Long Tuyen reflects on change and tradition in Vietnam’s cities.

Long ago, each street in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, specialized in a specific trade, as artisans from villages in the Red River Delta settled in the capital to supply wares to the royal citadel of Thang Long.

Ta Hien street - Hanoi old quarterMost Vietnamese people are familiar with this verse:

Quan Chuong gateLet’s travel around Thang Long Citadel,
All around its 36 streets,
Hang Bo, Hang Bac, Hang Gai
Hang Buom, Hang Thiec, Hang Bai,
Hang Khay…

Today, Hanoi is much bigger than it was in the past, when the Old Quarter contained 36 specialized guild streets. In many streets, the mossy, tiled-roof houses have been replaced by tall, modern buildings, while the skyline is full of signs and billboards. Nonetheless, the city’s ancient spirit lingers.

The spirit of ‘Thang Long can still be found in Hanoi’s quiet pagodas, down narrow alleys, and on the stone steles that list the achievements of tutelary gods in communal houses on Hang Bac, Hoe Nhai, and Kim Lien streets. The spirit of old Hanoi also lingers in the behaviour and attitudes of families who have lived in Hanoi for generations.

Hanoi old quaters (3) Hanoi old quaters (4) Hanoians still refer to the Old Quarter as the “36 Streets”. This area extends from the fountain on the north side of Hoan Kiem Lake, along Hang Dao and Hang Ngang Streets, and around streets like Hang Buom, Luong Van Can, Luong Ngoc Quyen, and Ma May to end at Hang Dau Park.

87 Ma May - Hanoi ancient houseNo.87 Ma May street

In the past, Hang Dao Street specialized in selling silk, while Hang Duong Street sold sweets. Hang Buom sold coarse cloth and hemp fibres. Today, everything has changed. The turbaned Indians selling Bombay silk on Hang Dao and Hang Ngang Streets are long gone. These streets now sell ready-made clothes, watches, jewellery and luxury goods.

The street fronts are flashy but step down the narrow alleys that run off of the main streets and you will find a different world. The interiors are dim and gloomy. Large, extended families live in tiny spaces with ancient amenities. Nothing has been renovated in decades.

Hanoi old quaters (2)Crossing the street, Lan Ong Road smells of Chinese medicinal herbs, just as it has for centuries. Here, shops sell everything from cheap herbal flu remedies to imported traditional medicines made from rare ingredients. Hang Thiec (Tin Shop) Street is always noisy with the sounds of people hammering metal. While some streets have retained their traditional focus, Thuoc Bac (Chinese Herb) Street is now devoted to selling metal wares.

Ham Ca MapOn Hang Dong (Bronze Shop) Street, visitors are happy to find altar objects, incense burners and ceremonial items cast by bronze-workers whose families have made these items for generations. Hang Chieu (Mat Shop) Street remains loyal to selling rush mats, wooden-bead mats and bamboo mats imported from China.

And Hang Ma Street is still festooned with all manner of colourful paper votive objects, from ghost money to paper houses, cars and even airplanes that grieving relatives can burn for their departed loved-ones.

>> read more: Hanoi’s longstanding coffee shops

Hanoi old quaters (8)In the old days, clusters of residential quarters formed around citadels, especially in capital cities. Vietnamese people gradually left the farms and came to the towns, where they settled near people from their native village. Over time, these groups of village communities became a city.

In places like Lang Son, Lao Cai and Cao Bang groups of traders formed cities. The royal court and the French colonial government were behind the creation of cities in places like Nam Dinh, Hung Yen, Hai Phong, Son Tay, and Thai Binh. Trade along waterways led to the formation of cities like Da Nang, Hoi An, Bien Hoa and Can Tho. Living in cities tends to have a civilizing influence. Around the world, cities birth to great personalities and intellectual the city, talented people are freed from ancient rituals and customs, which leads to innovation.

Looking at Central Vietnam, the ancient city of Hoi An has been lovingly preserved. Thanks to its original architecture and its charming, lantern-lit streets, this riverside town draws thousands of tourists. Its success as a tourist destination has led to its growth, so it is a city. Of course, if it loses its old-fashioned, small-town charm, the tourists will stop coming, so city officials must find a way to balance economic development with preservation. On festival nights, locals still gather to sing bài chòi near the Hoai River, read poetry and play chess.

Hoian ancient town Hoian ancient town (2)Hoi An ancient town – Photo: Xuan Tran

Meanwhile, in the ancient royal capital of Hue, there are fewer schools and peaceful gardens than there once were. Nonetheless, the city’s treed streets have a peaceful air, especially in the area adjacent to the ancient Imperial City, where rules dictated that no house could be higher than the king’s palanquin.

The memoirs of French colonial officers give us insight into Vietnam in the 19th century. Arriving in Thang Long, they describe streets that look very strange, with rows of dilapidated shacks made of bamboo. Each street was like a simple fortress, with a gate that was firmly bolted at night.

In 1835, King Minh Mang ordered the razing of Bat Quai to build Gia Dinh Citadel, which was later destroyed by the French. King Minh Mang could not have imagined the thriving city of 10 million – Ho Chi Minh City – that now stands on the ruins of his citadel.

While the streets of Saigon are not full of legends and history like those in Hanoi, they ring with energy and optimism. Bustling and vibrant, Saigon’s streets look towards the future. In all of Vietnam’s towns and cities, the streets have their own spirit, revealing people’s ambitions and their pride in their traditions.

Cho Lon - Sai Gon cityCho Lon – Sai Gon city

Source: Heritage – Vietnam Airlines

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