Old Quarter – the 36 Streets
The Old Quarter of Hanoi
is probably the city’s greatest asset from a tourism point
of view. However,
the adjective ‘old’ is something of a misnomer for a European
because only a small proportion of its buildings are more
than a hundred years old. In Vietnam, and Asia in general,
the term has a different connotation. Here, what is ‘old’
is not the building, but the activities that are carried
on in it. On that basis, the Old Quarter can claim a continuity
stretching back to Hanoi’s birth almost a thousand years
centuries ago, Hanoi relied upon the Red River as its primary
trade route. Small cargo boats would ply back and forth
carrying goods and provisions. The muddy breadth of the
river made it difficult to land the cargo, so a system of
small canals was dug to allow boats access to the centre
of the young city. The various wharfs became associated
with a particular commodity – tin, silver, silk, sailcloth
and so on – and merchants built their warehouses and workshops
on the canal bank.
later, the French colonists filled in the canals to create
a network of 36 narrow streets that quickly acquired the
name of the commodity traded there. The names survive, as
do some of the original trades – Hang Ma (votive decorations),
Hang Gai (Silk Street), Hang Thiec (Tin Street), and Hang
Dong (Bronze Street).
however, have taken up new commodities, but still cluster
together along a single street – Hang Can (once scales,
now stationary), Hang Dau (once oil, now shoes), Hang Buom
(once sailcloth, now confectionary and wine) and Thuoc Bac
(once medicine, now tools), for example.
the 36 Streets are a hotchpotch of artisans’ cottages, ‘tube’
houses (so called after their long narrow design, the result
of a frontage tax), colonial houses, the occasional surviving
merchants house (built in wood, Hoi An style), and modern
buildings of various shapes and sizes.
it’s commerce that draws the visitors, as it has one throughout
its long history. The range of goods is amazing, and it’s
a Mecca for souvenir hunters. An additional bonus is the
food available – not only delicious specialities such as
Cha Ca (marinated barbequed fish), Nom (a green papaya and
peanut salad in a cold sauce) and the best noodle soup in
Vietnam, but also an increasing number of speciality restaurants
offering international cuisine.
Often overlooked, but very interesting, are the many religious
buildings in the Old Quarter. The Bach Ma (White Horse)
Temple was founded in the 9th century and derives its name
from a legend. Bach Ma, the guardian spirit of Thang Long
(the old name of Hanoi), appeared to King Ly Thai To to
help him to overcome the problem of the heavy city walls
collapsing because the ground was too soft to support them.
It’s an attractive temple and worth of a visit.
the many sacred sites in the area is the surprising Guiding
Light Mosque, the only mosque in north Vietnam. Built in
the days when Hanoi had an Islamic community, it now caters
only for diplomats.
the north of the Old Quarter is Dong Xuan, the city’s largest