I’ve been spending most of this week following around Xanth Clay, a food writer for The Daily Telegraph, and the two owners of Pho Restaurants in London on a multi-day eating extravaganza, from local market stalls and well-known street-side noodle joints to posher cooking classes and more upscale eateries in Hanoi. The above image is an outtake from one of the many market trips we’ve so far made. It’s not the kind of thing that many publications will run, but it’s what I think of when I think of wet markets in the capital. A crowded fish tank, water-splashed concrete and fishing boots. Sometimes purple.
In July I traveled to Hoi An in central Vietnam to work on a feature for The Word magazine and to shoot a villa property for the Montgomerie Links Golf Course along China Beach. It was a strange trip. I’m not sure that I actually enjoy Hoi An. As many have said before me, it’s been seemingly killed by tourism. Sure, the beaches are nice, but real Vietnam it isn’t. It’s an idealized version of the nation. A preserved tourist town.
I feel like everyone that comes to and hates Hanoi expects what is found here in Hoi An. Streets closed to traffic. English-speaking street sellers. Lots of western eating options. Boats on the river. A cute little bridge. Schoolgirls in ao dai riding bicycles to class. The not-too-distant sea. A popular Vietnamese restaurant that owes more to its Caribbean influence than anything local. And more. But it all lacks soul for me.
It was moderate fun for a few days, but it quickly began to grate on me. There’s only so many times a man can be expected to refuse a freshly tailored suit, some sugarcane juice on the river, first second or even third lunch, dinner, drinks, snacks, trinkets, postcards, kites, motorbikes, fruits, vegetables, peanuts, etc. I was haggled harried. All I wanted to do toward the end was hide away in my hotel. Though even there my gentle proprietor wondered if I’d like to rent a motorbike or a bicycle or take a tour of the ancient ruins or book a bus to my next destination. I’ve never in my life felt more like a walking wallet.
Some people complain about it all over Vietnam, but having lived here for three years I’ve never felt more assaulted than in Hoi An. Which is a shame really because it could be such a beautiful little place.
It’s been a busy week searching for new apartments, shooting a few assignments and preparing for a trip to Mai Chau this weekend. My gallery show also closed down and another print was auctioned off at a recent fundraiser event. Things have been hectic, but hopefully once this batch of craziness clams down in a few weeks I’ll have some more time to devote to a few other exciting future ventures. For now though, here are a few more images I took while walking around Dong Xuan Market in the Old Quarter the other day. Nothing special yet, but maybe it’s going somewhere good.
It’s been an overcast kind of month here in Hanoi. Slate skies and a maudlin mien. And then yesterday I found out that my apartment building is being razed to make space for a bigger, better, taller, newer, pricier complex. So we’re out. Along with our local market, the rest of the residents and probably everyone else along the alleyway out back. Another small enclave of culture cleaned out to make way for the future.
And so it was with a heavy heart that I set out Saturday afternoon to take some photographs around the Old Quarter in Hanoi. I needed to leave the house, and even though I didn’t feel like bringing my camera, I knew it would be for the best. It was a black & white kind of day. I kept my distance. I paid more attention to the chaos and order in things. I hung around the market and just took life in. I didn’t pry. I left people alone. And here the end result is some sort of sad poetry that I’m not entirely unhappy with.
Many people I know here avoid local markets like the plague. They claim chaos, rudeness and ruthless bargaining and go instead to the larger superstores and western groceries scattered throughout the capital. But for me, nothing quite compares, and it’s one of my favorite things to do, both for shopping and taking photographs.
It helps to have a fondness for food and cooking. You soon learn what markets are best for what animals and produce. How pigs are slaughtered twice a day, and if you go in the early morning or late afternoon the cuts of pork you buy are still warm and steaming in the bag. How most vendors will kill, clean and cut the fish you buy right out of the tank. How some chickens come with unlaid yolks still inside. How duck eggs have a bluer hue. How lemons are a goddamn mystery but how limes are dozens to the dollar. And, maybe most importantly, how inexpensive everything can be even without bargaining.
The photographs above are from Dong Xuan Market in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The inner bowels of the market are something to be reckoned with and the outer streets twist into different alleys that all specialize in a variety of different things. There’s the street where you buy onions, shallots and garlic. The street where you buy dried beans and legumes. The street where you buy knock-off “Grucci” jeans and jackets. The street where you eat between buying other things from other streets and more. It can be a bit overwhelming at times. But why have it any other way?