THE OLD QUARTER IN HANOI
Walk north from Hoan Kiem Lake, across Cau Go, and suddenly you’re in the tumultuous streets of the Old Quarter, a congested square kilometre that was closed behind massive ramparts and heavy wooden gates until well into the nineteenth century. Apart from one gate, at the east end of Hang Chieu, the walls have been dismantled, and there are few individual sights in the quarter; the best approach is simply to dive into the back lanes and explore. Alternatively, you might like to see it first from the seat of a cyclo or one of the new electric cars that zig-zag through its streets to help you pinpoint places you’d like to come back to.
Everything spills out onto pavements which double as workshops for stone-carvers, furniture-makers and tinsmiths, and as display space for merchandise ranging from pungent therapeutic herbs and fluttering prayer flags to ranks of Remy Martin and shiny-wrapped chocolates. With so much to attract your attention at ground level it’s easy to miss the architecture, which reveals fascinating glimpses of the quarter’s history, starting with the fifteenth-century merchants’ houses otherwise found only in Hoi An. As you explore the quarter you’ll come across a great many sacred sites – temples, pagodas, dinh and venerable banyan trees – hidden among the houses.
What's in a name?
The Old Quarter’s street names date back five centuries to when the area was divided among 36 artisans’ guilds, each gathered around a temple or a dinh (communal house) dedicated to the guild’s patron spirit. Even today many streets specialize to some degree, and a few are still dedicated to the original craft or its modern equivalent. The most colourful examples are Hang Quat, full of bright-red banners and lacquerware for funerals and festivals, and Hang Ma, where paper products have been made for at least five hundred years. Nowadays gaudy tinsel dances in the breeze above brightly coloured votive objects, which include model TVs, dollars and cars to be offered to the ancestors. A selection of the more interesting streets with an element of specialization is listed here. Hang means merchandise.
|Street name||Street Meaning||Modern speciality|
|Hang Trong||Drum skin||Bag menders, upholsterers|
|Hang Bo||Bamboo baskets||Haberdashers|
|Hang Buom||Sails||Imported foods and alcohol, confectionery|
|Hang Chieu||Sedge mats||Mats, ropes, bamboo blinds|
|Hang Dieu||Pipes||Cushions, mattresses|
|Hang Duong||Sugar||Clothes, general goods|
|Hang Gai||Hemp goods||Silks, tailors, souvenirs|
|Hang Hom||Wooden chests||Glue, paint, varnish|
|Hang Ma||Paper votive objects||Paper goods|
|Hang Quat||Ceremonial fans||Religious accessories|
|Hang Thiec||Tin goods||Tin goods, mirrors|
|Hang Vai||Fabrics||Bamboo ladders|
|Lan Ong||Eighteenth century||Traditional medicines, towels, physician|
Hanoi’s aptly named tube-houses evolved from market stalls into narrow single-storey shops, windows no higher than a passing royal palanquin, under gently curving, red-tiled roofs. Some are just two metres wide, the result of taxes levied on street frontages and of subdivision for inheritance, while behind stretches a succession of storerooms and living quarters up to 60m in length, interspersed with open courtyards to give them light and air.
Weekend night market
From around 7pm every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the streets running north from Hang Dao, almost as far as Dong Xuan Market, are closed to traffic and vendors set up stalls selling all kinds of trinkets at the Weekend Night Market. Though it’s a fun place to touch the pulse of modern Hanoi, there’s not much on sale that would interest most Western visitors. Indeed most shoppers are Vietnamese youngsters snapping up fashion accessories like mobile phone covers. It can get very crowded at times, but winds down after 11pm.
Eco transport – Hanoi style
A recent addition to the streets of the Old Quarter are electric cars that are designed to run tourists along the narrow streets and round neighbouring Hoan Kiem Lake. You can hop on board in front of Dong Xuan Market or hire one for a group opposite the Water Puppet theatre on the northeast corner of Hoan Kiem Lake. While these vehicles themselves are quiet and eco-friendly, and the thirty-minute ride is a fascinating introduction to the Old Quarter, their drivers still hit the horn in a typically relentless Hanoi way.