Life in Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Nga Do
In Vietnam guidebooks, Hanoi’s Old Quarter always gets top billing. Hanoi’s Old Quarter comprises 36 busy guild streets. Tourists visiting the Old Quarter wander the narrow streets, visit the shops and historical relics, and discover Hanoi’s traditional crafts and lifestyle. As time passes, the people in the Old Quarter manage to preserve their traditional lifestyle.

Life in Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Photo by shankar s.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter was established hundreds of years ago on the east side of the ancient Thang Long citadel. In the old days, the Old Quarter, a warren of narrow streets, alleys and houses, was home to several guilds such as bronze casting, forging, jewelry making, wood carving, silk and clothes trading. Small, beautifully styled houses built along with a unique local culture, Streets in the Old Quarter still have names describing their original goods or craft. For example, Hang Duong or “Sugar Street”, Hang Bac or “Silver street”, Hang Gai or “Silk Street”, and Hang Quat “Fan Street”. The ground-floor shops of the houses here now sell handicrafts, fine arts, and food. Many residents of the Old Quarter are craftsmen who produce and sell their products in a home shop. This is the big attraction of the Old Quarter. But the quarter also has a number of pagodas, temples, historical relics, and festivals dedicated to the founders of some of the local crafts. Professor Ngo Duc Thinh is a folklore researcher: “Now, many guild streets, like Hang Quat street, don’t make fans anymore, but they are remembered as craft streets. The architecture and lifestyle of the local people reflect typical characteristics of a traditional guild street in Hanoi”.

Wandering through the jumble of streets, shops, and houses, visitors can still feel the atmosphere of the ancient guilds. Nguyen Trung Kien lives in To Tich street: “Residents of the Old Quarter have close relationships. Most of them are close relatives and know each other very well”. Many foreign visitors take an interest in the Old Quarter’s history and the traditional lifestyle of Hanoiains. Boutique hotel in small Old Quarter streets such as Dinh Liet, Hang Bac, Ma May or Hang Trong appeal to them because, stepping out of their hotels, they are immediately immersed in the life of the local people. A map is the only tour guide they need. A wide variety of European, Asian, and Vietnamese food is available in small restaurants or from sidewalk vendors. In the afternoon, many foreigners like to sit on a sidewalk stool, drink a glass of “bia hoi” – fresh beer – and watch the world go by.

Touring Hanoi by cyclo or electric bus is popular with some visitors. Meandering slowly through the small streets is relaxing and carries them back to the past. Tours of the Old Quarter are a Hanoi specialty. 36-year-old David Lowie, from Liverpool, UK, says: “I love walking around the small streets. There are many things to see there. Pausing for just 5 minutes, you can see and feel things happening around you. Hanoi is attractive, lively and dynamic, which is reflected in the busy life of local people, the sound in the small streets and the tastes of local food”.

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