Hidden in plain sight, an island in the Red River attracts a diverse crowd of swimmers, nudists and migrants looking for a better life.
A photo story by Vietnam in Focus tour leader Mathieu Arnaudet.
A city garden
The Long Bien district of Hanoi is a key area in the capital of Vietnam as it connects two vibrant parts of the city: the old one, so-called the Old Quarter, and the new and fast developing residential area located in the east. These two areas are separated by the Red River but connected by bridges; one of them is the historic Long Bien Bridge, which was the first to cross the river at the beginning of the 20th century.
Bãi Giữa is located right under Long Bien Bridge, and can be accessed via some small pathways. This island is a huge garden with various types of vegetables and fruits, especially banana. That’s the reason why it is well known in the expat community as “Banana Island”.
The island has become a meeting point for people coming from different walks of life: joggers taking the island as one of the very few places to enjoy fresh air and freedom from traffic, swimmers and people practicing nudism, bodybuilders, farmers and marginalized people living in floating houses on the bank of the Red River.
Mostly coming from other provinces, these people living in shanty houses couldn’t, at the time they arrived in Hanoi, get the family book (ho khau) allowing them to register for a permanent address. Thus, they started building their houses in that area and created a community. The authorities manage them, but let them live in that place for now, and some NGOs help their children go to school.
The outsiders come here to jog, swim, bodybuild, practice yoga… and very interestingly, there is a community of nudist men who use this riverbank as their beach and exercise space. They have even created a nudist club.
Despite many construction projects to develop the Red River bank, none has been implemented yet and these different people can still enjoy the fresh air in the middle of Hanoi.
On the margins
This photo project is a collection of moments in the lives of the people living on or frequenting the island. Avoiding voyeurism, I want to show their daily lives as honestly as possible. Through the project, I also want to find out the reasons behind their choices. In a Vietnamese society where harmony is paramount, and originality still viewed with suspicion, these people expose themselves to criticism and the danger of being marginalized.
Mathieu Arnaudet’s travels took him to countries such as Mali and Chad, before he arrived in Hanoi two years ago. His photographic projects have included journalism and NGO work, and he recently held an exhibition of his work on the local ethnic minority community in Nghia Lo, northwest Vietnam. Mathieu focuses on documentary-style photography and photojournalism, and he regularly leads tours for Vietnam in Focus.