Hanoi and the Mekong Delta, Vietnam – Public Space, Pajamas and Cà Phê Võng

October 2013 – This post is intended to highlight three elements of the Vietnamese urban landscape through a combination of photography and written commentary.

Public Space

The streets are alive in Hanoi. Public life in Vietnam’s northern capital is teaming with endless action from the frenzied mosaic of motor vehicles to the small shops, cafes and eateries that spill out onto the sidewalks.

Hanoi’s seemingly chaotic traffic is undoubtedly the first aspect of the city’s buzzing urban life that visitors will notice. Motorbikes aren’t simply a tool for transportation in Vietnam – they are a source of livelihood and an integral aspect of everyday life. Through ingenuity and sheer grit, the Vietnamese find creative ways to utilize the motorbike to satisfy the demands of daily life and handle the tasks of their specific trade. Markets are filled with the incredible sights of mobile vendors, on-the-go shoppers and sturdy men hulling freight on the inform contraptions hitched to their motorbikes. Traffic becomes a living and breathing organism in Hanoi – it moves with its own set of rules and its own sense of time and rhythm. Embedded within the chaotic flow of traffic is the aliveness that emanates from the streets of Hanoi.

To cross the street as a pedestrian in Hanoi requires bravery. There’s no hope in waiting for a safe gap in traffic, the only way to successfully cross a street in a major Vietnamese city is to walk slowly and consistently toward the opposite curb as a sea of motorbikes swarm around you. Drivers take note of your consistently paced crossing and adjust ever so slightly to create a small pocket of safe space around you. It’s truly amazing.

Motorbikes aren’t alone on Hanoi’s busy streets. Small plastic stools sprawl out across the sidewalks providing ample seating for Hanoi’s endless supply of coffee drinkers, beer sippers and noodle eaters. This exciting streetscape gives Hanoi an upbeat urban pulse that is often hectic yet endlessly interesting.

Hanoi’s numerous lakes and expansive urban parks provide a necessary space for the city to exhale. As a former hub for French colonial rule, the city’s French influence is most visible in the monumental parks that emerge around the edges of large lakes and alongside the borders of wide boulevards. Filled with public art, gardens and sports facilities, these charming parks and lakes give Hanoi a sense of charm that can easily be overlooked on its busy streets.

Pajamas

The Mekong River begins to swell and expand its influence as it approaches the ocean in Southern Vietnam. Settlements and cities emerge from the banks of the Mekong Delta to feed off the riches provided by the vast waterways. In one port city along the Mekong, an enormous catfish statue towers over dozens of docks as a symbolic tribute to the lucrative fishing industry that supports life in the delta.

Aside from the ingenious spectacle of how people accomplish daily life along the Mekong Delta, one of the most standout features of everyday life is the colorful clothes that people wear. Most akin to pajamas, these silky, light weight clothes provide protection from the sun and add a burst of color to urban life.

Cà Phê Võng

Vietnam’s coffee culture is something to be admired. Coffee drinkers gather in large crowds around the small plastic stools scattered about the city sidewalks to take part in the bustling Vietnamese coffee scene. This special drink is often served with a personal filter that rests on top of a coffee a mug and drips fresh coffee below. Cà phê Sua is a popular style of Vietnamese coffee that comes with a thick layer of sweet condensed milk on the bottom of the glass that’s to be stirred into the dark black coffee. Better yet, there are special cafes that serve coffee to patrons as they lean back and enjoy the gentle swing of a comfy hammock.

Cà phê võng is the name for these unique cafes that can be found almost everywhere in Southern Vietnam. These cafes may have just a few hammocks hanging in open spaces or they may have a whole gamut of hammocks stretching down the road, but the idea is always the same – get out of the midday sun and enjoy a cup of coffee in a comfortable place.

Vietnam’s incredible coffee scene is most likely a cultural vestige remaining from French occupation. The confluence of cultures often yields interesting outcomes and in Vietnam’s case, a brilliant coffee culture.

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