Essay: Streets of Hanoi | Unfocused

Shot mostly from the hip, Streets of Hanoi | Unfocused captures Vietnam’s capital city in June-July 2017.

To an outsider – a first time visitor from the West no less – the streets of Hanoi are a chaotic clusterfuck of barely coherent order; motor scooters, cars, cycles, trucks and buses interwoven with the heaving mass of humanity that populates the city. The result is a living, breathing organic entity that inexplicably somehow simply works as a space to live and grow and dream and achieve and eventually die, and to be born anew as a thread in the patchwork quilt of the capital’s millennia-old story.

Newly arrived and wandering the choked streets of the Old Quarter and around the Hoàn Kiem district there’s a feeling that the city has been overrun by the capital’s multi-million-strong fleet of motor scooters. Engine noise, the incessant blast of horns in the form of the wawawawa of the buses, aggressive blasts from trucks and the beep-beep from motorbikes fill the air, which is otherwise dank with humidity. In the evenings the skies open and the rain falls in short cloudbursts which serve more or less to amp up the humidity so that the moisture in the air becomes a character in a sort of Ibsen-esque play about life pressing down upon itself.

In Hanoi they drive on the right hand side of the road. Mostly. Lane markings are merely a suggestion and footpaths – such as they are – are very much the domain of scooter parking. In between the parked Hondas, Yamahas and knock-off Chinese-made machines locals make their living selling, cooking, crafting and repairing.

There are more than a thousand restaurants in Hanoi. The streets of the Old Quarter are home to many small eateries where fresh produce is shaped by expert women tending knives, woks, pots and fryers to extract exacting flavours from the dishes they prepare. Like witches, each cook has a recipe they’re renowned for and draw audiences to their eatery through the art and alchemy of steam and fire and fresh ingredients that attract diners to the short plastic seats huddled together between the motor scooters that crowd the footpaths.

The Old Quarter’s long, narrow ‘tunnel houses’ reach deep into the darkness of the local’s way of life and there are glimpses of private lives being led down the long alleyways which act like veins to the city’s main-street arteries. Whole families, produce, livestock and items for sale are moved throughout the city by scooter, while on foot the street cleaners, tourists and hawkers weave in and out of the traffic coming in and out of view and focus and understanding.

For an anxiety-ridden photographer sporting a Western aesthetic and an architectural eye for order the solution to capturing Hanoi’s street scenes was not to focus, not to look through the lens, not to judge the subject or to make aesthetic or stylistic photographic decisions, but instead simply to attempt to capture and reflect the crazy, chaotic character of Hanoi. The solution was often to shoot from the hip and capture what was, rather than what could be with the addition of a tweak of focus and an eye to studied composition. These images are a response to the extraordinary landscape of Hanoi.

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