As the oldest continuously
developed area of Vietnam, Hanoi's Old Quarter has
a history that spans 2,000 years and represents
the eternal soul of the city. Located between the
Lake of the Restored Sword, the Long Bien Bridge,
a former city rampart, and a citadel wall, the Old
Quarter started as a snake and alligator-infested
swamp. It later evolved into a cluster of villages
made up of houses on stilts, and was unified by
Chinese administrators who built ramparts around
their headquarters. The area was named "Dominated
Annam" or "Protected South" by the Chinese.
The Old Quarter began to
acquire its reputation as a crafts area when the
Vietnamese attained independence in the 11th
century and King Ly Thai To built his palace
there. In the early 13th century, the collection
of tiny workshop villages which clustered around
the palace walls evolved into craft cooperatives,
or guilds. Skilled craftsmen migrated to the
Quarter, and artisan guilds were formed by
craftsmen originating from the same village and
performing similar services. Members of the guilds
worked and lived together, creating a cooperative
system for transporting merchandise to the
designated streets in the business quarter.
Because inhabitants of each
street came from the same village, streets
developed a homogeneous look. Commoners' homes
evolved out of market stalls, before streets were
formed. Because storekeepers were taxed according
to the width of their storefront, storage and
living space moved to the rear of the buildings.
Consequently, the long and narrow buildings were
called "tube houses." Typical measurements for
such houses are 3 meters wide by 60 meters long.
The Old Quarter has a rich
religious heritage. When the craftsmen moved from
outlying villages into the capital, they brought
with them their religious practices. They
transferred their temples, pagodas and communal
houses to their new location. Each guild has one
or two religious structures and honors its own
patron saint or founder. Therefore, on each street
in the Old Quarter there is at least one temple.
Now, many of the old temples in the Old Quarter
have been transformed into shops and living
quarters, but some of the old buildings' religious
roots can still be recognized by the architecture
of their roofs.
Although the old section of
Hanoi is often called the "36 Old Streets," there
are more than 36 actual streets. Some researchers
believe that the number 36 came from the 15th
century when there might have been 36 guild
locations, which were workshop areas, not streets.
When streets were later developed, the guild names
were applied to the streets. Others attribute the
36 to a more abstract concept. The number nine in
Asia represents the concept of "plenty." Nine
times the four directions makes 36, which simply
means "many." There are now more than 70 streets
in the area.
Some streets have achieved
fame by their inclusion in popular guidebooks. Han
Gai Street offers silk clothing ready-made and
tailored, embroidery, and silver products. Hang
Quat, the street that formerly sold silk and
feather fans, now stuns the visitor by its
brilliantly colored funeral and festival flags and
religious objects and clothing. To Thinh Street
connects the above two and is still the wood
turner's street. Hang Ma glimmers with shiny paper
products, such as gift wrappings, wedding
decorations and miniature paper objects to burn
for the dead. Lan Ong Street is a sensual delight
of textures and smells emanating from the sacks of
herbal medicinal products: leaves, roots, barks,
Let us turn now to nine of
the lesser known streets in the Old Quarter that
possess a unique character worth exploring.
Hang Bac Street
A majority of the street
names in the Old Quarter start with the word hang.
Hang means merchandise or shop. The guild streets
were named for their product, service or location.
Hang Bac, one of the oldest streets in Vietnam,
dates from at least the 13th century. Bac means
silver, and appropriately, this street started as
a silver ingot factory under the reign of Le Thanh
Tong (1469-1497). Village people, called the "Trau
Khe silver casters," were brought into the capital
to cast silver bars and coins. After a ceremony to
transfer their craft from their village of Trau
Khe to Hanoi, they set up two temples to honor the
founders of their craft. At one communal house,
the silver was molten and poured into molds. At
the other communal house, the molds were further
processed for delivery to the Prime Minister. The
crafters went to great lengths to keep their
methods secret to avoid counterfeit products.
At the turn of the 18th
century, the street took on more varied functions.
In addition to the casting of silver ingots, the
street attracted more jewelry makers and money
exchangers. Money exchangers thrived, since in the
old days, paper money was not used. Instead,
currency consisted of bronze and zinc coins and
silver ingots. When merchants needed a large
amount of money for business transactions, they
would exchange the heavy metal bars on Hang Bac.
During the French time it was called "Exchange
Street." Although paper currency was later used,
the word for it included the word bac.
Hang Bac also has jewelers
of different types: engravers, smelters,
polishers, and gold-leaf makers. The first jewelry
makers were the Dong Cac guild, which settled
during the Le dynasty (1428-1788). They founded a
temple dedicated to three brothers who learned
their art in China in the 6th century, and who are
considered the patron saints of the Vietnamese
jewelry making profession.
There are several famous
buildings on this street. In the communal house on
Hang Bac, there is a stone stele, built in 1783,
telling about a Mandarin who forcibly took over
the communal house. The locals took him to court
and won back their building. The Dung Tho Temple
is dedicated to Chu Bi, a Taoist deity. At the end
of the French colonial period, this temple had
been named Truong Ca, after a person who watched
over the temple and served the best noodle soup.
One building on this street is the pride of
contemporary history-the Chuong Vang (Golden Bell)
Theater, which still hosts traditional Vietnamese
theater performances. The former traditional-venue
theater, the To Nhu (Quang Lac) Theater built in
the 1920s, also is on this street but has been
transformed into apartments.
Hang Be Street
In the mid-19th century, the
guild of bamboo raft makers was located on this
street outside the My Loc gate, one of the many
sturdy gates to the city. The cai mang raft
consisted of 12 to 15 large bamboo poles lashed
together by strips of green bamboo bark. Their
anterior was slightly raised by heating the wood,
and the aft was rigged with three quadrangular
sails made of coarse linen dyed with extracts of
sweet potato skins.
Bamboo rafts were sensible
for Hanoi's shallow rivers, lakes and swamps,
which can not provide solid anchorage or natural
shelter from storms. The flat design better
weathered the seasonal typhoons that lash the
northern part of Vietnam, and is better adapted to
coastal and river fishing. The bamboo poles from
which the rafts were constructed were sold one
block east on Hang Tre Street.
Cau Go Street
Meaning "Wooden Bridge," Cau
Go Street is located one block north of the Lake
of the Restored Sword, and was in fact the
location of a wooden bridge. About 150 years ago,
the bridge crossed a thin stream of water
connecting the Thai Cuc Lake with the Lake of the
Restored Sword. Dyers from the neighboring Silk
Street set out their silk to dry or bleached their
fabric beside the bridge. Under the French
occupation, the lake and stream were filled as
health measures and to increase buildable land.
The little wooden bridge became a regular street.
On the edge of the lake,
women in wide brimmed hats once sold armfuls of
flowers to the French for a few coins. Today a
flower market exists where the Cau Go alley
intersects with the main street. Other historical
sites on Cau Go are the secret headquarters and
hiding place of the 1930-45 "Love the Country"
Cau Go today is a commercial
street specializing in women's accessories.
Hang Dao Street
This street is one of
Vietnam's oldest streets. It serves as a main axis
running from north to south, cutting the Old
Quarter in half. In the French Colonial time, Hang
Dao Street was a center for the trading of silk
products. On the first and sixth days of the lunar
month, there were fairs for the sale of silk
items. Shops also sold other types of fabric such
as gauze, brocade, crepe, and muslin. Almost all
the non-silk products were white.
In the beginning of the 15th
century, this street was the location of the silk
dyer guild from the Hai Hung Province, which
specialized in a deep pink dye. Dao, the name of
the street, refers to the pink of apricot
blossoms, which are symbolic of the Vietnamese
Lunar New Year. The demand for this special color
was so high that the fabric had to be dyed at
other locations as well.
By the 18th century, the dye
colors diversified. In the 18th-century work Notes
About the Capital, the author wrote that "Hang Dao
guild does dying work. It dyes red as the color of
blood, black as Chinese ink, and other beautiful
In the 19th century, Hang
Dao was lined by about 100 houses, of which only
10 or so were constructed of bricks. The rest were
of thatch. On the side of the street alongside the
now filled-in Hang Dao Lake, the foundations of
the houses have visibly sunk lower than the road.
By the turn of this century,
Indian textile merchants opened shops for trading
silk and wool products imported from the West.
This street now specializes in ready-made
Dong Xuan Street / Market
This street originally
belonged to two villages-the even numbered houses
were occupied by the Nhiem Trung village, and the
odd numbered houses were occupied by the Hau Tuc
The Dong Xuan market,
Vietnam's oldest and largest market, occupies half
of the street.River networks formed the economic
hub of Hanoi by providing a system of waterways
which fed the city and markets. Located at the
confluence of the To Lich and Red Rivers, the Dong
Xuan market was once one of the busiest urban
areas in Southeast Asia.
The French required
merchants to bring their goods inside the fenced
perimeter of the market in order to facilitate tax
collections. When the number of merchants swelled,
the market was enlarged. In 1889, a structure was
built over it, and five gates were built leading
to it. Each of the five market gates was used only
for specified goods. In 1992, the market was
renovated and a new facade erected.
Hang Mam Street
Hang Mam is the union of two
old streets: an eastern offshoot called Hang Trung
and the original Hang Mam. The name is derived
from the various kinds of mam, or fish sauces,
that are produced and sold here, as well as other
sea products. The street was originally on the
riverside, close to the day's catch.
Nuoc mam, or fish
sauce, is made from fish that are too small to be
sold individually which are placed in clay vats
with water and salt. Boiled water is poured over
the fish and weights are placed on top of the
mixture to compress it. The concoction distills
for days, and the result is a clear amber juice
that is rich in protein, vitamins and minerals.
With aging, the fierce ammoniac odors of the fish
become mellow, and like brandy, the flavor
improves. The first pressing, which is the
clearest and purest, is called nuoc mam nhi, or
prime. The sauce was stored in barrels made on
adjacent Hang Thung Street.
In the 1940s, new
specialties appeared on the street. A small
ceramics industry appeared along with those of
memorial stone etching, coffin, and tombstone
Ma May Street
This street also is a union
of two old streets. Hang May sold rattan products,
and Hang Ma sold sacred joss (paper replicas of
money, clothing, even stereo sets) to burn for the
dead. Ma is burned in front of the altar of
ancestors accompanied by prayers. Around the turn
of the century, the streets became one: Ma May.
In the French time, this
street was called "Black Flag Street" because the
soldier Luu Vinh Phuc had his headquarters here.
Luu was the leader of the Black Flags, a bandit
unit operating around Hanoi in the late 19th
century. They were essentially pirates who made a
living robbing villagers and merchants. In the
1880s, the Black Flags cooperated with the
Vietnamese Imperial Forces to resist the French
who were attempting to gain military control of
In the middle of the street
is the Huong Tuong temple, established in 1450,
which honors Nguyen Trung Ngan (1289-1370), a
governor of Thang Long, the former name of Hanoi.
Hang Thiec Street
Hang Thiec is the street of
tinsmiths. The craftsmen originally produced small
tin cone-shaped tips which were used to preserve
the shape of the traditional conical hats. A
neighboring street, Hang Non, made the hats, and
both streets comprised the Yen No hamlet.
Hang Thiec Street also
produced oil lamps, candle sticks, and opium
boxes. Tin shops sold mirrors, which they still do
today, along with sheet metal, zinc, and glass.
The street echoes busily with the clanging of
hammers against the sheet metal. Workers spread
out on the sidewalk shaping metal storage boxes
and other objects to custom order.
Hang Thung Street
In the old days, on this
block inside the Dong Yen gate, barrels were
manufactured. The barrels were used for storing
and carrying water and fish sauce. The communal
house and the temple of the barrel makers' guild
is located at 22 Hang Thung, but is hidden behind
newer buildings. The street is shaded by the
leaves of the xoan tree which has a fluffy cream
colored cluster flower and bright red berries. The
tree has various English names: Margosa, Bead, or
China Berry tree. In May, the tiny flowers fall to
the ground like yellow confetti. The furrowed bark
is often scraped off by local residents, who dry
and boil it to make a medicinal infusion as a
The Old Quarter is a
precious legacy of Hanoi's ancient past, but the
area is challenged by rapid changes.
Today, handicraft production
is increasingly replaced by restaurants, repair
shops, and mini hotels. Historic buildings have
become mass living spaces and schools as the
population increases. Craft workers now constitute
nine percent of the neighborhood. Traders make up
With the new economic
policies, a dramatic building boom has begun,
threatening the charm of the district. Local,
national, and international agencies are now
formulating plans to preserve the historic
ambiance of the Old Quarter.