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The charm of Hanoi's Old Quarter

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 21, 2023 5:00 am

HANOI, Vietnam—This city remains one of our favorites because despite the bustle of commerce and tourism that is evident as you try to avoid armies of motorcycles—some even carrying refrigerators and glass panels for construction—there remains an Old World allure in its narrow, labyrinthine streets with antique brick houses and temples that have resisted the flow of time.

It has layers of history dating back to the third century BCE, when a portion of what it occupies today served as the capital of the Vietnamese nation of Âu Lac, until it was annexed in 179 BC by Nanyue, ushering in more than a thousand years of Chinese domination, which ended in 1010 when the Vietnamese emperor Ly Thai To established it as the imperial capital of Vietnam called Thang Long, meaning “Ascending Dragon.”

Ngoc Son Temple on Hoan Kiem Lake

Thang Long, the citadel of which is now listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, remained the political center until 1802, when the Nguyen Dynasty moved the capital to Hué. By 1831, Thang Long was renamed Ha Noi or “Between Rivers” and in 1873, it was occupied by the French, who made it a part of the protectorate of Tonkin and later the capital of French Indochina from 1902 to 1945.

Altar of Ngoc Son Temple

The double colonization has given Hanoi an interesting mix of Imperial landmarks, well-preserved French colonial architecture, religious sites dedicated to Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism and Taoism, and museums that showcase this rich history as well as the culture of the country’s ethnic groups.

A house in the Old Quarter in Indochina style showing Chinese, Vietnamese and French influences

This mélange of influences can be experienced in its Old Quarter, which is the oldest continuously developed area of Vietnam. Located to the north and west of Hoan Kiem Lake or Sword Lake, which is considered the heart of the city, it had its beginnings as an alligator-infested swamp till it evolved into a cluster of villages with houses on stilts that were unified by the Chinese into the Protectorate of Annam. It acquired its reputation of being a crafts area in the 11th century when the imperial kingdom attracted skilled craftsmen to provide services.

It’s fascinating to admire the many variations in architecture and ornamentation—from the Oriental to the French and European and even Soviet and modern touches.

A temple in the Old Quarter

The collection of tiny workshop villages around the palace walls evolved into guilds, which numbered to 36, giving this area the name of “36 Old Streets,” which refers only to the main streets of the guild areas since there are actually more than 70 streets.

A shop with temple clothing and paraphernalia on Hang Quat Street

The crafts gave the names to the streets, so most streets start with “Hang” or wares. Even today, many streets still specialize in what they were named after, although there is already a mix of merchandise. Hang Bac, or Street of Silver, is one of the few that has preserved some of its traditional business with a variety of small shops selling jewelry as well as silver-casting handicrafts. Hang Duong or Street of Sugar has also maintained shops with sweet snacks. Hang Quat, the Street of Fans, which specialized in different kinds of fans, has switched to temple offerings and paraphernalia.

Typical tube houses in the Old Quarter

A rich religious heritage can be found in the area after craftsmen transferred their pagodas and temples from their villages. Each guild had one or two venues to honor their own patron saint or founder. Although some of the sites have been transformed into shops and living quarters, vestiges of the original architecture and ornamentation remain.

Among the commercial establishments, most of the historic houses are shophouses with slanted tile roofs, built around the 18th to the 19th centuries (the roofs were thatched before that time).

Hanoi Opera House facade

At the end of the 19th century, nhà ong or tube houses came into the picture. Deriving their name from the narrow frontage of around two meters, they made up for the width through a length that could stretch to 100 meters and upper floors that eventually went to 12 levels or more after 1954. The reason, of course, was that taxes were based on the width, the same reason that canal houses in Amsterdam in the 17th century were also tall and thin. With long, narrow interiors, courtyards were set up to bring light and ventilation into the structures, which are both residential and commercial and many times house multiple generations of one or more families.

Hanoi Opera House interiors

It’s fascinating to admire the many variations in architecture and ornamentation—from the Oriental to the French and European and even Soviet and modern touches—aside from doing a contest on who could spot the narrowest tube house. Chinese pagoda roofs are popular, as are cast iron balustrades and louvered windows from French villas and the vaulted roof copied from the colonial-era Hanoi Opera House.

Interior of Ca Ca La Vong Restaurant

The Neo-Gothic style, most apparent in St. Joseph’s Cathedral from the late 19th century, is an inspiration in some buildings. The Indochinese style of sloping and overlapping tiled roofs from the 1920s, incorporating Vietnamese and Khmer traditional architecture and decoration, can also be seen. Art Deco in the 1930s, as can be gleaned from the Goethe House on Nguyen Thai Hoc, figures in geometric details. 

Although the city is changing at a fast pace, with big malls and high-rises built on the outskirts, it’s still reassuring to know that the historical houses and buildings in the Old Quarter still exist and will remain part of the landscape that comprises the historical soul of this wonderful city.