Capturing Hanoi

Christopher Goscha

“A typical Hanoi street at a time when most people went on foot, a bicycle was precious, a motorbike was a luxury …”. Photo: John Ramsden

Hanoi After the War
John Ramsden
Skira: 2017
Globalisation transforms the cities first. That’s the way the system is wired, and communist countries are no exception. Socialist leaders in China in the late 1970s and Vietnam a decade later learned this when they embraced the free market to save their regimes. Foreign investment soon poured in, new factories opened their doors, buildings went up, and wider roads appeared to handle the traffic of a spiralling urban population. In Beijing and Hanoi, people have gone in no time from riding bikes to driving cars. The rapidity of the urban transformation is mind-boggling: try riding a bike through downtown Hanoi today.

The city is also where the “traditional” and “authentic” first came under siege from the “modern” and “foreign”. Old quarters have disappeared as land is cleared for development. New fashions, tastes in music and forms of communication enter the city from the wider grid. Asian communists have so far avoided the revolutionary political change globalisation unleashed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but the urban landscape they inhabit is very different from that of the 1980s.

Enter John Ramsden. This British diplomat landed in Hanoi in 1980 and stayed for over two years. He lived in Hanoi after the war ended but before the capitalist wave hit. An amateur photographer of great talent, he took pictures of daily life in and around Hanoi when he wasn’t in his embassy office. It was a unique time to be walking around town. On the one hand, Vietnam had recently emerged from two long wars, one against the French, the other against the United States, only to find itself at war again, this time against fellow Communist countries China and Cambodia. On the other hand, as Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world and steered it down the road of market-driven modernisation, the Vietnamese faced isolation from the West, China and a capitalist-minded Asia. And despite warning signs of its failure, the country’s leadership stuck to the only recipe it knew for attaining modernisation — communism.

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