We loved Hanoi, Vietnam on our first visit there about ten years ago. The crowded and hectic Old Quarter is charming. The French Quarter is filled with broad tree-lined buildings and grand French colonial buildings. The tranquil park oasis around Hoan Koem Lake. And the history, especially that surrounding Ho Chi Minh and the American War (what Americans call the Vietnam War).
And there are hundreds of art galleries, some of which sell originals from talented Vietnamese artists (one of whose oil paintings we bought and admire daily in its place of honor in our living room) and many more of which produce and sell incredibly low-priced knock-offs of more popular works at impossibly low prices. It was with mixed emotions that we discovered that the artist whose painting we bought on our previous trip is now one of the most popular targets of these knock-off artists,
We so enjoyed the city that we placed it near the top of our “To Return” trip Iist—both for Hanoi itself and for a side trip to Halong Bay.
The current city is divided into four primary districts. The historic Old Quarter and French Quarter and the newer Ba Dinh (especially government, military, and offices) and Tay Ho (especially middle-class and expatriate residential and commercial) Districts. We spent most of our time this visit in the Old and French Quarters. These two quarters contain most of the primary tourist sites. They are reasonably compact and manageable—manageable, that is, if you can manage to get across the chaotic streets in one piece. As we learned before, to cross a street, you just start crossing. Don’t change direction. Don’t speed up or slow down. Let the traffic swerve around you. It is not something for the timid to do.
So, what were our experiences in and perceptions of Hanoi the second time around? Still favorable. But first, a little history of Hanoi that we learned from a tour guide:
The history of Old Town stretches back more than 2,000 years from when its location on the Red River made it a convenient trading center for neighboring villages, many of which had developed specialized skills in particular trades and needed to sell or trade their goods to get access to other products. As trade began to develop the then swampy area began to attract settlers who built clusters of villages on stilts (such as those discussed in our Tonie Sap blog. These villages were gradually filled in and unified into a single town by Chinese administrators (China controlled what is now northern Vietnam for about 1,100 years, from 204 BC to 944 AD). The area finally defeated the last Chinese invasion (at least the last one until 1979, as mentioned below) and gained full independence and King Ly Thai To chose what is now known as Hanoi for the nation’s capital in the 11th century.
This, combined with the citadel he built to protect the city, provided the jobs, security, and confidence required to attract craftspeople who had lived in neighboring villages to move to the city and to replicate their traditional structure of a common core of family-based businesses around the same craft. Hence the emergence of the craft streets (such as for sandals, cotton, jars, and hemp) that continue to permeate the Old Quarter today (albeit in a somewhat diluted manner).
By the 15th through 18th centuries, Hanoi had grown into an international trade center, (especially noted for its silk, pottery, and copper), drawing merchants and traders from across Asia, and even some European countries. But in 1831, a new King moved the capital to Hue, and tore down the old capital’s citadel (to prevent it from falling into a competitor’s hands).
Then, in 1882 the French started moving into northern Vietnam (which it then called Tonkin) as a means of creating an entree into China. They:
- Brought rubber, coffee, and tobacco to the area
- Created the region’s first large-scale factories in products such as in sugar, cigarettes, and tires
- Established Hanoi as the capital of its Indochina empire (consisting of today’s Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia)
- Enhanced the city by building a water and transportation infrastructure, laying out and building tree-lined boulevards and buildings (beginning with government, then large residential villas which are today mostly embassies, and forming a basic education system.
Then came World War II and the devastation and cruelty perpetrated by the Japanese (one of the three broad themes along with Chinese expansionism and mixed blessings of colonialism that we have heard throughout South Asia). After the war, the French wanted back in, but Ho Chi Minh wanted nothing to do with it. He and his allies created a small army beginning with 34 farmers. They eventually forced the French out of the north. By that time, however, France had drawn the Americans into the south of the country. America created and supported a compliant government in the south and engaged the north in a war that gradually consumed all of Indochina (see our blogs on Phnom Phen and Vientiane). Then in 1979, four years after the American War ended, Vietnam was back to fighting China, which was making incursions over the border, which were, over time, repelled.
By then, however, the West had instituted a trade embargo against communist Vietnam, which forced Vietnam to rely on Russia, China, and other eastern bloc countries for aid, trade, and development. Hence the number of Russian buildings and Polish renovations that are so evident in Hanoi. When the embargo was lifted in 1995, Vietnam began transitioning to an open, increasingly export-driven economy, albeit with a still closed, one-party political system. It generally thrived until the 2008 financial crash.
Discovering the Old Quarter
We start our exploration with two guided walking tours: one of the Old Quarter and one of the French Quarter. It was a cold and rainy day and we were the only people on each tour so our guide combined the tours into a wonderful personalized experience. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and was very patient with our many questions.
We met our guide at a street address in the Old Quarter that led to a half-opened corrugated metal door that led into a passageway that was so dark that we couldn’t see in. As our guide led us into that dark alley, we discovered that it let into a courtyard, with a steep, unmarked set of steps that led to a balcony and an open door into a family’s private alter room (all Buddhist homes have alters at which to honor their ancestors and the gods). This balcony led to another unmarked set of stairs that, once we reached the top, led to a coffee bar on deck that provided a lovely view over Hoan Koem Lake (the lake of the returned sword).
This coffee bar was both the site of our history lesson and our first exposure to the core principle of Old Quarter life—sharing. A shop occupied the front of the building, with the owners living in the room behind the shop. The courtyard led to another family home behind it and to a set of stairs that led to two other dwellings on the second floor (including one with the an alter). Another set of stairs led to another dwelling and to the coffee bar.
One building was shared by many families and had many different uses. Multiple families shared bathrooms, kitchens, common alleyways for their businesses, and parking spaces for their motorbikes, Rooms in individual apartments, meanwhile, shared uses. For example, at different times one room may be used as a living room, a dining room, a place of work (as where a hairdresser sees her customers), and a bedroom.
We soon passed another building whose front room was filled with three desks, one behind the other. Each desk was occupied by a different generation of the same family—grandfather, father, and son. Each lived in the same building and each worked as a silversmith, a profession passed down from generation to generation. In fact, a great-grandson sat on his grandfather’s lap getting his first lessons on the family trade.
Sharing is also a part of stores and food stalls. Every alley has a business going in it that shares the space. The lady who has a breakfast restaurant will close after breakfast. Another person/business will take over her cooking and seating areas for lunch. Then that business closes and another person takes over the same cooking and seating areas for its food. Or, perhaps in between meals, someone may use the space to sell produce. We never figured out how they coordinated it all, but they do. But the food stall you found at 8 AM is not the same one at 2 PM.
How did Old Quarter buildings become so crowded? Demand is one factor. People love living in the center of the city, especially when they work in the neighborhood. But there’s much more to it. Some long-time residents were forced out of their homes during the American War bombing. When they returned, they found others had already moved in. Rather than get into fights or go to court, people found ways to accommodate.
Meanwhile, rapidly increasing land costs and rents prompted existing owners and renters to subdivide their properties to accommodate new people with whom they could share costs. Then, of course, there is the growth of families. Extended families often live together and when the oldest son in a family gets married, parents typically give the son and his bride a place to live. This often translates into subdividing a family apartment and providing the newlyweds a “curtain wall” to give them privacy. This type of inter-generational living, combined with the practice of a father teaching his trade to his son, helps lead to the type of arrangements we had seen at the above-mentioned silversmith shop.
But rooms can only be subdivided so many times. Sometimes, you just have to find a way of adding more space. Everybody tries to extend their spaces by creating lofts. They may build on top of or to the side of existing buildings or cover alleyways, airways, and courtyards with impromptu bamboo walls and corrugated metal roofs to convert them into new living spaces. This contributes to a rather haphazard appearance throughout the quarter, where individual buildings have what can be generously called an eclectic styl—-what our guide affectionately refers to as a “mixed mess” style. There are similar adaptations to how people move among multiple floors of buildings. Stairways, for example, take up space. Ladders, particularly when affixed to walls, do not. Hence, many ladders.
These types of subdivisions and extensions result in a continual addition of new addresses and, sometimes, a narrowing of alleys into smaller and smaller passageways and a redefinition of passageways. Alleys go off into all types of interesting directions and often get more and more narrow the further into them you go.
The building style, the living conditions, and the impromptu sharing of space may make life in the Old Quarter appear rather chaotic and claustrophobic. This is particularly true when you look at, or especially try to navigate the sidewalks and the curving and somewhat unpredictable roads that weave through the quarter. Sidewalks, for example, aren’t for walking. Virtually every inch of sidewalk space is taken up by food stalls, plastic stools on which customers sit and residents socialize, and, of course, by cars and the ubiquitous motorbikes that park in every conceivable space and every conceivable direction.
The streets are even more impenetrable. Cars and motorbikes—everywhere motorbikes—go in every direction. They drive on the left, on the right, turn the wrong way onto one-way streets or over curbs: wherever there’s an empty space. Stop signs, lights, or traffic rules? Forget about them. There’s no place for them in the Old Quarter.
Since pedestrians have no space on sidewalks, one walks anywhere there is a space…usually on the road…through this unpredictable morass. How does it all work? We have no idea, but somehow it does. Everything is rather organic and adaptable. Joyce equates it to a school of fish, which suddenly, and often with no seeming reason, shift directions. All the other fish somehow seem to go with the flow with no incidents, no fights, or ill feelings. Traffic like apartments and people in the Old Quarter all seem to just go with the flow. Somehow it all just seems to work.
And to ensure it does, every few blocks has a different ward manager who is chosen by the community. These informal managers help resolve disputes, pass resident concerns and requests to the government authorities, and work with the city government to address common needs. They also help coordinate and formally communicate information that is of interest to and needed by the community. Although much of this information passing is handled informally among people and through food stalls, the ward manager also uses a network of street loudspeakers to formally share information of common interest.
Touring The Old Quarter
The Old Quarter is made up of craft streets, which were initially formed between the 10th and 13th centuries as residents of neighboring craft-specific villages moved to the city. Just as in their old villages, they grouped together to share a common infrastructure and to develop a marketing brand that established their village as the place to get the best of whatever they produced.
They settled on the same streets, built common-style homes and shops, and established their joint reputations as the source for their products. If, for example, a city resident needed a jar, a pair of shoes, or even a coffin, they went to the street of that name, determined which shop had the product best suited to their needs, offered the best price, and was run by a family with whom they would prefer to work. The craftsmen often cooperated in sharing technology and expensive infrastructure, in marketing their street, and sometimes inscribing better deals with suppliers. They then competed for customers.
Sometimes, they shared trade secrets. One fish street vendor, for example, developed a technique for making a specific type of fish sauce. After doing well with it on his own, he shared it with his neighbors. They all did so well with the new sauce that they honored the inventor by building a temple to him—a temple that continues to be used and continues to be funded by donations to this day.
The steep prices and the type of organic growth and adaptation that is shaping life in today’s Old Quarter have necessarily resulted in some dilution of the craft street concepts. Few of these streets are still devoted exclusively to a single type of product. But as we saw from our cyclo tour and our long walks through the quarter, much of this craft identity remains. Copper Street, for example, is occupied by store after store after store that sells all types of copper products. The same is true for Lock Street, Tin Street, Fish Street, Fan Street, Bamboo Street, and many others. Paper Street is particularly interesting, changing the type of decorative paper products it makes and displays to the season, such as for New Year and other holidays. As we were there just before Christmas, we had never seen so many and so many types of paper Santas in one place—even in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country.
Although we walked a number of the most interesting these streets on our own, we spent much of our time on the many, many Old Quarter streets that house art galleries (both original and knockoff) in search of our next beloved Vietnamese masterpiece, and also around Tray Street, where Joyce finally founds replacement for the lacquerware tray we bought on our previous trip.
Exploring the French Quarter
Once we got a feel for the Old Quarter, we were off to the French Quarter,. In total contrast to the Old Quarter, the French Quarter was laid out on a grid, with wide boulevards lined by stately trees and equally stately buildings.
Our tour began in the neighborhood that was first developed. Here are huge buildings in which the French housed government offices, courts, prisons, museums, and the city’s first university. We learned how France’s initial efforts to bring French Mediterranean styles (such as colors and slate roofs) to Indochina were impractical for this hotter, much rainier climate. They styles were adapted both to accommodate the location and local artistic and architectural sensibilities.
We saw different examples of French colonial styles, the incorporations of local artistic details, and the evolution of styles, such as from neo-classical to Art Deco to Indochine (which incorporated traditional Indochinese design elements into broad French designs). And since Russian and Eastern European influence replaced French influence in building design, we saw numerous examples of unmistakable Soviet-style architecture. And Polish architects and craftspeople, already skilled in removing their own historic buildings, helped Hanoi renovate their own. We saw how all of these buildings were in similar (although for some reason, not always identical) shades of yellow, and how the vast majority retained the shutters used by the French. The Vietnamese even adapted French slate roofs to tropical climates by adding a layer of concrete beneath them.
After learning and seeing the fundamentals of the historic French Quarter building, we went on the the other sections of the French Quarter for briefer, higher-level surveys of how these designs and techniques were applied to other types of buildings.
Our tour ended in the newest, residential section of the huge Quarter which is around the beautiful boulevard Doung Dien Bien Phu. The boulevard was named, ironically, for the battle in which the Vietnamese finally drove the French out of their country and originally housed large French colonial villas. Today, hardly a personal villa is in sight as most have been converted into an embassy. Overall, it is a lovely and gracious site, reminiscent of the grandeur (albeit not the style) of Washington DC’s Embassy Row.