I did some work a few months back for Private Clubs magazine out of the USA, for a travel story on the food scene in Hanoi. It’s a story that’s been done to death by magazines and bloggers the world over, but the writer really did his research, and hit the literal pavement to dig in as deep as he could into the food culture in the capital. And for that, I commend him. He met with several food bloggers and writers and other locals and expats during his trip to Hanoi, and the research shows. It was great to see him digging into bowls of snails and plates of roasted duck at bia hois, and not just sitting in a crystal castle at the Metropole Hotel or at Didier Corlou’s restaurant. Those places are fine–great even–but if we’re going to talk about food in Hanoi, let’s talk about plastic stools and wet markets and cursing vendors and chicken bones and fragrant broths mixing with motorbike fumes and all the rest. Living here, it’s easy to forget what a great city this is for food. It’s unique and interesting and always kind of playing second fiddle to Malaysia or Thailand or even southern Vietnamese cuisine. But I’ll take Hanoi any day of the week. So thanks to Michael Kaplan for a great article, and to the entire team at Private Clubs for running the story, and for hiring me to walk around and do what I love to do. Take photos.
I’m borrowing a GoPro camera from The Word magazine office here in Hanoi. I’ve been thinking about buying one for a while now, but I really wanted to test it out in the field before committing to it. And lo. So I stuck it to the front of my motorbike and went from my house into Hanoi’s Old Quarter with it. A bit of a cliche first run, but I’m OK with that. Highlights include a kid picking his nose as he checks out my gear, and running into Nguyen Qui Duc at the end of the video.
Vietnam is obsessed with food, and food writers are obsessed with Vietnam. So I end up with a lot of smaller, cuisine-based assignments here. Above are some recent outtakes. They’ll be a bit too gritty for newspaper publication, but I really like them. This is what dining in Hanoi looks like to me. It’s nasty, crowded, street-side and alive. It isn’t pho at the Metropole or steamed fish in a villa courtyard. Or it is those things, but it’s these other things, too. Sometimes I feel like a lot of food writers ignore these other things. They obsess over the country’s colonial past and its more watered-down restaurants and perhaps unwittingly temper the pulsing heart of the nation. Its food. Simple.
I’ve always enjoyed reading Sticky Rice because he seems to understand that pulse–the beauty in a bushel of herbs and a bowl of noodles, a small plastic chair and some paper napkins that feel like little more than brittle cardboard stock. Some chopsticks, a litter-strewn sidewalk. Xanthe Clay, the food writer I followed around for The Telegraph, also seemed to understand these things. She was game for it all. Her trip was mostly about pho, and she took several local recommendations to heart when scouring the city for her next bowl. It was refreshing, even if a lot of those places didn’t make it to the final article. In the end, anyone who braves a steaming bowl of noodles amidst the madness that is Dong Xuan Alley on their first afternoon in the capital is alright in my book.
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.
I’ve been running around a lot lately. For work and just for life in general. Taking a lot of photographs of things I wouldn’t normally be taking photographs of. Looking for more details, both close up and far away. It’s funny how much of the city I miss while I’m driving around, that I really never photograph the temples and monuments in Hanoi that are perhaps most photographed, by tourists and snap-happy locals alike. But a recent travel job has been sending me all around the capital, to all the places I generally avoid like the plague. And it hasn’t been all bad. I still say sitting with a cup of iced coffee along a particularly busy sidewalk and spending your afternoon people-watching is much more fun than running around all red and sweaty trying to see the next history museum, but if after you finish that cup of coffee you want to do something more traditional, maybe it’s a little worth it.
The top image is Ngoc Son Temple, in the centre of Hoan Kiem Lake, in the center of the Old Quarter. As well as Nguyen Qui Duc’s ode to Uncle Ho by way of Andy Warhol. Duc is the owner/proprietor of a hip little cafe bar that gets written about all over the world, called Tadioto. The second image is two views over the city from the new rooftop bar in Pacific Place. Hanoi doesn’t have the grandest aerial views, but it tries. Third down is a dragon carving at Quan Thanh Temple, near West Lake, and a swan boat adrift on the lake’s surface. Rumor has it that lust-ridden teenagers like to take rides out onto those calm blue waters and make waves, but I wouldn’t know. The fourth image is the Hanoi Opera House and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. I don’t think I’m the first person to photograph either place. Fifth down is a diptych from the Vietnamese History Museum, which is actually much cooler than it sounds. And last is some scratchings on a stone slab at the Temple of Literature, and an outside view of the Presidential Palace.
So what does it all mean? I don’t know. But I liked playing tourist for a few days. I liked being expected to be taking pictures of a lot of these things. I could just kind of smile and not worry about upsetting anyone. Except for the guard at the mausoleum. But even he seemed sorry he had to shoo me away. I hope he got over it.