Global Vietnam: Two Weeks in Hanoi

Our class, happy to have sun and fresh air on the way to Mai Chau

I’ve become that annoying person who won’t stop talking about their trip abroad. My constant reminiscences of my recent trip to Vietnam to study ‘Global Vietnam: Gender, Labour and Migration’, are now predictable to everyone around me, but extremely justified. Anyone who is interested in history and culture, and willing to ponder the dynamic and multifaceted elements of our globalised world, are bound to fall in love with Hanoi.

I was first attracted to the course for its multidisciplinary approach, as the facets of gender, labour and migration are applicable and highly relevant to all areas of the humanities and social sciences. While I had studied Vietnam from the perspective of colonialism and Cold War conflict, the chance to see and learn about the country – on its own terms – was too good to ignore. My time in Hanoi confirmed, and exceeded, all my expectations. The sheer vibrancy of the city, combined with the intellectual stimulus provided by the course, revealed that field schools are an incredible way to learn through travel.

Shared spaces in Hanoi

My first and most resounding impression of Hanoi was the incredible diversity and community-oriented atmosphere of its public spaces. I arrived on a Sunday morning. The taxi dropped me at Hoan Kiem Lake, a central space at the heart of the city popular for families and friends to congregate before the new week. Markets and performers colour the square around the lake, as friends sit and eat, and parents hire tiny vehicles for their young children to ride around in.

As the course began and we started to interrogate topics such as gender, labour and migration, the streets of Hanoi took on even more life as these every day practices became apparent. Whether it was observing a construction worker hanging precariously from a building, a merchant navigating their motorbike bursting with flowers through tides of traffic, or a street vendor cooking delicious pho, ordinary life is astoundingly visible in Hanoi.
And if you’re like me, such bustling cities and crowds of people are really exciting. At once, you can feel anonymous, while simultaneously possessing a sense of belonging, either to the sheer mass of people, or its broader space and time. 

Hanoi’s many faces

As a city, Hanoi boasts an incredible and diverse history that is present at every glance. Hanoi is home to ancient sites such as the Temple of Literature, dating back close to a thousand years, as well as more recent histories like French colonisation (Hanoi was once called the Paris of the East!) evident through its stunning architecture and numerous patisseries. Coexisting with the socialist influences in public art, as well as the undoubtedly globalised elements of fake-gucci-slides at every street corner, there is never a dull moment when considering what makes Hanoi, Hanoi. The opportunity to interrogate a diverse number of spaces in Hanoi and its surrounds only cemented its manifold nature and further unveiled its complexities. 

We were lucky enough to escape to the countryside for one night, visiting the stunning rice paddies of Mai Chau to learn about the growing ecotourism industry and how it interacts with gender, labour and migration. One of my favourite memories of the course was our long morning cycle around the villages, complete with poor weather, muddy terrain, and more than a few bike malfunctions. 

We received an in-depth tour of Vietnam’s historical and contemporary art scene, visited the Hanoi Fine Arts Museum and viewed virtual exhibitions at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and Lenin Park. This was followed by a trip to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum; the space provided a fascinating insight into gender and its essential role in the national identity. I also visited the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnography, the Hao Lo Prison Museum and the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which gave me a further appreciation of Vietnam’s rich history and contemporary ways of remembering the past.

On the final day of the course, we toured an electronics factory on the outskirts of Hanoi to gain insight into the globalised technology industry – and learned that Vietnam is the second largest producer of electronics in the world! This space provided an undoubtedly different experience to all we had seen before, and revealed the interconnectedness between everyday items we take for granted – such as our phones and computers – and the realities of factory work in regions like Vietnam.

Vietnam’s culinary diversity

At this point, the elephant in the room must be addressed: Hanoi’s mouth-watering cuisine. During our two-week course, I sampled an incredible array of Vietnamese street food. Whether it was bánh mì for lunch, phở or bún chả for dinner, we spent several hours of the day stuffing our faces while sitting on the tiny plastic chairs that line the city’s streets.

As part of the course, we took a cooking class with KOTO, a social enterprise that works with disadvantaged youth and provides accommodation, training and life skills to equip young people with a future in the hospitality industry. Visiting a market to retrieve the ingredients for our class, and getting to cook a delicious prawn-pamelo salad and rice paper rolls, was definitely a highlight and revealed the unrivaled freshness of all foods Vietnamese.

It’s also impossible to ignore Hanoi’s rich café culture that could give Braddon a run for its money. Forming the perfect backdrop to many afternoon study sessions, we devoured Vietnam’s famous egg, condensed milk, and coconut coffees  in a plethora of gorgeous hideaways. A personal favourite of mine was the Manzi Gallery café, a small independent art space just two minutes from our hotel – where many coffees were consumed in the process of completing readings and writing oral presentations.

It’s not hard to fall in love with Hanoi. Without the summer course, I don’t think my appreciation for the city and Vietnam more broadly would be as deep. Being able to think critically whilst travelling and engaging with an unfamiliar city was key to this field trip experience, and one that will be hard-pressed to match.

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