The title above is the German version of my answering for interview on Thể thao & Văn hóa ("Gu Hà Nội" đang là thiểu số). The English title is "The Flavour of Hanoi is Fading". It's from the book "Hà Nội: Một thành phố trong Nghệ thuật / Im Spiegel der Kunst / A City in Art", an edition for the exhibition that curated by Natalia Kraevskaia (owner of Salon Natasha) and Lisa Drummond. The Goethe-Institut Vietnam in Hanoi organizes this exhibition. It has many phases, with various artists like Bùi Xuân Phái, Nguyễn Bảo Toàn, Nguyễn Trọng Hợp, Đỗ Phấn, Nguyễn Văn Cường, Nguyễn Trinh Thi... The book includes photos of their artwork as well as 6 interviews and essays by Nora Taylor, Veronika Radulovic, Phạm Toàn, Vũ Dân Tân, Bùi Thạc Chuyên and me.
About me, the book says: Nguyen Truong Quy is a young architect who chose to become a write. He's currently an editor with the Tre Publishing House, and author of 3 books about Hanoi, namely "Make your self at home, like the Hanoians do" ("Tự nhiên như người Hà Nội"), "It's very hard to find Phở delicious" ("Ăn phở rất khó thấy ngon") and "Hanoi is Hanoi" ("Hà Nội là Hà Nội"). The first two are in their fourth edition.
Thank T.A for introducing me to Ms. Natasha and thank Ms. Natasha for collecting my word as well as someone who translated it into German and English.
When I started writing about Hanoi, I set off with the reality that, however untidy it is, Hanoi is the place that defines so many values in me. The place where three million people inhabit just inner city must obviously carry with it a lot of stories, and it seems that you just need to listen to a part of those stories and you will get enough material to start your writing. Certainly when I chose to write prose, notes and small essays, I was fully aware that these were the types of writing that could reflect life directly and straightforwardly through my subjective personal views. And Hanoi is something so ever-changing that you can always write about it.
When I was small, I was so much in love with Hanoi's historically iconic architecture. At that time, urban areas (including Hanoi) were, to me, a world of shapes and spaces diversely installed. It was like in an adventure game, where you broke into a city in disguise and looked at it from very strange angles. It was maybe because I had all the time in the world as a small boy to play that game by myself.
I like Hanoi as a place generations of young people, each of them having a unique way of being "posh". During the last twenty years of 20th century, young Hanoians, as featured in Luu Quang Vu's plays or Nguyen Viet Ha's stories, were enthusiastic yet indifferent, innocent yet experienced, self-proving and welcoming but not too readily exuberant. They always kept themselves at a reasonable distance. They were not a type of people who would not think before they said or did something, and they were not too open or bombastic either. I think young Hanoians now still prefer a simplistic, if not sparing, lifestyle, probably shaped by their surroundings which leave little room for vanity.
Writing about them is also writing about myself, about all the nonsense and weird things of a generation, naive to life. Sometimes, I find myself and my friends drifting in a chaotic yet sequenced life, like any one among those three million motorbikes hustling on the roads of Hanoi, not knowing where they are heading.
There are many things available in Hanoi now which used to exist only in my dreams. Yet, they are no longer a fantasy that I am curious about, maybe because I am grown up now! The other day when I looked again at Bui Xuan Phai's painting in a book, an impression of mystery arose all of a sudden. The innumerable houses with match-boxed roofs looked like temples in a holy land. It was because nearly all of them seemed to be speaking the same language, having the same style, and secretly shaking their hands like "This is just between you and me, ok?" They were different from the houses in Hanoi's present, where even the most magnificent thing looks like it was to be sold on the pavement of the street right away.
I don't want to believe that "genuine" Hanoians are losers, lost in this life and unable to control the changes of their living spaces. But Hanoi's culture is being challenged by the more fundamental subsistence matters: the price of houses and land, the service mindset and the management of urban areas. Time has proved an old saying "You need to settle down first before you can develop your business": only streets and wards that have stable structure and prosperous trades can generate cultural institutions that serve themselves. As long as we are still busy trying to buy an affordable house given our scanty income and still caught in traffic jams, the various urban "experiments" and these polluted living condition, it sounds a bit too impractical to tell ourselves and others to live a cultural, i.e. a polite, decent and humane, life.
I still believe that there exists an "aesthetic school called Hanoi". Of my generation, and as followers of the older ones, there are still believers of such a school. It's all about the same aesthetic "gout" and the living taste - once upon a time cherished and championed by groups and associations of believers. However, we are now loners, and the school, although not yet failed, is in the minority./.