My Kind of Town: Hanoi shows that alternative forms of city living are possible

You can travel quite far, and still find yourself somewhere familiar. Boulevards, gridded streets, mid-rise courtyard blocks – these features crop up all over the world: east and west, north and south. For a town from a distinctly different evolutionary line, a town with real difference and that questions assumptions about the way that cities can be, I look to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Current conversations in British urban planning grapple with how to densify our cities, how to accommodate a mix of uses in the face of overwhelming demand for housing, and how cities will evolve in response to our ageing population. Hanoi provides an interesting counterpoint to the western status quo in each case.

The grain of the city is highly variegated, with strangely sandwiched towers standing like adjacent slices of toast cut from different loaves”

There are conflicting theories about the origin of Hanoi’s famous ‘tube houses’, the multi-generational, multi-use, tightly packed format that typifies the centre of the city. One such theory is that feudal property taxes in the city were based on a property’s width, so logic dictates that homeowners built very narrowly – a typical property could be three metres wide and up to 60 metres deep.

As construction methods developed, it became possible to build taller and taller properties. The resulting grain of the city is highly variegated, with each plot developed separately, leaving strangely sandwiched towers standing like adjacent slices of toast cut from different loaves. Within these ‘houses’, a host of different activities can take place – commercial uses on the ground floor facing the street, productive activity towards the rear and space for multiple generations of several families above.

This melée of uses continues beyond the individual building, at a city scale. The legacy of inward migration from villages specialising in individual crafts and clustered in their new urban location created the old quarter’s ‘36 streets’, each with its own niche. From traditional wares (jewellery, bamboo, silk) to the contemporary (clothing, kitchenware, lighting), both production and sale are supported, often with making and mending visible from the street. Add to this the prominent role that food and eating play in Hanoi’s streets and you have the ingredients for the most vibrant and vivacious city I’ve ever visited.

Hanoi is a city for all ages, in both the domestic sphere and the public realm”

The hustle and bustle of these streets is hard to exaggerate: noisy, aromatic, crowded and yet friendly and good-humoured. At the point when I visited, the preferred mode of transport had become the moped, with an anticipation that small, urban cars would soon join them as a common choice. I can only hope that the cycling renaissance arrives soon, for the sake of the city’s air quality and health.

Hanoi is a city for all ages, in both the domestic sphere and the public realm. In joining a day-break Tai Chi session by Hoan Kiem Lake, our group was welcomed by septuagenarians and older. In the UK we talk about the need for the 24-hour economy to be about more than just bars and clubs, appealing to a wider demographic of people. This culture of early-morning fresh air and exercise would be something to genuinely aspire to.

It can be too easy to romanticise other cultures, or to simplify them to merely their aesthetic tropes. I hope that my appreciation of Hanoi doesn’t do that. While it is by no means perfect, in Hanoi I see how cities could be different. It is a reminder that the familiar must be questioned, and that other ways are possible.