What makes a city livable? At a time of rapid urbanization, experts struggle to find the magic formula. They argue about whether it should be walkable or built on expressways, compact or sprawling… Whether its land zoning should separate or mix residential and commercial functions; whether the secret lies in attracting the wealth of the financial sector or the talent of the artistic community. Whether skyscrapers would bring the necessary population density or strict architectural regulations would protect its character. Like alchemists in the Middle Ages, they covet the philosopher’s stone that could make the miracle happen, transforming lowly matter into shining gold. With a similar degree of success, it appears.
While many big cities in East Asia are becoming terribly ugly or terminally boring (sometimes both), Hanoi remains more than just livable: it is truly lovable. Through a thousand years of history, it seems to have found on its own the cherished elixir of life. More cooking recipe than scientific blueprint… to a point where very few Hanoians would be able to tell where the secret lies, despite them unanimously loving their city.
As could be expected in a country with a great cuisine, Hanoi combines the right ingredients in ideal doses. Buildings in the most diverse architectural styles stand harmoniously next to each other; from traditional to Soviet, from Art Déco to Kiểu pháp, from Beaux Arts to KTTs. Quiet prayer and buzzing trade intermingle in surprising ways. Life unfolds on sidewalks during the day and passion blossoms on motorbikes at night. Leafy avenues inspired by the Enlightenment alternate with narrow alleys of unmistakable Asian flavor. Even the undeniable chaos is misleading, as it protects a delicate balance between transformation and preservation, allowing the social fabric to adapt rather than disappear.
This book is an attempt to understand the formula that makes Hanoi a source of pleasure and fulfillment, more than just a convenient engine of prosperity. It conveys images and thoughts from endlessly wandering across her, listening to her, admiring her, from all possible angles. Through readings and food, from work and poetry, in friendship and celebration… Organized as a cooking guide in the spirit of a phở recipe, the book contains two dozen short chapters focusing on one ingredient each, trying to uncover its subtle contribution to the charm and character of Hanoi.
Beyond the essay on urban alchemy, this book can be read as a love story, with all the associated joy and suffering. It declares being amazed by her and hopelessly falling for her. It shamelessly confesses about wanting to be back to her. But it also reflects on the sadness of seeing her lose her village girl emotion, to drift into thoughtless modernization and frivolous consumerism. Watching Hanoi develop is wondering which of the many forces at play will prevail and for how long the age-old recipe will continue to work. Loving her is hoping, naively perhaps, that the magic will last forever.
Martín Rama is an economist by profession and a dilettante by vocation. He has been in an on-and-off relationship with Hanoi since 1998, living there from 2002 to 2010, when he served as the Lead Economist for the World Bank. He is the author of “Making Difficult Choices: Vietnam in Transition”, based on a year of conversations with H.E. Mr. Võ Văn Kiệt. He has also published numerous academic articles. For many years he was the main author of the Vietnam Development Report series.