Hanoi – Asia’s most characterful city
When I started writing this post I thought I will start it with telling you that I have found South East Asia’s most beautiful city.
But after some thinking, I changed my mind. Why ? Because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say. And tastes do differ. Some people may even call me ‘nuts’ when I say that Hanoi is a beautiful city.
And indeed, I found a better way to describe this endlessly fascinating city.
Hanoi has a lot of personality. It has a very distinct character. In my opinion, it is the city in Asia with the strongest character (and charm).
I’d like to compare Hanoi with a bronze art object that has over the years decayed and taken on so much patina that it has turned into something different.
Ok, I shut up for a moment and let you enjoy some photos.
DECAY & DETERIORATION
Hanoi is full of beautiful historic buildings with very attractive architecture. But, the majority of those buildings have deteriorated and are in dire need of repair and renovation. Many of them may also be already beyond repair.
And it is exactly this decay and deterioration that makes Hanoi so attractive. This rusty charm with surprises around each corner makes this place so fascinating.
Those who prefer glitzy, shiny, clean cities may want to stay away from Hanoi. This is not for you !
ITS NOT ALL GOOD NEWS !
I had been in the South of Vietnam already and visited Saigon during TET. And I liked VietNam so much that less than 3 weeks later I decided to come back for more.
Let me start with the worst side of Hanoi first: Air pollution ! During my 12 days in Hanoi, the air pollution index was every day in the range of what is considered as health hazardous.
Consequently, the sun never came out, and it was foggy and hazy all the time.
This high level of air pollution made it also less pleasant to explore the city on my bicycle. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, Hanoi will clean up its act.
So now that we have the bad aspect of Hanoi out of the way let’s turn back to pleasant sides of this wonderful city.
A VISUAL CANDY STORE
I had no idea what to expect in terms of photographic opportunities. Unlike other photographers, I do not prepare myself or do any serious research. I prefer just to wander out and look…
In Hanoi immediately after my first hours of walking around inner-city Hanoi, I felt like a kid in a photographic candy store.
This city is extremely photogenic. In fact, I think I could spend much more time taking pictures of Hanoi. And I am certain I will return for more.
On many street corners of Hanoi time seems to have stood still. Things have changed very little, and the way of life of the people is very similar to what it used to be for a long time.
Due to Vietnam’s political proximity to the former Soviet Union, there is still some Russian influence felt and one can find the occasional ‘Russia shop.’ There you can buy all sorts of Russian merchandise – first and foremost vodka.
The East German connection during communist times also left its unique impact in Vietnam. German beers and beer brands and German butcheries.
While places like Bangkok, Singapore, Seoul feature well-known German wheat beer brands Hanoi has its own brands. Brands that I as a well-versed connoisseur of German beers have never heard of. And those beers taste good. I believe the Vietnamese had learned that from their former communist brother state East Germany.
Add to this some French food heritage in the form of dirt cheap, finger-licking good cheeses such as Camembert or Brie. And French style baguettes everywhere.
All this in addition to the super delicious Vietnamese food and a street food bonanza only rivaled by Thailand.
HANOI A PIECE OF ASIA AS IT ONCE WAS
Asia’s breakneck speed of development and modernization has taken its toll on the cultural and architectural heritage.
And the ever so zealous city planners in places like Singapore or Seoul have successfully wiped out any Asian identity.
Not so in Hanoi.
Compared to the other capital cities in SE Asia Hanoi is among the least advanced and developed. Which by and large is a good thing.
In South East Asia, or maybe even in the whole of Asia Hanoi must be the city which has the most historic buildings.
And those historic buildings range from small inner city villas to huge palaces.
I am by no means an architectural specialist, but it appears to me that there is not only French influence but also lots of Chinese influence – all that paired with Vietnamese building traditions.
Hanoi has still relatively few skyscrapers and high-rise buildings. And the city is quite green which adds to its appeal.
TOURIST TRAP – BEWARE !
Downtown Kuta in Bali, Khao San Road in Bangkok and the old quarter of Hanoi – all the same. Tourist traps with a gazillion of vendors and shops selling a ton of things for which I have absolutely no use.
But there are of course also some charming corners and streets to be found if one dares to wander off into tiny alleys.
What I found more interesting is cruising the area where many of Vietnam’s government buildings and embassies are located. As well as the area West of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Hanoi also boasts several lakes throughout the city. Hanoi’s city center is located around the Hoan Kiem lake.
Not far from there city is Hanoi’s largest lake – the West Lake which took me about 2 -3 hours, give or take to circumnavigate by bicycle. A very pleasant ride I must say if there would not have been the fog and the pollution.
Most of the road around the lake is right on the water’s edge and has hardly any car traffic. A highly recommended thing to do when in Hanoi.
And on that road around the city, I discovered a beautiful old wooden Buddhist temple, which is fortunately not listed in guidebooks and websites with tourist attractions. So I was the only ‘long-nose’ in there.
In the following some impressions from that enchanting temple.
MORGENSTUND’ HAT GOLD IM MUND (translation below)
No, you don’t need to learn German, but I would not know the English equivalent of this phrase. It roughly translates into: The morning hour is where gold is to be found.
I did not find any real gold. But visual, photographic gold. For me, the photos I could take in Hanoi are among my personal favorites of all times.
In any city, I visit I enjoy most to just wander about without a particular destination and watch the people go about their daily life. And one of the best times to do that is very early in the morning.
And indeed, a large part of pictures were taken very early in the morning on 2 or 3 trips. I hit the road shortly before sunrise and cruised for 2-3 hours.
There is a lot to take in.
Life of the locals, in spite of rather cold winters, happens all outdoors. Whether it’s socializing over a cup of coffee, devouring a bowl of Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) or shopping for groceries – it all happens out on the streets.
RIDING MY BYCILCE
Although the traffic in Hanoi is bad, it is much better than what you encounter in other SE Asian cities.
I had rented a bike with which I ventured around quite a bit, even made it into Hanoi’s suburbia. Not much to see there, but I wanted to know, and now I know…
For urban photographic exploration, a bicycle is the ideal means of transport. You are sufficiently fast on a bike. But not too fast as to miss something.
A bike can be parked almost anywhere. And traffic rules can be blissfully ignored. 😉
I was also out a lot on foot but for the most part, I used my bicycle to get around. Here is a picture of my ride:
For me this trip to Hanoi was my first opportunity to use my brand-new Zhongyi / Mitakon 50 mm / 0.95 f.
My first time with a manual focus lens! And of course the first time with a lens that fast.
I wont make this a review of the Mitakon but what I want to share with you that combined with a stellar low-light performer like the Sony a7 RII and finally darkness or the lack of available light poses a restriction or challenge.
You can walk out into the night without a flash as if you would be photographing in day-light. Almost like magic !
I will publish my lens review about this unique ‘puppy’ shortly.
Actually a 50 mm is not what I would recommend for city photography in a place like Hanoi. Because neither is a 50 wide enough to capture cityscapes, nor is it tele enough for discrete people photography.
So my recommendation for an ideal lens for places like Hanoi would be either a 24-70 or a telezoom such as a 70-200.
This time I did not bring my G12, but rather choose my other pocket Canon. The SHZ 50. And that was a perfect choice.
Why ? Because I like to engage in what I call ‘photographic voyeurism’. Photographing people without them knowing about it and/or agreeing to be photographed. Yes, I am that kind of a sneaky bastard.
People such as small business operators, street vendors or just the common (wo)man on the streets of Vietnam do not speak English. Therefore, it would anyway impossible to have much interaction with them.
So being a long distance away and having my camera on a tripod allowed to make pictures which I probably could not have made with any other gear. And having a zoom range of 24 – 1000 mm (in 35 mm terms) is a blessing to say the least.
Also its interesting that people react differently to you if you photograph them with a small pocket camera versus as DSLR with a large lens.
Ad to this the agility of shooting with such small gear and you have the perfect camera for ‘photographic urban exploration’.
Yes, picture quality is far inferior compared to a DSLR with a decent lens. But I am not a pixel peeper. It is the character of a lens and what I can do with it that matters to me.
In fact, on many pictures I prefer this imperfect look that only a ‘bad’ lens such as this one can give.
So I ended up with many more ‘keepers’ from the 600 $ equipment than from the 4000 $ ++ equipment. But I had anticipated that.
I also brought my Canon EF-S 10-22mm and occasionally used it on the Sony @7 R II.
I very much enjoyed my time in Hanoi. And I look forward to returning to Hanoi and exploring Vietnam’s far North.
But before that I am off to Danang – the middle of this wonderful and fascinating country that is Vietnam.
I guess I need another cup of this wonderful Vietnamese coffee now…
Truly’ – DOMINIK
P.S.: If you Dear reader ever come to Hanoi and need a nice and affordable place to stay I can highly recommend the airbnb host Kien, who has several lovely apartments in excellent locations and with outstanding services. Check them out !
Here to obligatory Selfie: