Getting lost and loving it in Cau Giay
If you walk into any bookshop in the USA, Europe, or elsewhere in Asia, you can find vivid depictions of Halong Bay, Sapa, and the Mekong Delta in a range of mainstream travel guides. Even the grittier ‘uncovered’ travel books on sale outside Vietnam give ‘insider’ tips and advice on how to avoid the crowds of foreigner pulsating through the city in the high season.
The problem is that all these aim to ‘guide’ the reader into the ‘real’ Hanoi. But where better to get lost other than Cau Giay district on a misty evening just before the traditional Lunar New Year (Tet) festival?
Sandwiched between the perpetual hum of central Hanoi and the flatlands that surround the southwestern part of the city, Cau Giay exhibits a shell of newness and shining commercial bustle that disguises traditional suburban life.
The winding alleys and lanes that thread between the main arterial roads in Cau Giay that is fast disappearing in more polished areas of the city. The juxtaposition of young, wealthy and dapper Hanoian kids with traditional vendors, hairdressers and shopkeepers is nowhere more apparent than this district that exemplifies a new ambitious Vietnam.
Fashions are ferociously well-priced for foreigners and locals alike. Denims, leather goods, technology and homewares are all on offer along the main roads to downtown Hanoi.
As you move further away from Hoan Kiem district, the prices get better and better. The people of Cau Giay district seem to embrace the wandering visitor in a way that invites you to stay. The young chaps running Karaoke joints on the main strip have the charm of royal princes and the family run coffee shops are full of families layered in clothing from the various Made-in-Vietnam shops in the region.
For me it is real Vietnam city life. A place where businesses are visibly growing and updating the premises, where fortunes are growing rapidly and families spend time together socializing and enjoying the bounty of this district. It is easy to idealize the district as a genuine corner of an incredible city that represents an authentic Vietnam.
There is a global economic anxiety that is sweeping whole nations into uncertainty. Across the western world, centuries-old retailers in fashion, technology and groceries are struggling to compete in an increasingly competitive global market. Shops and malls in the UK and USA are closing, and realtors cannot lease properties because the retail sector has stagnated.
Cau Giay district represents a way of operating that can combat this anxiety. Local shopkeepers are taking risks building businesses that service a more affluent home-grown clientele. The resourcefulness of market stall operators, small business and grocery vendors is remarkable in the district. They use every bit of space they can, offer the best value possible, keep margins low and turnover high, but most importantly they embody a work ethic that is now rarely seen in the west.
After a week wandering around this little-publicized district, it is clear that Cau Giay is firing on all cylinders. So take a risk, hail a taxi and get lost in Cau Giay for a few hours, and it will not disappoint your expectations.
By Hugo Driver