I have traveled to Hanoi more often than usual this year and I feel the city is becoming a friend to me. I used to believe that Hanoi and I were destined to be forever strangers but I confess I am warming to its charms.
My first visit in 2011 was during my first trip to Vietnam. I was overwhelmed by the seeming chaos of narrow streets, traffic, unwalkable pavements and the cultural gap that loomed between this inexperienced European and the ancient mysteries of this exotic, enigmatic city. I felt very out of place.
Last summer, I had occasion to spend two short periods in Hanoi to collect materials, images and sketches for a future project that involved drawing ten ornamental gates that form entrances to villages, the ancient citadel and some of the inner city neighborhoods. This was a fascinating journey of discovery. To the untrained eye, the difference between village gates and temple gates is not readily apparent but I soon learned that village gates are seldom decorated with any of the four sacred creatures of Vietnam: the dragon, tortoise, unicorn and phoenix. Village gates are plainer and, sometimes, they will even have the village name on the pediment.
The city and old citadel gates are fortified and have gorgeous Chinese lines and proportions with their tapering walls and pagoda-style pavilions on top.
But, to date, my favorite gate is one of the simplest. The gate to Yen Phu Village is just off Yen Phu Street on the southwestern shore of beautiful West Lake. Yen Phu is a bustling, trading street where you could probably buy almost anything imaginable. Shaded by tropical trees and bougainvillea, it is typical of the vibrant neighborhoods around Hanoi. I passed through the village gate and dropped down a winding street towards the ancient pagoda sitting on a land bridge connecting the island to the shore.
Here, in Yen Phu, they are known for breeding brightly colored ornamental fish. You can take your pick from the tanks of the dealers dotted along the perimeter road. The village is also known for its 1,000-year-old tradition of manufacturing incense sticks that is said to have come from China. It was a gorgeous day when I went in hope of seeing thousands of colored sticks drying on the shore in the sunshine. On this occasion, however, I was unlucky so I consoled myself by taking a table at one of the pretty waterside cafes to rest in the quiet, dappled shade of some cherry trees to enjoy the atmosphere that had a distinctly French flavor.
This quiet little enclave, hidden away behind the towering Hanoi Club is such a delightful retreat from the noise of Hanoi and the perfect place for an artist to be inspired by the tranquil lake, the pretty houses, an ancient pagoda and a few fishermen. So, I guess it’s not necessarily the gate’s style, nor its plain lines that makes it my favorite, but maybe the romantic and peaceful neighborhood beyond that makes it special to me.
A professional artist and author of A Week in Hoi An, Bridget March specializes in urban landscapes and aims to reveal the hidden treasures of city life and small town cultures through her illustrations. Bridget offers art classes and sketching tours in Ho Chi Minh City. For more of Bridget’s work, visit bridgetmarch.co.uk