Text and photography by Alessandro Carboni
Location: 21° 2′ 0″ N, 105° 51′ 0″ E
Hanoi is one of the new global cities of the 21st century. Political, economic, touristic and cultural centre, Hanoi has recently entered into competition with the neighbouring cities of South East Asia and in the last 10 years, with the thriving southern region of China. The increasing urbanisation, rapid industrialisation and the resulting economic expansion, have transformed the city in a radical way. An exploration on the floating village born under the Long Bien Bridge, a symbol of the ancient Hanoi.
Every resident in Hanoi today feels the great historical importance. Colonialism, the Vietnam War, socialism and today the free market, seem to be the basis for a new phase of social development.
On October 10, 2008 (the 998th anniversary of Hanoi) the Prime Minister issued a directive and approved a series of projects to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of Thang Long – Hanoi. The aim is to further enhance economic growth and make the city more modern and civilised through the construction of imposing buildings. In a recent meeting of the national executive committee for the millennium celebrations, the Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Sinh Hung noted that, instead of choosing only October 10, 2010 as the official day to commemorate the millennium anniversary of Hanoi, the celebrations of the event should be extended to the following decade, i.e. from 2010 until 2020. He argued that the commemoration of the city’s history is an opportunity for the evolution and development of the entire nation in the future decade. By 2020, the government’s objective is to transform the national economy based on agriculture in an industrial national economy. My Hanoi begins on the banks of the Red River, the river that runs through the city. For about ten days I visited the bridge that crosses the river, the Long Bien Bridge. When it was completed in 1903, the Long Bien Bridge was considered technologically very advanced. Using innovative techniques of Gustave Eiffel, the 1682 meters long bridge was the longest in Asia and the fourth longest in the world.
The main function of the bridge was to ensure continuous transportation of materials from Hanoi to the important port of Haiphong. In addition to its practical function, the bridge represented a turning point for the entire Indochina, a powerful symbol of modernity, a sophisticated display of power that showed the benefits of the French colonial government. In 107 years, since it was opened to traffic, the bridge has been radically changed, going from being the French icon of the modernity of fin-de-siecle, to the national symbol of the Vietnamese people. As a silent gateway to the city, over the years the Long Bien Bridge has played a central role in the history of 20th-century Vietnam. During my explorations, I’ve been lucky enough to spend entire days crossing and walking around the bridge. As I could note, the bridge still plays an important and central role in the city. The constant traffic from one bank to the other converges into the commercial and economic flow of of the city. Below, a long concrete wall that runs for several miles, parallel to the river, through the whole city. The wall divides like a bank, the inside and outside, the visible and invisible. Beyond the wall, the bridge offers several possibilities. On one side, a semi-visible part from the outside, there are several huts and small decaying buildings, that due to the Vietnamese economic euphoria, have been increasingly pushed to the edge of town, beyond the wall and in some cases on the banks of the river. Behind, a central market for the trading activities located near the river. The market actually represents the boundary beyond which lies the Red River.
The indiscriminate use of drugs, criminal activities and marginalisation have created a ghetto neighbourhood, unsafe, difficult and impenetrable. Underneath the central part of the bridge, there is the long Bai Giua (Middle Bank). Around the bridge, the craters left by the bombs are visible, perfect and circular. Perfect hills, lower in the centre, higher on the sides, they are the result of continuous Americans bombardments that moved the earth from the centre to the sides of the island. The bridge is still standing and to me it seems a miracle. One morning I met Tran Thuy Linh, a resident of the floating village born around the Bai Giua island. When reaching the Bai Giua island it comes exactly in the middle of the river, between the two banks. From here the city seems far away, but it is visible from both sides. The island is very big, it is mostly cultivated. Over the bridge scooters and bicycles laden with vegetables and people constantly transit like crazy flows. Occasionally a grave noise is heard from afar. The steaming train silences everyone. It is necessary to cover the ears because the train is so close that the engine noise becomes unbearable. There are two sets of stairs that from the centre of the bridge allow me to go down in the island. As soon as I stepped down I saw the craters, now thoroughly cultivated by farmers. I listened to the silence and for a while I forgot the chaos of the city. The bridge seen from below is a narrow artery. Believe me, it is a miracle that it is standing. And it is a miracle to arrive at Tran Thuy Linh’s house. Thanks to Dhu, a boy from Ho Chi Minh City who’s been living in Hanoi for a long time, I could easily reach it. It is almost impossible to orient oneself, because the houses are completely hidden by the hills formed from the craters.
The village is a fascinating self-organised floating urban grid. A stratification of subcultures unknown even to many residents of Hanoi. The most visible group is made up of 20 families who live in a floating village. Mostly immigrants without papers nor rights, the families came from different corners of the country in search of work and a new life. During the rainy season, the huge amount of water transforms the whole area into one big river. It is precisely because of these seasonal changes that the village becomes unstable, moves and changes shape, the houses begin to “navigate”. After the rains, in the dry season, when the river recedes, the houses are repositioned again, creating a new grid. At night, around the village, groups of orphaned and homeless children occupy the western part of the island, creating a night time camp. In the morning it is easy to see clothes, shoes, mattresses and traces of fires lit in the darkness of the vegetation. The village is a unique human settlement, a place where urban and rural intersect, interpenetrate each others and coexist. Tran Thuy Linh’s house, like the other 10 that I counted close to his, gently floats on a small lake formed by a crater. During the rainy season the lake is filled with water, allowing Tran Thuy Linh to navigate and move around the island. He and his family arrived in the village a long time ago. The house is small, but quite cosy. The large windows allow to see the fields and the water around the house. From the back door it is possible to see the other neighbours’ houses. Some cook, some do the laundry. From a small window a man stares at me. I wonder how he can see me from so far away. There are some flags and pictures hanging on the walls of the house. There are also some drawings of the bridge that Tran Thuy Linh’s daughter drew with crayons.
“I came here in Hanoi long ago when the economy was predominantly agricultural. Every house in the city was surrounded by gardens, banana trees and hibiscus. I used to live in the city centre and there was space for everyone. But today the city has become unbearable, people live next to each other and the spaces between the houses have become virtually non-existent. Today there is not even one meter of available land: it is a constant struggle for the conquest of space”
Like many other cities in Southeast Asia, the disarticulated urban development has rapidly occupied every available space. Tran Thuy Linh continues: “I remember that around a lake near the house of my grandparents there were willows and lotus plants. My grandparents loved to make tea in a very special and imaginative way. During the night, when the lotus petals opened, my grandparents loved to put in tea leaves. Soon after the petals would close again. At dawn, my grandparents would open them and would drink the tea infused with the scent of the lotus. Tran Thuy Linh complains about the fact that, like in other cities, nature and the green were removed by the tumult of skyscrapers, buildings and traffic. “Nobody wants to go back and above all the pressure of modern life is terrible. People are forced to pay dearly for today’s abundance – sometimes also with their own happiness. They can get what they want, but I think in the future people will suffer from loneliness.”Tran Thuy Linh explained “My family and I have been forced to leave our neighbourhood, and little by little, we have been marginalised in this area. We are farmers, but we are forced to pay the rent for the land. More often than not we can not fully pay the costs.” Meanwhile they offer me some tea and his son shows me a guitar, donated by an NGO that has recently worked on the restoration of some houses in the village. It is dark already. I go back to the bridge. In the distance the flow continues. The cars’ headlights draw continuous lines that cross the banks of the river from side to side. The next day I bought some strings, similar to that commonly used by local farmers to mark the boundaries between the different allotments. The same morning I decided to retrace the same path that from the stairs of the bridge lead me to the house of Tran Thuy Linh. With the strings I measured the length of the path. The distance between Tran Thuy Linh’s house and the bridge could metaphorically represent the distance between the two ever more distant worlds. Later on, I asked a seamstress to use the string to create a flag or something similar that represented the birth of a new city under the Long Bien Bridge.