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 ago.
Many 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.
Much 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).
Most, 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.
Architecturally, 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.
However, 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 – see La Vong grilled fish – The specialties of Ha Noi), 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.
Among 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.
To the north of the Old Quarter is Dong Xuan, the city’s largest covered market. See Hanoi’s Markets discovery.