Exhibit Sixteen. A large black umbrella tilts to touch an asphalt ground. From under its shadow, a human back sticks out against a nondescript wall. A nearby tree holds between its limbs a small altar.

Exhibit Twenty One. Plastic stools and thermos bottles squeeze behind a large tarpaulin that wraps around a big tree trunk, the purpose of which is hard to guess.

These random sites are quáns-nước-chè, usually translated as “tea shops”. Against a wall, behind a tree, or in the middle of a clearing, like wild mushrooms, they pop up, borrowing life from other constructions, and meanwhile, giving respite to whoever stops by and occupies one of their low stools.

They are, in essence, an appropriation of public space. (In fact, there have been several attempts by the authority to weed out the likes of them). But where is the border that separates public and private spaces? When is it transgressed? With an act of violation, a shift in perception, a law changed? In this city, where private life bleeds onto sidewalks, these quáns-nước, to the people, are no transgression, but natural and essential to their city’s soul and spirit.

The Vietnamese claim that the history of quán-nước-chè traces back to the oldest days when agriculture was the main trade. A quán-nước then would be under a tree between rice paddies with furniture made of bamboo or wood. Tea breaks were had. People socialized and passed on the news.

Time has changed. City streets swell with more cars. Buildings rise with more floors. Air-conditioned tea and coffeehouses sprout. Yet, no gentrification has managed to wipe the quán-nước out. They continue to wedge themselves between buildings and malls, and on the backs of new high streets. Plastic has taken over bamboo or wood, sure. But the quáns-nước stay the meeting points. Coming to them remains social.

A cup of tea is still a cheap popular refreshment, passed on to a construction worker’s rough hands with the same hospitality with which it gets transferred to a clerk’s smooth palm, or a high-schooler’s untested fingers, all in one same quán. Strangers made friends. Comrades by the thousand. All equal on low plastic stools, exchanging banters while waiting for tea or puffing on the same pipe.

Exhibit Twelve. Plastic stools in red and blue spread out on uneven asphalt ground. A lake and a temple lurk in the back. Some glasses of dark yellow tea gleam in the sunlight.

Exhibit Four. A blue shelf stands at the center, stacked with soft drink bottles and jars of snacks. Stools, buckets, and iceboxes, in different shapes and colors, gather around as if to make up a piece of installation art.

From one tea shop in a picture to another in the next, the arrangements differ. The “materials” are mostly similar. Yet, each site is a stamp of its owner’s aesthetics. The appropriation of a public property starts with the act of putting down some stools and stuff, and ends with an ooze of personal style.

Exhibit Nine, Five, Eight … A man smokes his pipe. A tea lady dreams away, folding her hands on her lap. A man sits on a foot-sized cement block. All are close to the photographer. All appear nonchalant, unbothered by the camera’s intrusive look. Nothing is the matter. 

This is Hanoi.

As it’s always been.

Mai Huyền Chi

©Joseph Gobin all rights reserved