Nocturnal isolation in Hanoi



“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring 

Will be to arrive where we started 

And know the place for the first time.” 

T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding (1942)


When does one really know a place? Does it take one year? Or a few? Maybe a lifetime?
Having lived in Hanoi for five years, I’m still trying to make sense of it: venturing out after dusk, going from district to district and alley to alley.

This process of looking for light and truth feels familiar by now. Comfortable even. But, serene as the search might be, maybe it’s time to come to terms with the fact that this city will never truly reveal itself?

Hanoi’s physical space has been changing radically over the past thirty years. While the city consisted of just a handful of urban districts in the past, new suburbs, rife with modernity, have and continue to be built for the inner-city population to move to.

As Vietnam’s economy opened up, new wealth was created which impacted the agricultural lands and villages surrounding Hanoi. Families began to replace their traditional rural homes with multi-storey urban houses. Informal and small-scale at first, these conversions turned into formal rural-to-urban transitions, fueling the expansion of the city.

Throughout these past few decades, Hanoi saw the initiation and development of the transformative state in which it exists today: an ever-expanding mosaic of wards and districts, a labyrinth of lanes, streets and alleys, and a patchwork of demographic, economic, and socio-cultural situations.

I see Hanoi’s old scales fall to the ground and new skin appear. But its winter air is transluscent at best: it lets the shapes, forms and colors pass through, but leaves many blanks to be filled in.

And so the question keeps lingering in my mind: at the end of all this exploring, will I arrive where I started and know this place for the first time?

About the author:

Wouter Vanhees (1978) is a Belgian photographer, who has been living and working in Vietnam since 2015. Living in Hanoi sparked an interest in the rapid rate of urbanization of Vietnamese cities. Wouter often wanders the cities after dusk, hunting for eye-catching and colorful slices of life and turning these into compelling visual stories. He continuously adds new images to his body of work, and has been published in The Washington Post, Urbanautica, Dodho Magazine, Plain Magazine, etc.

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