Hanoi is so hot right now. And we’re not talking about the warm embrace of the mid-twenty degrees Celsius in December. The Vietnamese capital is taking a three-wheel bicycle stroll up to the top of every travel bucket list, becoming one of the most popular destinations in the region. It’s where the late Anthony Bourdain slurped noodles and beer with former US President Obama. It’s where architecture translates to a blend of Southeast Asian, French, and Chinese influences. And it’s where silk, handicrafts, and pagodas sit picturesque by the famous Red River. Hanoi is buzzing. And if there’s one travel photographer who is capturing the city from an angle you’ve never seen before, it is she: Loes Heerink.
Gracing the noted cover of Condé Nast Traveler in the autumn of 2018, Dutch photographer Loes Heerink caught eyes and smiles with the release of her book Merchants in Motion earlier in the same year. A collection of images from her photo series of the same name, the visual storyteller was inspired by the infamous street vendors, perching herself on bridges to capture them from an unusual perspective – that is, from directly above.
The thousands of street vendors that mingle amongst Hanoi’s honking traffic and along the city roads have long been a highly snapped charm for visitors to the town. In a delicate cross between an urban Tetris and ballet of sorts, they balance everything from fresh Canh oranges to vibrant peach blossoms and lilies. However, on a cluttered city morning (they say Hanoi is the New York of rush hours) it is often a challenge for any artist to grip and grasp the fleeting specks of colour as they appear and disappear amongst the crowds. Only from above is where one can get a true bird’s eye view of the market goods in all their glory, and as luck would have it, during a spontaneous vacation in Vietnam, Loes Heerink was that peeking bird.
Against the backdrop of her beautiful images, we managed to chat to the passionate photographer to get a look behind the lens for an exclusive snapshot into her favourite Hanoi haunts. Consider it a travel guide from a unique perspective, from the woman who dared to climb, time, and catch Hanoi’s radiant charm in the blink of a shutter speed.
Merchants in Motion & The Netherlands
It’s no coincidence that the Netherlands native was inspired by the cycling street vendors in Vietnam. The European country is known far and wide as a cycling nation, and Loes herself rides a part of that wave. “From the moment I set foot in Hanoi I was intrigued by the vendors. I am from the Netherlands. I go to work on my cycle. I do my groceries on my cycle. I do a lot on my cycle. But never was I able to carry that many goods on my cycle.” Fascinated by the sheer logistics and vivid colours, the photographer got to work.
“It took me a while to take the shots from above. The pictures from a normal angle just didn’t do the vendors any justice. Too many distractions in the background. So I chose to go up to eliminate the distractions.” From up on bridges and skywalks, she captured everything from fruit to flower vendors (“I love the smell of roses. If I were a merchant in motion, I would probably sell flowers”), yet observed from behind the lens a shadow of reality. “Being from The Netherlands can come with some privileges. I travel and work 40 hours a week and do what I want during the rest of the time. The vendors I captured have to work seven days a week and sometimes from four in the morning to eleven in the evening. These women are strong women who enjoy their work, or say it feels like freelancing. I am not sure if I would be as strong in their position.”
And yet it is this difference between Loes’ home in Europe and the Southeast Asian metropole that caused the photographer to stumble upon and fall in love with Vietnam. Visiting the country on vacation, it quickly turned into a soft spot in her mind. “My friends, the people, the smell, the laidback-ness, the food, the drinks, the markets, my landlord and landlady, driving on the bike, the language – it now feels like a second home to me.”
Great food & drink in Hanoi
Talking (or perhaps ‘swooning’ is more apt) about this second home, Loes reveals her favourite bites and sips in the city. “Bun bon am bo! Bun cha! Nem qua be! Bo bia! Banh mi! The question is not ‘what is a must-eat dish?’, the question is ‘what is not?!’”
Yet whilst the exclamation marks and the excitement are plenty, the photographer also loves to kick back in Hanoi in true photographer fashion. “I really like the small places where you can just sit and let everything sink in. Banh Mi 25 is one of my favourite places. When I first went there it was a lot smaller than it is now. Now there are lines and multiple franchises! The food is very good.” For drinks, Loes stays booze-free. “There are some juice bars in the city centre. I really like juices with carrot and some ginger.”
Great naps and shopping in Hanoi
Head a little outside of the city centre, and you’ll find some of Loes’ favourite markets. “Go to the fabric market to buy fabrics and then get stuff done by a tailor! I love doing that! Or shop at Collective Memory. They have really nice stuff, and really friendly owners.”
On reminiscing about a spot to unwind and be inspired by, Loes recommends heading to West Lake. “Sometimes I buy a sandwich somewhere close to the lake and climb over the railing to eat my sandwich, and just sit there quietly to enjoy the view. It’s also the best spot to read a book.” Whilst serene, it is not the most ideal spot for a nap. Hanoi is a very noisy city, “but stay long enough and you get used to it!”
In one word
Rounding up our chat with a reminiscent smile, we asked Loes to give us a snapshot key word or phrase to sum up Hanoi. Her answer? “Crazy.”
This article first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Bangkok on 8 December 2018.