A Folktale from Vietnam – Stories from behind the images

To celebrate the launch of our book A folk tale from Vietnam, photographer Gianpaolo Arena shares some stories behind 3 images.

Two years after my first trip to Hanoi, I returned to discover an entire new district had suddenly appeared on its outer fringes. Over the past twenty years, Vietnam has undergone one of the most vigorous transitions to urbanity in Southeast Asia. This has been linked to an extraordinary and constant economic growth that forecasts suggest is only going to strengthen in the coming decades.

These changes have forever altered the faces of its biggest cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, their peripheries and the liminal spaces beyond urban areas. It has led to a physical expansion of the existing cities and the creation of new urban settlements in the densely populated rural areas. This picture speaks to this inexorable change.

Once, while wandering around the old city in Hanoi, I found a dirty newspaper on the ground. This picture represents my idea of Vietnam as something that is somewhat lost in the transition between past and future, old and new, archaic and contemporary. At the same time, when we say Vietnam we think of it being exotic or as a blank page yet to be written on. Vietnam is the epitome of elsewhere. A door onto a distant and indefinable elsewhere.

I fell in love with this picture the moment I took it. I really like to get lost in the details, the geometry of these neon lights, and the shadows on the surfaces. This picture represents a sort of organized chaos and at the same time is full of silent sound. In my imagination it is like a broken utopia, the end of an era in an uncertain scenario, chronicles of the post-bomb in a suspended land.

I quote an extract from the text published in the book and curated by the architect and researcher Francesco Bergamo: “So listening to this book signifies, at one and the same time, taking in its silence and turning on a radio on which each image tunes in to one of a multitude of frequencies, carrying the voices, music and sounds of the landscape and life of Vietnam. Some of these presences, multiplied and dispersed, define the unmistakable aural identity of the main Vietnamese cities”.

More information about the book here.