Pathways to the soul of old Hanoi

(No.5, Vol.8,Oct-Nov Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Yen Thai on a national holiday

Au Trieu Alley

Hang Bong Alley specializing in street food

About Hanoi, artist Le Thiet Cuong wrote, ‘Alleys are the roots and streets are the tree tops.’ The more I thought about it the deeper I felt it. The city used to be attached to the village. Half-done goods used to be delivered to the alleys to be completed before being showcased, exposed to street passersby. Alleys served as the entrepôts behind the street shops. Hanoi people loved quietness and country style neighborhood and so they preferred living in the alleys.
That’s about the past. Today’s Hanoi alleys are as noisy as the streets. Some alleys become specialized in only one product or one service. For example, Tam Thuong alley specializes in crab spring rolls, Phat Loc alley rice vermicelli and fried tofu, Hang Chi alley rice noodle with chicken at night, while Ha Hoi alley became full of nice coffee shops and Huyen alley cheap inns for rucksack tourists.
It took me, a photographer, a hard time to make a picture with the feel of the past alleys. I like to photograph them during the holidays or the New Year. At mid night on New Year’s Eve the alleys of Hanoi are almost empty. One may encounter a fire of burning votive papers. The alley feels like a young mother, having worked hard day in and day out the whole year, now putting away all mundane burdens, contemplating her own image in a mirror and having a beautiful dream for herself. That’s the moment the alley becomes itself, small and warm, with alluring charms.
In Hoi Vu alley, there is a narrow sub-alley where the flower peddler women always come to take a rest at noon. Their bicycles, colorful with flowers, lean on an old wall that looks like a palette of colors of time, creating a unique vision of Hanoian elegance. In this sub-alley, I love to sit on the balcony of the upper floor of an old French house which is also a coffee shop, to watch hucksters thread their ways to make a living, to look at dark brown old roofs and the little green spaces between them where some windows seem to remain forever opened. This is the ideal atmosphere for nostalgic conversation with old chums. That’s all what happiness is to me, and I always dream about a time when the small alleys of Hanoi will be back to what they used to be.

‘My home in a small alley behind a small street,
That I always see in my secret dreams...’

Text and photos by Le Bich
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