Back in 1972, Hanoi’s old streets in the famous works of the late Bui Xuan Phai were the red ceramic roof tiles, the closed wooden doors and the peaceful temples.
Like a brush in the hand of a drunk, aggressive painter, urbanization has swept through the capital, casting a grey tone over the whole city now typified by plastic billboards, tiny balconies and cold metal doors. The silence and tranquility in Phai's paintings have been broken by the honks of cars and motorbikes.
It may not be long before the capital’s streets are filled with glass and steel, and more vehicles.
"Hanoi Old Streets" by Bui Xuan Phai
Describing themselves as Hanoi lovers and Phai admirers, a group of architects and painters are spending nights and weekends to build their own museum of the capital.
They identify as Urban Sketchers Hanoi, but in a way they are the memory keepers of a city in transformation.
“We go out to sketch almost every night after 9 p.m., and every Sunday, when children, student and retiree sketchers could join us,” said Tran Thi Thanh Thuy, a 42-year-old architect who also acts as the spokesperson for the group.
Last September, Thuy, her husband Nguyen Hoang Lam and two other fellow architects created Urban Sketchers Hanoi, a part of the international movement to capture the beauty of current urban areas around the world, before consumerist culture and development erase history and its mementos.
The group, now with around 1,000 members and supporters, has chosen to spend hours sketching Hanoi's old corners with their fountain pen, marker and watercolor as a way to imprint images of the city into their minds.
Tran Thi Thanh Thuy instructs a group of junior sketchers in front of St. Joseph's Cathedral. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang
Two architect students sketching in front of the cathedral. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang
Ron Richarson, 70, Australian painter, a member of Urban Sketchers Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang
To the artists, the old Hanoi in Phai’s paintings is now gone, but at least they can still appreciate the chaotic yet lively corners of a city in the transition of old and new values.
“We try to depict street corners that are ordinary, if not mediocre in real life, for example, those with electric wires and rickety stalls. We pick the best details for the sketch and the beauty is presented vividly," said architect Nguyen Hoang Lam.
“Although sometimes I wish I could see how the old buildings would look without all the billboards, I feel lucky that Hanoi still has an ancient quarter that lives,” Thuy added.
But the ancient buildings and houses scattered all around the Old Quarter that the group loves could also be gone soon, due to a lack of preservation.
“There is no official recognition, and that means little preservation for privately-owned buildings in Hanoi,” said Dao Ngo, a 44-year-old landscape architect.
“Vietnam still needs a lot of help from foreign professional urban planners with expertise to preserve these unacknowledged heritages,” she said.
“Hanoi Cinematheque” by Nguyen Hoang Lam.
Hanoi has over 500 privately-owned colonial buildings, villas and houses out of over 1,500 in total, according to a report released in 2015 by the construction department.
Last December, the city closed a pre-1954 building in Hoan Kiem District, once the headquarter of the Ministry of Culture. There was a petition to stop that move but nearly a thousand signatures and an impassioned letter to the city’s chairman did not help. Soon, the colonial building, home of the beloved arthouse Hanoi Cinematheque, will be replaced by a busy shopping mall.
Old villas in Vietnam are categorized and protected under the law, yet both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have witnessed the deconstruction of buildings like Hanoi Cinematheque and Saigon Tax Trade Center for more shiny and futuristic malls and skyscrapers.
Thuy, calling her group as artists and not activists, says she has little optimism for the old villas and buildings of Hanoi.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in early summer, surrounded by a group of elementary students lost in their own sketches of St. Joseph's Cathedral, the architect did not hide the helplessness in her smile.
“Our job is just to keep good memories of the city and then, teach the younger generations to embrace the city's heritage.”
“I love to depict beautiful street corners that normally not many people could notice. It could look rather mediocre in real life with lots of electric wires and billboards. In the sketch, I eliminate the clutter and try to keep its old and authentic beauty.”Nguyen Hoang Lam, 42, architect.
“Thuoc Bac Street” in black marker
"I love the yellow light of late night streets in Hanoi Old Quarter. It was 11 p.m. and there were no honking, no sight of motorbikes or bicycles. You could hear the sticky rice seller: ‘Who wants sticky rice, khuc cake?’ I think it's simply beautiful."Tran Thi Thanh Thuy, 42, architect.
“Ngo Gach- Hang Duong” in watercolor
“My priority is to choose a beautiful corner and use watercolor to give the street a soul."Binh Chu, 40, architect.
“St.Joseph Cathedral” in watercolor and fountain pen.
“I’m from the Philippines and I’m just here for three weeks. I love this Roman Catholic architecture of St. Joseph's Cathedral.”Mark de la Cruz, 36, architect.
“Bat Dan – Hang Dieu” by watercolor
“My hobby is to wander around and sketch the buildings worn out by time. It’s like meditation to me.”Doan Tien, 24, architect.
"Yen The Alley" by watercolor
“I care about the atmosphere. I pay attention to architectural details when using a fountain pen, but with watercolor, it helps to feel and recreate the surroundings.”Le Ngoc Quang, 21, freelance designer.
“Hang Quat street during Lunar New Year” in watercolor
Nguyen Tan, 8, elementary school student.
Photo courtesy of Urban Sketchers Hanoi