Every time he rides through Hanoi streets, Jean Noel Poirier, former French Ambassador to Vietnam, feels like watching a movie. Hanoi is charming in the eye of the former diplomat with street food shops, old buildings and small alleys with smiling vendors.
The street life in Hanoi has never been boring to the self-called “anew Hanoian” who has spent three decades living in the city.
To Poirier, Hanoi has a special attraction from its mixture of the old and the new, and the noisy and the quiet, which make the city peaceful with ancient and modern features. Improvisation, opening, friendliness as well as creativity and dynamism can be found in every corner, forming the unique and lovely characteristics for Hanoi.
“The soul of the city is not made by architects or urban planners but from the local residents,” stated the former ambassador.
Attraction of an oriental city
What is the circumstance that brought you to Vietnam?
Jean Noel Poirier: I first came to Vietnam in 1989. However, my relationship with the city started far earlier. When I was a boy, I looked at images of the country through pictures on the wall in the house of my grandparents who told me many stories of the nation and people of Vietnam. Naturally, the images stayed in my mind.
I started to study Vietnamese language when I was 20, and continued to major in the eastern culture. Therefore, I had a lot of chances to explore Vietnam. My feelings naturally transformed from understanding to love.
What is your felling of the nation, culture and people of Vietnam?
Jean Noel Poirier: To me, Vietnam is not only a beautiful country but also an ideal destination with interesting “secrets” to explore and experience.
One of the things that impressed me is the long-lasting culture of Vietnam. The values have still been present in the daily life of local residents and enriched with every day passing by.
Through decades and changes, the quintessence and identity of the nation have stayed intact, shown in the habit of family union in Tet or pagoda visiting on certain days of the year. This has formed a strong connection in the community and each Vietnamese family.
The Vietnamese cultural identity has attracted me and prompted me to further explore. I respect the way Vietnamese people preserve and promote traditional heritage and values.
After your departures and returns, what do you feel about changes of Vietnam and Hanoi in particular since 1989 when you first came to the country?
Jean Noel Poirier: I found impressive changes. Urbanization and modernization have taken place very fast, and can be found in very few countries.
Thirty years ago, food was a great problem for Vietnam, but now the country has been one of the world top rice exporters.
In Hanoi, many new skyscrapers have been built to replace old apartment buildings. I found that people in Hanoi are much happier.
But despite all the changes, the “soul” of Hanoi stays the same.
What is the most interesting thing that you have found in Hanoi?
Jean Noel Poirier: I like the “mixture” of different shades and colours in the architecture, cuisine, art and lifestyle of Hanoi.
The daily life in the city is the most impressive to me. Watching the street life is also exciting. I’ve never felt bored with it as it changes and transforms continuously.
People make the “soul” of Hanoi
I like the pavement spaces with diverse life colours. Many activities of local residents take place on the pavements. They trade, chat, do exercise, drink coffee, have haircut, play with children or even nag each other on the pavements. Vietnamese people always form closely-linked community in their all activities, which is exciting.
To talk about a typical modern city, I will mention Singapore. But the island city could not keep me stay for long. But for Hanoi, it is different. The meeting of the old and the new, the peacefully quietness and the busy atmosphere of an eastern city arouses my curiosity, prompting me to explore and experience.
During your time in Hanoi, what is the deepest memory for you?
Jean Noel Poirier: I have a lot of memories of Hanoi, so it is difficult to tell what is the deepest.
Each day I find a new joy here. Every time I explore a new restaurant or a new alley, I feel excited to find what are waiting for me there and where the alleys will lead me to.
So, if you choose a Hanoi landscape to introduce to your friends, what will you name?
Jean Noel Poirier: Every time a person asks me what is the most attractive place in Hanoi, I will immediately think about walking alongThanhNienstreet – a romantic street lying between West Lake and Truc Bach Lake. There, we will feel the beauty of a scene of “lakes inside the city”, a typical feature of Hanoi.
To me, Thanh Nien street is a space to “preserve” peaceful and pleasant moments.
Alongside, it will not be difficult for visitors to meet lakes in different places in Hanoi. Together with their value in environment and landscape, they also serve as a space for locals to do exercise, sing, play or read the news, having some fun and looking around.
I think that it is crucial to maintain these spaces where many priceless values are maintained.
In your documentary film “My Hanoi” (Mon Hanoi), you said that Hanoi is a city that receives outside factors, keeps them and turns them to its own. It is like a jigsaw puzzle in which each resident addshis own part to the picture. Can you elaborate?
Jean Noel Poirier: The people here are the “soul” of Hanoi. I am particularly impressed at the way Hanoians live their life and adapt to different conditions. This is shown clearly in architecture.
The architecture of Hanoi has many typical features of different historical periods from the feudal regimes. The ancient architecture has been preserved to be present at the same time with modern buildings.
I am fascinated with the moss-covered old village gates inside the modern city as well as the way Hanoians turn their old villas and apartment buildings into new spaces without destroying them.
So, in the future, what is the way you expect Hanoi to move in?
Jean Noel Poirier: I hope that Hanoi will maintain the current growth speed. Along with the building of modern works and the opening of new community spaces, Hanoi can still maintain cultural, art and architecture heritage as well as the traditional lifestyle, thus local residents will not feel strange and lost in their own homeland or every time they return from a faraway place.
Thank you very much!