Immediately upon arriving in Hanoi I was completely overwhelmed by the busyness and intensity of the city’s street life. My first night in the city, I wrote a postcard to my Design Trust coworkers. “Jan Gehl [the progressive urban design / public space guru] would be laughed out of this city,” I wrote. I told them about my near-death experience trying to cross the street, about the motorbike carrying several live piglets that almost ran me over while driving opposite the direction of traffic in the street gutter, about the hop-scotch that must be played while walking down the city’s sidewalks. (A one block walk required my leaping over several wide bamboo baskets brimming with dragonfruit and bananas, skating around a cluster of men eating noodles and drinking scorpion-infused rice wine, and tiptoeing through the women in conical hats sitting behind metal plates containing various animal organs for sale. I tripped over a bowl of hearts. I’m not kidding.)
But after several days in Hanoi adjusting to the city’s energy, and almost three weeks in Vietnam learning about the country’s social and economic patterns, I need to revise my initial assessment. Yes, the pedestrian environment in Hanoi is kind of hazardous, pretty loud, a little stinky, and generally anxiety inducing. But it’s the overabundance of an incredibly successful street vitality that creates the difficulties that overwhelmed my first impression of the city. The streets and sidewalks are brimming with life, inviting of ALL types of activities, incredibly sociable and full of communication. On second thought, I think Jan Gehl would totally (heart) Hanoi.
“In a Society becoming steadily more privatized with private homes, cars, computers, offices and shopping centers, the public component of our lives is disappearing. It is more and more important to make the cities inviting, so we can meet our fellow citizens face to face and experience directly through our senses. Public life in good quality public spaces is an important part of a democratic life and a full life.” – Jan Gehl
I learned quickly that western concepts of private and public space don’t apply in Vietnam. In Hanoi, life is lived in the public realm. With population growth in the city, residential and commercial real estate is scarce. But even spaces that are individually owned aren’t fully private — in communist Vietnam, no one owns land except for the government. So public spaces take over the functions that private areas serve in the west – cooking, eating, buying and selling – this all happens on the sidewalk. One afternoon and evening, the street our hotel was on partially closed for a private wedding, the wedding party simply erected a tent in the middle of the road.
Hanoi’s streets are living rooms, restaurants and cafes, workshops. After we learned that sidewalks aren’t for walking (sidewalks are for living, streets are for walking), and that it’s much easier to get around on wheels than on foot, this dynamism made our ability to experience the city’s vitality and have authentic interactions with its residents much easier than if life was contained behind closed doors. The life and energy of the city are on display, in your face, in your way, requiring you to participate. Commuters aren’t contained in a silent, air-conditioned SUV bubble, they are breathing the same air you are as they ride by on their motorbikes and bicycles, honking frequently to let you know that they still exist.
Another factor facilitating this private use of public space is Vietnam’s exploding economy, lending a feeling to the country that any way to make a dollar (or, 17,000 dong) is valid, including the hawking of anything, anywhere. The food stalls and fruit vendors that abound on every corner are actually not legal, but we only saw one intervention in our several weeks in the country, and it was incredibly half-hearted on the side of the regulators. A lot of the activity in the city’s public right-of-way was commercial — those hearts in a bowl were for sale, as were the pigs on the motorbike, and the rice wine and noodle slurping were occurring on a sidewalk extension of a restaurant. In Hanoi, public space felt like a collective commercial good, freely available for all to use.
I left Hanoi in love with the city, embracing its madness. I tried my first rambutan, peeled my first pomelo, and downed my first shot of cloudy, swirling, potentially arthropod-infused rice wine on its streets. The life of this city, loud and hazardous as it may be, is energizing, simulating of all senses, and incredibly unique. I suggest a visit before western-style commercialization, municipal street-widening, population growth and increasing number of cars begin to change the quality of Hanoi’s dynamic and colorful urban fabric.