Not far beyond the metro rail line and monolithic real estate projects under construction in Cau Giay District, there’s a narrow street that leads to a gravel path that leads to a dirt road and finally to a field.
And inside the field? Horses. Roaming free, in the middle of Hanoi.
I was just as surprised as anyone when I learned that Hanoi has a horse farm and foreign instructors that offer lessons in grooming, riding, trotting and jumping. It had been over a decade since my days of chasing blue ribbons at Southwest Pennsylvania horse shows on a chocolate-coloured steed named Merlin, but I was eager to give it another shot in the saddle.
In the Family
Nguyen Thi Hoa Hop, founder of the Hanoi Horse Club in the Van Canh-Di Trach Commune of Hoai Duc District, inherited the hobby from her husband. His grandfather was among the first people to bring the circus to Vietnam, and it has become a family tradition to train dogs, horses and monkeys.
The couple opened their farm eight years ago after buying 10 horses, and it has since grown into a larger operation with nearly 30 horses and ponies, including thoroughbreds and a variety of breeds.
They recently relocated their stables after the government turned the land they were previously using into a park, and are now in the process of building an indoor arena.
To get to the farm, you must drive through a nearly deserted residential community, past corroded gates, overgrown weeds and unpainted, unlived in houses. The area is eerily quiet, and I’m suddenly aware that I can hear birds chirping. It feels both refreshing and post-apocalyptic, and I’m grateful to be on a motorbike in case I spot a family of zombies bumbling down the sidewalk.
“The facilities here aren’t great right now,” says Katie Taylor, an English film producer and the club’s newest riding instructor, while explaining that the farm is a work in progress.
But what’s most important, she said, is the quality and care of the horses.
“As an instructor and as a horse person, I’ve ridden crazy horses, timid horses, unbroken horses, and if you’re a beginner and you come to a stable for the first time, especially in Asia, you want to know that you’re going to sit on a horse that isn’t crackers, and these horses aren’t.”
She said the only other place to ride horses in Hanoi that she’s aware of is by the Red River, but the horses are untrained and mostly used as props for wedding pictures.
At Hanoi Horse Club, the animals have the freedom to roam about in the open fields in a calm, low-stress environment. A rare luxury in Hanoi.
“These are good horses,” she says. “They’ve got great coats, they’re well looked after and it’s a sort of organic environment that they live in. They’re not tied up all the time.”
Hop said their students are mostly Vietnamese, but they also teach foreigners, especially Koreans and Japanese. The youngest student is three, and the oldest is 60.
Antoine Vander Elst, a Belgian who works for the European Union, brought his 11-year-old daughter, Maude, to class one early Sunday morning.
“She’s very passionate about horses so it was like a dream for her,” he says about discovering Hanoi Horse Club.
“She loves taking care of the horses, but also she likes the location and she’s very happy with the instructor.”
Maude can groom the horse, prepare the saddle and mount by herself, requiring only a bit of guidance from a helper who leads the horse around the outdoor arena.
As for me, I also needed some assistance to keep the horse on the path. But it felt natural to be back on a horse, riding uninhibited with the chaotic city a world away in the distance.
One helper, Tuyet Dao, 28, said horseback riding is still fairly new in Vietnam, which makes it more appealing as a hobby.
“I was very surprised that there was a horse farm with a lot of horses in the centre of Hanoi,” she says. “We never had real classes riding horses like this.”
In addition to regular lessons, the Horse Club also hosts a charitable programme called Horse for Healing, which provides free lessons to autistic children. Hop said the lessons help children connect with the animals and improve their balance.
“After three to five lessons, they feel relaxed and they like it very much,” Hop says. “They always ask their parents to bring them to Hanoi Horse Club to ride the horses now.”