Insights and Analysis

Morning in Hanoi

September 25, 2019

By Nicola Nixon

One of the oldest cities in Southeast Asia, Hanoi is fast becoming a leading economic center as well as an important supplier of textiles and technology. The city’s recent growth is a mixed blessing for residents. On the one hand, there is a flourishing business community, rising economic competitiveness and dynamic growth, and for many, the improved standard of living that comes with them. Yet the city’s livability is declining fast: with rapid urbanization comes a lack of green space, intensive energy consumption, and seasonal air pollution that ranks now as some of the worst in the world. Always a bit overshadowed by its groovier southern sister, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi’s more understated charm lies in the fusion of its historical depth and its contemporary sensibilities.

So, what is daily life like in Hanoi?

The Asia Foundation’s Nicola Nixon lives and works and Hanoi, and she takes us with her on a September morning stroll.

Photo: Nicola Nixon / The Asia Foundation

There are more motorbikes than bicycles these days in Hanoi. With the Air Quality Index frequently reading over 100 during the day, face masks are ubiquitous but rarely of any use as they are just made of simple cloth.

Photo: Nicola Nixon / The Asia Foundation

Colorful pillowcases in a souvenir shop. Here they peddle images of women reminiscent of the French colonial period, belying the complex sexual politics that underlay masculinized colonial power.

Photo: Nicola Nixon / The Asia Foundation

The streets of Hanoi’s old town provide a living for thousands of street vendors. Many are migrants from rural areas. Unable to make a living in agriculture, up to 1.2 million people migrate to Vietnam’s cities every year, according to official data, making up around one-fifth of the urban population.

Photo: Nicola Nixon / The Asia Foundation

Iconic image of the Vietnamese woman. Ubiquitous on artwork in the small shops in the alleys of Hanoi’s old quarter, she is faceless and hard at work, wearing a nón lá, or bamboo rice hat, and the áo dài, the traditional, fitted silk garment.

Photo: Nicola Nixon / The Asia Foundation

A young woman carries sweet potatoes with a bamboo shoulder pole. The income security of Hanoi’s street food vendors continues to hang in the balance as municipal authorities recognize, on the one hand, their popularity with residents and tourists and, on the other, the need to regulate standards of food hygiene among small businesses.

Photo: Nicola Nixon / The Asia Foundation

Wires, wires everywhere. According to the Vietnam Energy Association, the country achieved 99 percent electrification in 2019. With so much of it looking like this—such that the image itself has become iconic—the future challenge will be to manage and reduce consumption.

Photo: Nicola Nixon / The Asia Foundation

A painting of a rosy-cheeked child. Although more Vietnamese children are better off today than 20 years ago, many instances of child labor, trafficking, and child prostitution persist, as well as significant levels of child poverty.

Photo: Nicola Nixon / The Asia Foundation

Protecting the earth. Hanoi has a long way to go before it will be contributing to efforts to address climate change. Yet, while the city has recently become infamous for its contribution to global plastic pollution, public awareness is rising, and numerous initiatives are springing up.

Photo: Nicola Nixon / The Asia Foundation

Traffic barriers stand to attention awaiting deployment. In an effort to improve the livability of the city, and in line with the trend in ASEAN and beyond, traffic has been restricted since 2016 around HoanKiem Lake, in central Hanoi, on Saturdays and Sundays.

Photo: Nicola Nixon / The Asia Foundation

Posters for tourists. The Vietnam War, which continues to play such an important part in the national psyche elsewhere, has receded in the face of more recent progress and challenges, and is now largely relegated to the consumption of foreign tourists. A shop in the old town does a thriving business in retro prints of war-era Communist propaganda posters.

Nicola Nixon is The Asia Foundation’s director of governance programs. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.


About our blog, InAsia

InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

InAsia is posted and distributed every other Wednesday evening, Pacific Time. If you have any questions, please send an email to [email protected].


For questions about InAsia, or for our cross-post and re-use policy, please send an email to [email protected].

The Asia Foundation
465 California St., 9th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104

The Latest Across Asia

Spark creativity, joy, and a love of reading