A barber sits at the end of a small alley, meticulously cutting hair. The tools of his trade are set out below the dangling rubbery pink roots of the Tropical Angel Hair vine, a fitting environ for a man in his profession. He glances into the black-speckled mirror as I pass, and in the reflection I see Hanoi’s iconic peeling yellow paint on a wall of the colonial mansion behind.
As a part-time tour guide of Hanoi’s French Quarter, I often field questions related to the city’s colonial past. Last week, an eager woman asked about the fading yellow colour painted on many of the older buildings. “All yellow with green shutters,” she pointed out excitedly. Realising I had no answer for this most obvious of questions, I decided to do a little digging. It turns out that many of Hanoi’s French residents originally came from the south of France, where the yellow-green colour scheme was popular. In an attempt to recreate their homeland, they built exact replicas of houses, including adopting the colour palette. On top of this, the houses owned by elite Vietnamese families were also painted yellow as a sign of wealth and prestige.
This leads me back to the location of the barber – one of my favourite neighbourhoods in the city. Just south of Hoan Kiem Lake but north of Thien Quang Lake is a small pocket I refer to as the Ha Hoi neighbourhood, Ha Hoi being one of the area’s main cross streets. The area is a favourite on my walking tours for its small winding roads, flower-filled courtyards, unique architecture and cute cafes and clothing boutiques. It is where I go to escape Hanoi’s chaos when I need reminding of why I love this city.
A friend and historian, who is currently writing a book about the neighbourhood, calls it Hanoi’s ‘VIP Quarter’ for the grand, modernistic villas built by elite Vietnamese in the 1930s and 40s. Embracing what is known as an international style, these post-art deco houses are boxy and asymmetrical, often with features such as circular porthole windows, flat rectangular awnings, curved walls and spiral staircases. These houses were the first generation of buildings designed by university-trained Vietnamese architects for Vietnamese clients. The designs weren’t French, nor were they Vietnamese: they belonged to the world. The development of this area came at a dynamic time for Hanoi and the design is indicative of a society reaching out to a global future.
The ‘VIP Quarter’ of the 1930s would have looked different to the Ha Hoi area of today. Streets were quieter and the population was smaller. However, the area still retains a certain charm and history that is lost in other parts of the city. Even with the rapid changes Hanoi has undergone in the past few decades, there have been no major developments in this area. “A bit busier and more crowded, but still looking pretty much the same as when I was a little girl,” says one resident, who has lived in the area for nearly 60 years.
Drinking tea at a small stall near the barber, the area seems timeless. Sure there are motorbikes, modern signs and people on cell-phones; all the benefits of progress are here. But there is also comfort in the enduring images of washing lines hung between old buildings, small street-side tea stalls where nobody is in a rush and ladies in conical hats cruising down the road on push-bikes. At the end of the street the barber works, always busy, cutting hair under the shade of the Angel Hair Vine, as he has probably done for 50 years.
This article originally appeared on the AsiaLife website on December 2nd, 2014, click here to see the original.