Hà Nội, the charming autumnal beast

October 22, 2020 - 10:31

It certainly is easy to love Ha Noi in the autumn but it's perhaps the beastly side of the city that makes it so charming at this time of year.

Peter Cowan

HÀ NỘI The music video for The Charming Beast, a recently released song by British rapper Ian Paynton, starts with Paynton emerging from the waters of Hà Nội's West Lake on an overcast, muggy day.

He exhales and eases into the first verse of an ode to Việt Nam's capital, a place he refers to as the charming beast, a beast all the city's residents are dancing with in their own way.

The video, shot by French directors Vincent Baumont and Charly Zach, features shots of a wet, overcast, smoggy and foggy day, including some of the city's most iconic sights.

The backdrop couldn't be a greater contrast with the beautiful autumn weather Hà Nội is experiencing right now as I write, where the sky is blue, the sun gently warms the body instead of leaving you in a pool of sweat and the colours all around are vividly beautiful.

"Lovin' you is easy 'cause you're beautiful," so sang Minnie Riperton and in autumn, it certainly is easy to love Hà Nội and there are plenty of love poems to autumn in the capital city, but as Paynton's video shows, it's perhaps the beastly side of Hà Nội that makes it so charming in the autumn.


The opening shot of West Lake in The Charming Beast music video. Screenshot of video by Vincent Baumont and Charly Zach

Beautiful chaos

The lyrics of the first verse deal with one aspect of the city's beastly nature in that, at least for those of us from quieter parts of the world, the constant noise, whirring motorbikes and non-stop nature of the city can leave you reeling.

“Seesaw imbalance, the city turns peace into havoc, stress levels mammoth," Payton raps, with a shot of a vegetable seller who gives a subtle nod on the last syllable a poignant reminder that there are many citizens of this great city living lives that "stressful" doesn't begin to describe.

Nevertheless, things are no less chaotic in the autumn of course, but the arrival of the year's best season almost feels like a reward for making it through the biting cold of winter, the wet and mouldy parts of spring and the oppressive heat of summer.

Of course, there's beauty to be found in Hà Nội's chaos, which Payton tackles on subsequent lines.

“On the street side tip dirty flip flops, elders rep Trịnh Công Sơn the kids hip-hop.

"Clusterbomb of culture, mish-mash of life, only order to the rice lunch lines and my punch line’s chaos.”

It's also in autumn that, for me at least, this chaos is at its most beautiful, as what could be more beautiful chaos than leaves changing colours? What could be a more charming contrast than a table of elders repping Trịnh Công Sơn sat next to a table of hip-hop loving teens at the same outdoor cafe because the weather's just too good to spend a minute indoors?


Yellow leaves of sấu trees on Trần Hưng Đạo Street at the onset of autumn. — VNS Photo Trương Vị

Can't help dancing

Dancing with Hà Nội is the focus of the hook and something the video and song revolve around, a dance all the city's residents perform to align themselves with the city's nuances.

"It's a place full of beauty, romance, chaos, quirks and contradictions - a ‘charming beast’ and I can't help but stay and dance with it, even though it can be extremely challenging at times, especially when I don't understand it," said Paynton about the inspiration for the video.

To quote another (slightly more prolific) rapper, 50 Cent once opined that:

"Sunny days wouldn't be special, if it wasn't for rain.

"Joy wouldn't feel so good, if it wasn't for pain."

While neither 50 or myself are the first people to espouse such ideas, the sentiment behind those lines and The Charming Beast ring more truly for Ha Noi than any other place I've been lucky enough to call home.


Ian Payton on the Red River on an overcast day during the filming of The Charming Beast. Photo Charly Zach

The sweet autumn flavours, sights, sounds and smells wouldn't be so memorable or have inspired so much great art if it weren't for suffering through the biting cold winter days or the summer days when you wonder how much of your body you could fit in the freezer.

Due to the pandemic, many of us privileged foreign residents of the city have missed our breaks from Ha Noi this year, whether it's a trip back home or to somewhere else in Viet Nam or Asia but maybe that means for once we've earned autumn in Hà Nội.

So as you drink in all that's charming about the city in its full autumn glory, maybe take a minute to remember the beastly days that have gone before, and it'll be that much more special. VNS