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‘Hangin’ in Hanoi

Much has changed, but much has stayed the same as Hanoi’s famous old quarter weathers the storms of modernity


A foreigner stops by a ceramic shop in Hang Be (raft) Street which dealt exclusively in rafts in the old days

Hanoi’s old quarter doesn’t seem so old. Brand new motorbikes, SUVs and even busses zip by in every direction, shattering ear drums with their horns and pushing stray pedestrians out of the way. But despite the traffic and modern signage, much of traditional Hanoi is the same as it was before the motorbikes and SUVs.

Peek through or above the thick black electric cables blocking your view overhead and you’ll see the colorful, if not fading, facades of old Chinese shophouses, French villas and Buddhist pagodas and temples. Elderly couples sit and drink tea on their stoops, youngsters smoke cigarettes on balconies adorned with decorative iron work and trellises filled with tropical plants.

But each residence is also a business, turning the entire quarter into a giant market. Down the tiny streets and seemingly endless labyrinth of alleys, shopkeepers sell everything under the sun, from ball bearings and light bulbs to live chickens and snake wine. The clutter of open air fish markets, the noise of squealing pigs and the loud screeches and bangs from the metal workshops make this site unlike any in the world.

But the history of the area is shrouded in mystery, like the low fog that hangs over Hoan Kiem Lake on early winter mornings.Many Vietnamese and foreigners know the area as the “36 streets” which is a misnomer, as the quarter has far more than 36 streets, and no one is certain where that number even came from.

Some researchers say the oldest part of Hanoi was originally based off of 36 streets, each of which sold a different ware. Others contend that the number 36 came from the 15th century, when workers of different trades gathered in different areas to form 36 “guilds,” or workshop areas, not actual streets. Some attribute the number 36 to abstract numerology. The number nine signifies abundance in eastern philosophy. Nine times the four directions makes 36, which people take to mean "many," or “plenty.”

A district blossoms

Nowadays, the streets of the old quarter are still associated with traditional trades plied there for hundreds of years.That’s why they’re called Hang (which means merchandise or shop), followed by the name of their product: therefore Hang Chieu (mat) sells mats, and Hang Bac (silver) traders specialize in silver and jewelry.

History books say that during the beginning of the Ly Dynasty (1010-1225), the streets now known as the old quarter began to branch out around the citadel. As King Ly Thai To had just moved the capital of Vietnam to Hanoi, people from all over Vietnam, and even China, Cambodia and the Kingdom of Champa began moving to the area for it’s commercial opportunity.

Among these were renowned silversmiths and blacksmiths from the northern Vietnamese province of Nam Dinh. They and other craftsmen and artisans began to ply their trades in Hanoi and workers making or selling similar goods set up shop on the same streets because most of them were usually from the same hometown or region.

In the early 16th century, the old town area became the production and trade center of Thang Long (now Hanoi), and people first began referring to the “36 streets.”The craftspeople of the old quarter then formed artisan guilds and named the streets, which might not have been actually streets before this period, for the trades practices and specialties sold on them. In fact, each “Hang” is not merely a street, but more like a miniature trading village all in its own.

Traditions live

There are now around 30 streets that still keep the name “Hang,” compared to over 50 a century ago.But some no longer trade the products related to their name, like Hang Than (coal), which now sells wedding teas and cakes. Hang Buom (sail), Hang Voi (lime), Hang Be (raft) no long trade in the bulky goods they were named after.

Hang Be is a special case as it used to be right on the shore of the Red River. But the banks have receded over time and it became inconvenient to trade rafts in the middle of the city. Locals have also changed the names of several streets that no longer trade in the products associated with their names hundreds of years ago.

The traditional shops on Hang Son (which sold varnish and paint) and Hang Bat Dan (glazed terracotta ware), have been replaced by cha ca (fried fish patties) shops and pho (beef noodle soup) stalls, and Hang Son is now Pho Cha Ca.

Hang Chao (rice porridge) now shares a street with hundreds of shops selling screw and electrical appliances, whereas Hang Dieu (tobacco water pipe) now specializes in blankets, pillows, and cushions. Hang Mam (salted fish) no longer sells mam.

Hang Non (hat), Hang Luoc (comb), and Hang Ca (fish) streets have now been gentrified and are full of boutiques selling luxurious goods. Hang Gai specializes in selling expensive silk to foreigners.

But the poorer days of Hanoi can still be seen in many of the old quarters small streets. Hang Bun (small rice noodles), whose original name was Hang Mun (scraps), was where locals collected bits of cloth to mend ragged clothes. Hang Chai (scrap metal) was a scrap-iron dealer hub, but the street is now a headquarters for dragon dancers and a dao (traditional Vietnamese chamber music, sometimes compared to Geisha entertainment) singers.

Neo Retro

 Many traditional streets continue to shine through, withstanding the onslaughts of change and urbanization around them. Many locals still prefer shopping on several streets that have barely changed. Hang Bac (silver) and Hang Khay (products inlayed with mother-of pearl) are still popular even though shoppers have many more newer, more modern options throughout the city.

During the mid autumn festival, Hang Ma (shiny paper products, such as gift wrappings,  wedding decorations and miniature paper objects to burn for the dead) still lights up the way it did centuries ago with parents taking their children to buy toys or lanterns.

Hang Dao is still the city’s most popular clothing stop for women. The first shop owners there were skillful tailors from villages surrounding Hanoi. So when they eventually named the street running through the area, it became Hang “Dao”, which means “flower” or “beautiful woman”, in reference to bright clothes and the ladies who bought them.

Hanoians still believe they can tell a person’s character based on which area of the old quarter they come from. Men from Hang Bac are considered polite and elegant, while women from Hang Dao are known for being charming and gorgeous.

For now, the old quarter is still elegant, charming and gorgeous, even if the motorbikes aren’t.