Sunday in the Old Quarter

I spent a few hours again on Sunday walking around near Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, trying to find photographs and generally taking in the air of the 1,000-year anniversary celebrations. I’m still struggling with how I feel about everything. I’ve spoken to a lot of people and I’ve read a lot about the proceedings online. The vibe oscillates wildly between cynicism and blind glee. I fall somewhere in between. Our Man in Hanoi sums up things nicely here. Strange times indeed.

For me, I’m most interested in the overt and very obvious duality present in the capital right now. Many of the official festivities are being held in private. Crowds are pressed against barricades that hold them back from empty streets. Friend and fellow photographer Justin Mott observed that he’d never before seen a female traffic cop, yet the other day as he walked around his neighborhood, he passed five tall, attractive Vietnamese women donning the drab khaki outfits of Hanoi’s Finest. The city has spent tens of millions of dollars on this event, but many Vietnamese people are calling it a waste of time and effort (and money). Hotels are full, but with visiting diplomats and delegations. And on and on.

I’m still not sure where these photographs, as a whole, belong. But I’m having fun taking them. Maybe they’ll feel a bit more cohesive after a few more days of shooting. But I leave town tomorrow evening for New York City and the Eddie Adams Workshop, so then again, maybe not.

Hanoi, Vietnam: Count to a Thousand

It’s happening. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s happening. Hanoi is turning 1,000 years old. In 10 days. But the festivities began this morning. Officially at 8am but by the time I left my house at 7.30 the streets were already an orderly mess. Roads blocked, traffic diverted, people hoarded, “No Entry” signs planted. Nearly every expat I’ve spoken to in the last month has said that they’ll hide away inside until these 10 days are over. That’s probably wise. Luckily, wise isn’t one of my definitive traits. This morning I headed into the maelstrom. And it was fun.

I never cease to be amazed by the friendliness of the strangers that surround me everyday. A lot of people will tell you that Hanoi is a cold and lonely place, full of hard stares and mean faces. In my experience, nothing is further from the truth. Try to speak English to almost any young Vietnamese kid and I bet you they know the words “hello” and “beautiful” or “handsome”. They learn two words: one a greeting and the next a compliment. I’ve always enjoyed that. It’s ridiculous and kind of amazing and I think it says a lot about the place. Anyway, there was a lot of that today. Everyone was in a good mood. I’ve made fun of these celebrations along with everyone else for I don’t even know how long, but in the end, a lot of locals seem very excited about it.

But it isn’t all roses and hellos. The opening ceremony this morning around Hoan Kiem Lake was barred to all but the VIP set. Black cars with tinted windows and national flags passed through barricades while all others were shooed away. Despite the crowds at the bottom of the lake, the eastern side was all but deserted. Saved and scrubbed clean for the diplomats and visiting delegations. They’ll see a different kind of anniversary. And then tourism promotion has been next to non-existent and on the whole the entire fiasco seems like a giant excuse to make everyday life a living hell for all those people that have real jobs anywhere near the city center. Lights have been vomited across the city. Hoan Kiem Lake has been taken over by searchlights and makeshift stages. We’ll have blackouts for weeks after this is over.

The images above are from an hour this morning walking around the southern side of the Old Quarter, near my house. I didn’t have a VIP badge to get to the official ceremony, and the old “white guy with a camera” trick wasn’t working. But still, I think these pictures give a little insight into the first of the proceedings. Hanoi does like itself a nice crowd now.