HANOI — The first thing that struck me about this city was the noise. I arrived by a sleepy overnight train from China, where most of the scooters I’d seen were silent electric bikes. Here the noise was deafening, the small winding streets of the Old Quarter choked with gas motorbikes that honked as they swarmed past pedestrians, fruit sellers yelling about their wares, and stuck cars, also honking.
Local electroacoustic musician Lương Huệ Trinh offered me a reprieve from the honking with her site-specific audio tour, “Hanoi Soundwalk 2014.” Combining sounds from the old Hanoi and new imagined noises in her own experimental style, Trinh’s walk through the city center conjured up a Hanoi of ghosts as well as a quickly modernizing one.
The tour began at Lý Thái Tổ park. Wearing large pink headphones and looking at the Echoes app that guides the walk (more on that soon), I stopped to watch young men playing đá cầu, which is like badminton except the shuttlecock gets kicked instead of hit with rackets. Taken by their athleticism, I almost didn’t notice the echoes of playing children growing in my ears; the tour had begun.
Headphones are all too often a means of separating ourselves from our immediate surroundings. Yet for the 40 minutes I spent on Trinh’s tour, I felt in possession of a tool for invoking the local sounds that time had hidden. Trinh researched all the locations on the walk and dug up noises from their pasts, which she then reinterpreted. She told me that she hopes these sounds “can offer a link to the past where each participant is allowed to experience their own feelings.” Unlike directive slogans and propagandistic art, Trinh offers a historical but subjective and open account — a window onto the city that isn’t included on plaques or in guide books.
Among the sounds featured in the walk are the residue of a clanging tram that used to pass by Hoàn Kiếm Lake; snippets of old propaganda speeches, which Trinh planted near monuments; and the noises of formerly popular traditional instruments like the Xẩm, which I heard as tourists around me snapped photos and people hawked “I <3 Hanoi” shirts. The city is indeed changing fast. These older sounds are largely gone but, thanks to this new technology, now remain in my mind, as well as in the memories of many Hanoians.
The walk was commissioned by a local company called Echoes, a location-based sound-map app that works with the GPS in smartphones. The app showed me what tour I was on, where to go, and the locations of the different soundscapes Trinh had made. Usually these areas were simple rectangles, but Echoes had also allowed Trinh more freedom to play; parts of the walk included overlapping soundscapes that interacted playfully in circles and triangles. What I liked most about Echoes was that, as with any good gallery, it took a backseat to Trinh’s art, serving as a modest tool and platform that guided me through the tour but didn’t overpower it.
Echoes has commissioned several walks, both in Vietnam and abroad, as well as leading workshops in collaboration with Đom Đóm, a Hanoi hub for experimental music and art. Trinh, Echoes, and Đom Đóm are all part of a new music scene that’s steadily growing in Vietnam. When I asked Trinh how many experimental Vietnamese musicians there are, she laughed and answered, “Five. There are five. Well, maybe six.”