Years Documenting a Changing Country.” Catherine Karnow was the featured artist—I had only discovered her work a month before, when my mom’s college friend Rosetta sent me a link to the Brown Alumni Monthly magazine cover story, “Vietnam Through a Lens.”
Figure 5. Screen capture from Hanoi Grapevine for Nguyen The Son exhibition “Hanoi - A Living Museum.”
While at the Art Vietnam Gallery I met Suzanne Lecht, art director for the space. Lecht has lived in Hanoi for more than two decades, and has tirelessly promoted the contemporary art scene with purpose and pizazz. It was Lecht who introduced me to the work of Nguyen The Son, a resident artist of Art Vietnam Gallery. Son’s most recent work, displayed at the gallery as well as the recently opened Hanoi Old Quarter Cultural Exchange Center investigates Hanoi as a “living museum.” As Son explains:
As if a debtor to the city, I tirelessly seek out and decipher the tenuous linkages between the remaining visual signs of the past etched upon the facades of the structures and thing that arrive all at once, then all of disappear in the relentless spiraling circle of today’s consumption society.”10
Son’s work is important in that it critically investigates changes over time in this capital city. It is honest, dynamic, and necessary. Son’s work completely destroys the false assumptions of the “stagnant culture” I was warned about when I planned my visit to Hanoi. Viewing the work I was introduced to the complexities that face the city in the twenty-first century—those of crumbling architectural stock, heavy motor traffic, and a vitality of fast-paces everyday life that shapes the spaces of the city.
Mike Ives, “Folk History of Vietnam in Buildings; A Local Artist Assembles a Tourist Attraction to Protect Country's Heritage,” International Herald Tribune
June 20, 2012: 202
William S. Logan, “Russians on the Red River: The Soviet Impact on Hanoi's Townscape, 1955-90,” Europe-Asia Studies 47 no. 3 (May 1995): 443-468
Le To Luong and Wilhelm Steingrube, “Hanoi’s Population Claims for More Public Parks!” Journal of Settlements and Spatial Planning 2 no. 2 (2011): 95-99
René Parenteau, François Charbonneau, Pham Khanh Toan,
Nguyen Ba Dang, Tran Hung, Hoang Manh Nguyen and Vu Thuy
Hang with the assistance of Hoang Ngoc Hung, Qui An Thanh Binh and Nghiem Hong Hanh, “Impact of Restoration in Hanoi's French Colonial Quarter,” Cities 12 no. 3 (1995): 163-173
Dinh Quoc Phuong and Derham Groves, “Sense of Place in Hanoi’s Shop-House: The Influences of Local Belief on Interior Architecture,” Journal of Interior Design 36 no. 1 (2010): 1-20
Nguyen Quang and Hans Detlef Kammeier, “Changes in the Political Economy of Vietnam and Their Impacts on the Built Environment of Hanoi,” Cities19 no. 6 (2002): 373-388
Sarah Turner and Laura Schoenberger, “Street Vendor Livelihoods and Everyday Politics in Hanoi, Vietnam: The Seeds of a Diverse Economy?” Urban Studies 49 no. 5 (April 2012): 1027–1044
- William S. Logan, “The Cultural Role of Capital Cities: Hanoi and Hue, Vietnam,” Pacific Affairs 78 no. 4 (Winter 2005/2006), 560.
- Alexandra Sauvegrain, “Dialogues of Architectural Preservation in Modern Vietnam: The 36 Streets Commercial Quarter of Hanoi,” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 13 no. 1 (FALL 2001): 23.
- See Danielle Labbé, “Facing the Urban Transition in Hanoi: Recent Urban Planning Issues and Initiatives,” Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique Centre – Urbanisation Culture Société (January 2010), Hoang Huu Phe and Yukio Nishimura, “Housing in Central Hanoi,” Habitat International 15 no. 1/2 (1991): 101-126, and Sauvegrain.
- See Ho Dinh Duan and Shibayama Mamoru, “Studies on Hanoi Urban Transition in the Late 20th Century Based on GIS/RS,” Southeast Asian Studies 46 no. 4 (March 2009): 532.
- Hoang Huu Phe and Yukio Nishimura, “Housing in Central Hanoi,” Habitat International 15 no. 1/2 (1991): 103.
- Basil Van Horen, “Hanoi,” Cities 22 no. 2 (2005): 165
- Sauvegrain, 26.
- Danielle Labbé, “Facing the Urban Transition in Hanoi: Recent Urban Planning Issues and Initiatives,” Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique Centre – Urbanisation Culture Société (January 2010), 15.
- Logan, 563.
- “Exhibition “Hanoi – a Living Museum” of Nguyen The Son,” Hanoi Grapevine. April 24, 2015.