In many ways, the street is Hanoi and Hanoi is in the streets. From haircuts to hustle, it’s a web of places where life plays out. But that isn’t a given everywhere. The industrial expansion and restrictive planning of the twentieth century figuratively and literally choked the life out of a lot of urban centres. Now, we’re seeing cities fight to return people to the streets and the streets to the people.
Hanoi doesn’t have this problem. (At least not yet, let’s hope the new development to come takes into account the often-overlooked street.) On one hand, you could say that most streets here are for most people, if you can get around them. On another, you could say they’re only for those with the capability and fortitude to navigate them – don’t leave too young, too old, too tentative or disabled people alone to cross the torrent of traffic. Hanoi has inclusivity and accessibility issues to address, but it has the street life part worked out.
After a while though, the question comes up: How do I get away from this constant and unrelenting swell of life, movement, heat, traffic, minor transgressions, compromises, moments and people? These are the things that make Hanoi’s urban spaces hum, but for some, the question of regeneration is at the heart of the relationship to the city. Instead of focusing on the well documented and eternally fascinating life on Hanoi’s pavement, let’s look at some of the people and places that are finding ways to build new relationships to the street.
With our urban growth set to stay a steady course accelerating cities into bigger, more connected, more similar spaces, it’s important to remember what makes each of them different. Although every city will face some of the same challenges in the future, responses that are embedded in the uniqueness of each place will offer the most robust answers to those challenges. In Hanoi, the street is life and rather than erase that, these places have fostered a new relationship with the pavement. As is usually the case, there’s a lot to learn in the street.
Mixed-use is more than a typology in Hanoi. It seems like a given, a way of life. The vast majority of spaces can flexibly transmute themselves. Vui Studio pulls together more than one use to create a space that is retail, F&B, movie house and light factory, all in the middle of a food street next to one of Hanoi’s most popular, and contentious, photo ops.
The space has a design aesthetic that would seem at home in Melbourne. In Hanoi, its sparseness is a stark contrast to every establishment around it. The expansive and minimal space promises escape and respite from the outside world. Vui uses a lot of empty space to make the point that this isn’t the street – there’s some luxury in simplicity.
The front section holds products made by the studio that call back to craft by using local ingredients and techniques. The sophisticated front space leads to a café that spans the first and second floor, where it’s shared with a small movie theatre. The third and fourth floors hold small production spaces for a company owned by one of the partners. Just like outside, each space is used and often for more than one thing.
Longer than a Summer
Located down a laneway and through a half-lit hallway to apartments, Longer than a Summer sits parked behind a locked door and intercom with no sign in sight. This intentional venue-hiding isn’t common in the neighbourhood. The threshold pulls you into a different rhythm than the city. Things slow down.
The bar is a quiet space. I mean that in the sense that it isn’t loud and that the proprietors expect you to keep to hushed tones inside. Sound pollution isn’t something that’s often considered in urban environments but hearing loss in Hanoi is a real threat. The congestion of the street extends to a literal cacophony. Although Longer than a Summer isn’t explicitly combatting the aural onslaught, they are responding to an overly stimulated environment by stripping back. Again, luxury is the access to less.
Along with the dark wood, smoke and crafted cocktail vibe, Longer than a Summer offers a specifically Vietnamese spin on the cocktail bar. The heat, melting ice, well-dressed clientele and quiet ennui speak to a tropical place with a long history of great style.
Hanoi Social Club and Ma Xó
Bringing a nod to the social clubs of Sydney Road and his own take on Hanoi mixed-use spaces, Melbourne native John Kis has built two cafés that combine food, retail, music and commercial spaces.
The Hanoi Social Club started as a reference to its Australian counterparts, echoing similar places where immigrants could meet and socialise. The 100-year-old French house with original imported tiles first drew John to the site, but what the space has become to both locals and the relocated has kept it humming for the past eight years. There’s a layered quality to the place, both in interior design and history. The colonial past is part of Vietnam, but a post-colonial future is clearly developing in places like Hanoi Social Club.
“Young people are the same everywhere,” said John. “They’re looking for interesting cultural experiences. If you give them something worthwhile, they’ll go for it.” More concerned with what it can do rather than what it is, John has crafted a multi-use space with a big body clock that works for both locals and visitors.
His second venue, Ma Xó, sits on a tiny island in Hanoi’s largest lake. This four-story building is part café, part production space. A rooftop space, the first floor and street seating on the lake form the café while the second and third floors are home to Fermented, a small commercial kitchen and sourdough bakery. In usual Hanoi fashion, no one building does only one thing. Future plans involve an outdoor cinema on the lake.
All of this points to the interplay that Hanoians need. Places that provide spaces to disengage with an increasingly crowded urban experience without divorcing themselves from that experience entirely.
There’s no shortage of coffee in Hanoi. Local cafés create third spaces for everyone who’s in need of a living room – ostensibly everyone in a city as dense as Hanoi. In most variations, these spaces are built into the street’s DNA, and it’s great. They bleed seamlessly into their surroundings and fill the city with democratic places.
But the street here is no joke. It’s constantly alive and unrelenting. Being able to separate from the street is essential to Tranquil, a small coffee house built into the layered architecture that is essentially Hanoian. It’s not that it eschews people or separates itself from what it means to be in Hanoi, rather it offers a way to engage with the city in a different way. The small two-storey space is intentionally open and tight in equal parts. You can sit amongst the bookshelves or duck your head and climb the stairs to a more intimate seating area. The spaces feel like a little representation of Hanoi’s short and tight skyline.
Most importantly, the outdoor tables sit in an alley that’s shared with residents. People leave their homes and are immediately in the café, or the café is in their homes.
Hanoia House is an old shophouse and a showroom for Hanoia, a design company known for lacquer crafts, lacquer silk, jewellery and home furnishings built on the tradition of craft in Vietnam and its relationship to artful production. Craft is really important in Vietnam. Places and geographies are mapped by the type of ancient craft they relate to. In an ever-evolving urban landscape, it’s the relationship to the past that’s most vulnerable. Hanoia’s products, processes and ethos are built on a relationship to the past, so it’s fitting that their flagship showroom poetically riffs on the same tensions between past, present and future. The entire outer layer of the building was kept intact and filled with a detached inner layer of mashrabiya brick screens. Although the products take centre stage, the story of the place breathes through all the walls.
Southeast Asia has a strong history of iconic architectural typologies, but none may be more ever-present than the simple shophouse. Both ubiquitous and undervalued in new building schemes, the shophouse can easily take a back seat when looking for the future of Hanoi. But G8A, a renowned architecture practice straddling work between Switzerland and Asia, designed Hanoia House by rethinking how the everyday can house luxury craft and reframing what we think a shophouse can do.
Xóm Bắc Cầu – The Farm
In Hanoi, and Vietnam as a whole, urban cores have long been surrounded by a semi-urban zone. These spaces were made up of villages that specialised in a craft and are often still known that way today (the paper-making village, the ceramics village, etc.). For part of the year residents farmed the valleys; for the rest they made something. But industrialisation has begun to change what these villages produce and how they work.
Village residents still split their year between farming and production. But this fundamental change over the past few decades from craft to industry has meant shifts in everything from social structures to environmental hazards. Globalisation and industrialisation have meant more people are leaving their craft history for more lucrative (and toxic) endeavours. Health and environment are suffering while economic prosperity rises. Reserving judgement, there’s a shift in how these villages are organised – who lives there, how they work together and what effect it has on them.
Francesco Montresor and Emily Guillet run Xóm Bắc Cầu, a project that investigates the evolution of these communities, in the northern part of Hanoi. Commonly known as The Farm, the place organises itself as a Xóm (som). Every village has a Xóm – a community space where people assemble, and kids can play. It’s a democratic, public space with a community hall in a traditional Vietnamese stilt house, artist studios, a vegetable farm, chickens and an events program. In all honesty, Francesco and Emily will tell you they aren’t sure what it is yet, and that’s part of the work.
The population in Bắc Cầu (the neighbourhood where the farm is located) is either young or old. Most adults of working age opt to live closer to the city centre. People spend more time indoors and less as a community. In reaction to this change, Xóm Bắc Cầu is looking for ways to create a community space that champions traditional Vietnamese architecture while connecting to place and environment. This reaction to Hanoi’s urban expansion and 21st century growth is looking for an answer to the sequestered sense of urban life. It’s lonely in our future, and the answer to that might mean bringing some of the past into our urban renewal.
About Study Tours
Study Tours are not intended to be city guides. Their purpose is to try and understand how different cities function, what kind of life they provide their inhabitants and what we might be able to learn from them. Think of them not as a comprehensive list of things to do but as a comment from a curious fly on the wall, delivered without an opinion of how the city ought to be better. All our Study Tours can be found here.
Nick Jumara is an Editor and Researcher at Right Angle Studio with a background in publishing, education and design. Always interested in place and people, Nick continues to investigate new ways to build a practice of urban research, placemaking and workshop design that is inclusive, connected and human.