Last Wednesday, I was walking along Ba Trieu Street to a conference about how Hanoi has changed.
At the junction of Hang Bai Street, I stepped on the pedestrian crossing and the light turned green.
As I was crossing, a car coming quite fast and wanting to turn into Ba Trieu honked loudly to rush me.
“F-ck!” I thought as I turned around, almost losing my temper. But I did not blow my top or shout because it would have been no use: the car had sped away.
Inconsiderate, dangerous and ruthless driving is common in Hanoi these days, and my response, albeit I was provoked, was not too refined either.
So when poet Vi Thuy Linh, at the above-mentioned conference, quoted her father as saying he is often startled when he goes out in Hanoi because of reckless driving and incessant honking, adding that to her Hanoi has changed for the worse and “is now very ugly”, I agreed, almost.
The reason I did not fully agree was that such an assessment should include and implicate everyone, such as me with my uncouth cursing, and perhaps Vi Thuy Linh herself, because no one is completely innocent.
Linh was one of the four speakers at the conference. The other three, who had more tempered views about Hanoi, were architect Pho Duc Tung, cultural researcher Tran Quang Duc and painter and contemporary artist Nguyen The Son.
The conference was organized by Nha Nam Publishing House and the French Institute in Hanoi (L’s Espace) to mark Hanoi’s 1,005th birthday this year and the publisher’s plans to republish a series of books about the city.
To Linh, other ugly examples include the recent “brutal” chopping down of trees, the endless filling of street sewers and paving of sidewalks though the latter are in good condition, the administrative expansion of Hanoi that makes it difficult to create a coherent identity, opening its doors to immigrants who do not hold themselves to any standard of behavior and speak Vietnamese carelessly.
To the poet, the old identity of Hanoi, which was geographically limited to the four inner districts and immortalized in the writings of great writers like Nguyen Tuan and To Hoai, the ideals of Hanoians as “gallant and elegant” should be revived through education, self-awareness and other means.
Duc said though the past was not all great - for instance, during the Le and Nguyen periods, there were cruel laws and customs against adulterous women and babies who died prematurely – present-day Hanoi indeed has more than its share of negativities.
Hanoians, especially educated people, curse more than their forefathers, especially online, on Facebook. Hanoi’s public face too has problems. For instance, the banners that hang all over the streets and the decorative lights around Hoan Kiem Lake do not look pretty.
Houses in Hanoi at night. Photo provided by Nguyen The Son
Tung, who has been living abroad for years, was the most generous and sanguine, saying he still finds Hanoi more beautiful than ugly and still loves living here.
Tung said we cannot compare the old Hanoi, a small city of around 1,000 hectares, with a megacity that is 30 times as big now, adding they are two completely different entities, two completely different stories.
Nor should we expect any elitist values in Hanoi, of the kind Linh has in mind. With Hanoi’s current population, there are many other kinds of values.
Audience members asked for some specific advice and course of action to help preserve and improve Hanoi if the city indeed has problems, but the speakers suggested there is no simple, single answer. Every person has a different idea and ideal and a different way of acting.
The specific thing that stuck with me was painter/multimedia artist Nguyen The Son’s project, the startling mirror he holds up to Hanoi that clearly, succinctly reveals the true face of the city: Hanoi is losing its face, itself, to crass capitalism.
Interested in the visual signals and symbols of urban landscapes, Son has taken photos of hundreds of houses in Hanoi (and Saigon) to reveal a sight that is at once familiar and yet surprising and alarming: despite what the laws say on paper, giant billboards completely cover and deface many houses and streets in Hanoi.
What should be an original, private thing - the face of one’s own house - has increasingly taken on a vulgar, indistinguishable look: the look of billboards advertising one thing or another, the look of money.
This project, named “Nha mat pho” (houses facing the street), was Son’s master’s graduation thesis and was exhibited at the Goethe Institute in Hanoi in 2012.
The artist told me in an email after the conference that since 2011, when he started the project, the billboards in Hanoi have only been becoming bigger and odder [to compete for eyeballs].
If some billboards were taken down, it was not because authorities started to enforce the laws; it was simply because the businesses went bankrupt and returned the house to the owner to make way for other businesses to come and hang new billboards.
We cannot compare the old Hanoi, a small city of around 1,000 hectares, with a megacity that is 30 times as big now. They are two completely different entities, two completely different stories." -- Architect Pho Duc Tung
Son said he has traveled to many countries and this phenomenon is uniquely Vietnamese.
Even in China, which is known for its cutthroat development, signs are only allowed to be hung on the upper front of the first floor and never to completely fill the façade -- even if the house is private property -- except in big shopping centers, because the face of a house affects the face of a whole city.
And in Europe, especially in the Netherlands, the front of a house is often a big window on a balcony filled with flowers, not billboards.
Son’s great project makes me take a hard look at my own house.
My parents and I are indeed part of this picture of a fast developing, materialistic and not-very-pretty Hanoi.
We live in a house fronting Quang Trung Street, a major street in Hanoi’s central Hoan Kiem District. It is partly leased out, and the first floor indeed shares a characteristic with houses fronting the street in Hanoi: it has a shop sign.
And Son is right; the signs are only becoming bigger. The tailor who rents our house has been enjoying great business, and so recently replaced his old sign with a bigger, more expensive and impressive one with lights that are lit brightly until 10 pm.
Quang Trung was also one of the streets to suffer the recent tree-cutting by local authorities for dubious reasons.
This brings me back to the speakers’ suggestion that every Hanoian should ask what they want to or can do for their city.
Though the bottom two floors of my house are for rent, the upper floors are still for private use. My parents do not plan to sell the house to move to the suburbs any time soon.
They grow some potted bougainvillea vines on the balconies of the upper floors and have always wanted to grow some more.
With authorities cutting down trees and whatnot and the successful tailor putting up bigger shop signs every few years, I should urge my parents to make their move quickly: grow more trees, stamp whatever individual signature they can on their own house, on Hanoi while they can - before things change beyond control.
Many houses in Saigon are also completely defaced by giant billboards. Photo provided by Nguyen The Son