To say that Jean-Noel Poirier is smitten by Hanoi would be an understatement.
To call it puppy love would be hugely inaccurate.
The Frenchman first came to the city in 1989 for some diplomatic work, and the place left a deep impression on him.
When he returned to the capital city as France’s ambassador to Vietnam in 2012, he was not just pleased, he soon found “everyday of living and working here is a joyful day.”
“Amazingly, I realised that my desire to live here was growing day after day.”
Throughout his tenure as ambassador, Poirier’s adoration of the city saw him walk to nooks and corners that most visitors do not get to see. These walks only increased his feelings for Hanoi, a place he has since come to regard as his second home.
During his tenure as the ambassador, Poirier gave vent to his fascination by making a documentary with the help of his brother, a film director.
Mon Hanoi (My Hanoi) premiered on October 4 in the Vietnamese capital.
In one scene, Poirier, who is also the movie’s narrator, says in fluent Vietnamese that during his four-year stint as envoy, he has put his footprint on almost all Hanoi streets.
Explaining his motivation for making the movie, he said, “I wanted to try and catch the soul of the city. I wanted to make a movie about my own discovery of the people and the land of Hanoi, which has become a part of my soul,” he said tenderly.
For over a year, his elder brother Henri-Louis Poirier joined him in Hanoi to shoot the movie.
To capture the diverse tempo of life in Hanoi, the two brothers would leave the French Embassy, where the ambassador resides, at all times – at dawn, at noon on burning hot summer days, and at chill winter nights.
Their willingness to brave all weather conditions has resulted in amazingly beautiful and vivid scenes, whether it is citizens exercising early in the morning, a bustling street market, or chaotic traffic.
Poirier said the film was an invitation for the audience to join him on a journey to discover the capital city, to even places that most Hanoians, not to mention foreigners, have not set foot on.
One of the hidden corners that the audience reaches, following Poirier’s footsteps, is the humble Van Chuong working class living quarter that he found by accident.
Here, in this living quarter, he has found out a meaningful discovery about Hanoi.
Located not far from Hanoi’s Hang Co Railway Station, and therefore the French embassy, Poirier found the area is an ideal place for him to escape from his office’s bustle.
“The area has its own lifestyle and a unique atmosphere that is hard to find anywhere else in the city,” he said.
Weather beaten by decades of rain and sunlight, the residential blocks form a “city within a city” with several shops, groceries, markets and schools.
Poirier’s journey of discovery also took him to the Linh Nam area in the south of the city, which, 20 years ago, was an agricultural area. Today, it is the new Hoang Mai District with innumerable newly built buildings.
However, there are still some green areas left in the region which Poirier compared to “a slice of paradise right in the city.” Infatuated by this rare green and quiet area, Poirier said he “fervently hopes” that it would never be lost to urbanization and instead, would turn into a green park for Hanoians to walk and relax.
Poirier said his connection with Vietnam went back a long way, with his childhood enriched with stories about the country, particularly Haiphong and Saigon, narrated by his grandfather, who used to work for a marine high commissioner, travelling frequently between France and Asian countries.
“So when I came back to Hanoi in July 2012, I already had the feeling of returning home,” he says in the movie.
The former French envoy makes several comparisons of Hanoi with other places, some understandable and others surprising. He says some parts of Hanoi remind him of his birthplace, the Bretagne port region, which given the capital city’s colonial-era buildings, is not difficult to see.
However, he concedes that a person’s imagination has to be stretched to visualize his likening of the network of narrow and small alleys in the Van Chuong living quarters to Venice in Italy. He says, as in Venice, all the narrow alleys finally lead to a spacious area.
The comparison both impressed and surprised some members of the audience. Nguyen Thanh Thuy said she was very surprised by the comparison.
“I would never have imagined that the humble and poor Van Chuong area can be compared with Venice. However, Poirier has a very sophisticated, sensitive vision,” she said.
“No one has ever highlighted the beauty of Hanoi in this fashion, with areas like Van Chuong. But Mon Hanoi pulls it off amazingly,” she added.
Another movie-goer, Nguyen Quang Vinh, said he admired Poirier. “He was a foreigner but he really has a Vietnamese soul thus he can observe Hanoi with such loving eyes.”
“Despite the busy schedule of a diplomat, he has discovered the city with zeal and thoroughness of a culturist.”
In Mon Hanoi, Poirier makes other interesting and poetic comparisons.
The former diplomat says he sees the old fading walls on the capital with its blurred advertisements as abstract paintings. The iconic overhead cables are, in his eyes, a beautiful piece of urban geometry.
He also finds similarities in ambience between some of Hanoi’s eateries that serve lunch for office workers, and some Parisian bistros.
The former ambassador wants to offer Mon Hanoi as “a gift to the residents of Hanoi and all Vietnamese people.”