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Photography Project Shows Hanoi Through the Eyes of Migrant Workers

Some came from the mountains, some were born near the sea — all have come to Hanoi to make a living. They are the migrant workers of this city, yet to them Hanoi is more than just a place to work. Through the project Photovoice, here are some stories of how migrant workers have made the capital their home.

Photovoice was initiated by the group Vì Một Hà Nội Đáng Sống (Livable Hanoi) back in January 2021. The project invited migrant workers to express their personal connections with the city through photography. With this project, Livable Hanoi hoped to promote dialogue, understanding, and the collective effort to make Hanoi a livable place for all.

Thirty four people joined the project, they came from all over the country, engaging in a variety of jobs, from driving for Grab to doing nails on the street. They were taught basic photography skills to start taking pictures of their daily lives. Each photo came with a story of its subject, and Livable Hanoi has kindly allowed Saigoneer to share some photos below and translate their story into English.

Cứ Thị Mai / Sơn La, hotel worker

“If in the future I don’t live in Hanoi any more then my memory of this city will be bicycles carrying flowers like this. This is different from my hometown in Phiêng Cành Village (Mộc Châu, Sơn La) because we Mông people do not have the habit of arranging flowers on the altar to worship. In Hanoi, I rarely buy flowers, even though I love them very much, because I live in a rather small room with no windows. Sometimes I feel sad because the economic conditions are not what I expected, but still compared to the first days I came here, I love Hanoi more and more... Thank you to the florists who woke up early in the morning while the city was still sleeping to collect flowers then cycle around the streets to let me see them every morning. After taking this picture, I bought five flowers. This is also my first time buying flowers in Hanoi.”

Đỗ Thị Hồng / Vĩnh Phúc, bottles collector

“For the past 30 years, Nhung has been washing and drying nylon bags. From Hưng Yên, she went to Hanoi to earn a living by loading and unloading scraps. The work is hard and dirty. She has to deal with old and dirty nylons, wash, rub, dry and fold them neatly so that the discarded plastic pieces can be recycled. Not only with plastic, she also has to collect and clean many other types of scrap from all over the city. Perhaps, to her it is simply a job to raise her children. But to me, the work that Nhung does quietly every day is the most practical action to beautify Hanoi.”

“She was born in 1948, the same age as my father. But our circumstances are similar, so we treat each other like sisters, sharing happiness and sadness alike. She lives on a raft by the river, so if I want to visit her, I have to call her to row a boat to pick me up. The road to the wharf is also hard to walk because of the steep slope with all kinds of garbage, from bags and bottles to even pieces of glass. At night, it is pitch black because there was no electricity. Her raft lay alone in the middle of the creek, floating on the foul-smelling sewage. The reason she sticks with this place is because she has lived here since 9 years old. She is familiar with everything here, the space, the people. Here, she can row a boat to pick up plastic bottles for a living. She and her husband, I think, stay together and have a dog as a friend. She gave birth once, but unfortunately her kid passed away early. Like her, I also have no children, no home, so we understand each other very well. Also we have similar jobs because I also collect bottles on the streets, often until 1 or 2am at night. Although life is hard, I never get depressed or think of leaving Hanoi because if I give up on life, life will give up on me.”

Đỗ Thị Út / Hưng Yên, street manicurist

"She is over 90 years old, but every day, she still sells bánh giò and some fruit on the sidewalk on Hàng Trống Street. She has been here on this sidewalk for many years, her family lives here, too. Without this sidewalk, I don't know where she would go because the profit of a few bánh giò can't cover a shop in Hanoi. Moreover, her family lives close by in a narrow room on Bảo Khánh Street (adjacent to Sword Lake). The room is only 10 square meters, but she, her husband, and her elderly son all live here... I also met her on the sidewalk. I have been doing nails in the street of the Old Quarters for more than 10. At noon, I usually can only eat something quick because customers take advantage of their lunch break to get manicures. Bánh giò is the optimal choice. As time passed by, I gradually became her regular, I want to support her, too. We talk often. I care and love her because at an age where she should be retiring, she still works hard from morning until evening. I also respect her because she's still very sharp for her age. I feel that there is almost no distance between me and her, even though she is from Hanoi and I am from the countryside."

Kiều Khánh Duy / Hà Nội, bartender

“36 streets of Hanoi, each street has its own characteristics associated with a profession such as Lò Rèn, Hàng Mã, Hàng Trống, Hàng Tre... The city is growing day by day with high-rise buildings. The image of carpenters, bamboo trees and bamboo products in the heart of the city is extremely valuable in terms of history. A developed Hanoi should still retain typical craft villages and streets like this.”

Lưu Thanh Đông / Vĩnh Phúc, student

“He repairs electronics and appliances right at the beginning of my alley. I often see him hard at work every time I go to have lunch nearby. Because I'm too lazy to cook, I often go to eat at a familiar spot near his house. Every time I pass by, we greet each other with a smile and then continue with our thing. He is from Hanoi and has been with this profession for decades. I once asked: ‘Is it a difficult job?’ Then he kindly replied: ‘It's hard work, but it's a living.’ Although we rarely talk, I have not even asked him his name, but he seems very friendly and close.”

Phạm Thị Hậu / Hải Dương, street peddler

"Children playing and migrant women boiling cassava at Phúc Tấn Ward, Hoàn Kiếm District. This place used to be a wasteland, a lot of garbage, cats and dogs roam freely, so the locals were afraid to come here and they looked at the women who boiled cassava with disdain. Things have changed a lot since this space was renovated by the group Livable Hanoi."

"The playground has brought people together, local people also have a different view of us, no longer discriminating against "street vendors" as before, but more respectful and sociable. Everyone cleans together every week. In the past, female migrants like us did not come here because it was dark and there were many mosquitoes. Now, we like to come here to have meetings because there is electricity, and the playground is clean. Many women have meeting and exercises at the same time."

Phạm Thị Luyến / Thái Bình, domestic worker

“Every morning, from 6am, regardless of rain or shine, the elders meet at Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Starting with only a few, now the club has more than 70 people, the oldest person is 78, and the youngest is nearly 50 years old. Many people live far away so they take the bus to come here. They start with some warm-up, stretching and then dancing together. Their favorite part is lining up to give each other shoulder rubs. After that, they sit on the stone bench to rest, chat, share the joys and sorrows in life, and encourage each other to overcome difficulties. Gathering at the spacious side of Hoàn Kiếm has helped everyone to be more active. I have also joined the club for two years now. If I don't come here, I can only exercise on the banks of the Red River, on a small road that is only wide enough for a few joggers, not a crowd like this. Hanoi needs a lot of open space so that everyone from young to old has a place to exercise to improve health.”

Huỳnh Trần Duy / Đồng Tháp, Grab driver

"I have a bit of a sad story when it comes to grilled skewers."

"Tell me, maybe you will cheer up."

"One day I took my girlfriend to eat skewers, then we broke up. My girlfriend said only the poor eat skewers."

"Oh my, when I was a student, I used to eat skewers all the time. That's probably why I didn't have a girlfriend. [he laugh]"

"I do not know either. But it's a passion. Maybe Hanoi in my mind is a familiar memory of simple but enchanting street food."

Phan Thị Bích / Vĩnh Phúc, helper

“The children in my alley are very conscious of cleanliness. When asked to take out the trash, they take it out and put it in the bin. They do this carefully, not letting the garbage fall on the street. But compared to the children, I see many adults still throwing trash indiscriminately. It's okay if you drop a piece of paper then pick it up yourself, but if somebody else needs to pick up that paper, it will be gross. Therefore, I think that each person needs to learn to clean up their own garbage first.”

Đoàn Văn Hà / Nam Định, office worker

“Driving through the SmartCity (Thăng Long Boulevard), I met a lady about 50 years old riding on an old motorbike, pulling a two-wheeler loaded with construction equipment. In the shimmering modern urban area, her image makes a strong impression on me personally because in the middle of such a developed city, there are still elderly people like her who work as workers at construction sites. Her image contrasts with the scene around: the busy traffic, luxury cars of the rich in society.”

Trần Văn Hải / Vĩnh Phúc, student

"On the first day of Spring, by chance I saw some girls and boys wearing Mông ethnic costumes walking around Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Being of Sán Dìu ethnicity, I was very excited to see people show our unique cultural features in the heart of Hanoi. I also hope that there will be more activities so that ethnic people like me can promote our culture to people all over the country."

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