By: Truong Quy
Photo by: Kim Dung

An old saying goes: “Hanoi is home to 36 streets”. This identifies the city as a gathering place for various craft guilds from surrounding areas. Dating back to the Ly dynasty, this tradition was repeatedly mentioned in Le dynasty accounts. Each guild was home to artisans who hailed from different villages.

In the capital, these craftspeople established business and manufactured various specialized products, after which the Old Quarter’s streets were named, such as Hang Bong (Cotton Shops), Hang Gai (Hemp Shops), Hang Thiec (Tin Shops), Hang Bac (Silver Shops), and so on. This helped form the unique identity of the imperial city, which was once called Ke Cho (Marketplace), to which all roads led.

Le Dinh Nghien not only produces new paintings but also restores old paintings for the Fine Arts Museum

In the 21st century, the craft streets grew less distinctive, with fewer shops devoted to the streets’ one-time specialty. It seemed that the streets’ names were only a relic of the past. Strangely, however, many artisans remain deeply rooted in these streets. Living in small residential areas, they are still creating quality products that live up to the reputations handed down by their forebearers. 

The artisans still at work

Though we are poor, and our houses are thatched 

Still, we have a few paintings for this Lunar New Year

(The song of Spring 1961 – To Huu)

This verse by To Huu mentions the folk paintings that would beautify houses in Hanoi during the country’s hard times. In Hanoi, Hang Trong folk paintings have been well-known for hundreds of years. They portray various topics and meet spiritual needs and serve as decoration. They are more intricate than the paintings from Dong Ho village (Thuan Thanh, Bac Ninh). Like Dong Ho paintings, Hang Trong paintings are made using woodblocks and printed on dó paper. However Trang Trong paintings require more skillful brush strokes for the finishing touches in terms of color, boldness, and highlights. Each painting consists of elegant transitions and slick strokes. One of the best-known designs, Ngu ho (The Five Tigers), demonstrates the artisan’s graceful touches via the stripes on the tigers’ bodies and the clouds intertwined with these animals’ whiskers, eyes, and claws. The set of four paintings called To Nu (The Ladies), featuring girls playing musical instruments, requires calligraphy skills to write poems in Chinese characters.

A Hang Trong painting

While Hang Trong paintings have undergone many changes, one artisan is still producing these large-sized paintings. Le Dinh Nghien inherited the family tradition from his grandfather. Mr. Nghien not only produces new paintings every year but also restores old paintings for the Fine Arts Museum and private owners, sometimes using a dry mounting technique. These old paintings grow more valuable with time and can be displayed over long periods, unlike the common Tet paintings that only lasted one year.

Other well-known Hang Trong painting motifs include Ong Cong Ong Tao (Kitchen Gods), Tu Phu (The Four Palaces), Tu Binh (The Four Flowers), and Ly Ngu Vong Nguyet (Carp Looking at the Moon). These elaborate and stylish designs appeal to urbanites. They are complex to produce, requiring a consistent level of skill and delicate tastes. Mr. Nghien is the only one among his seven siblings to carry on this trade, which he hopes to pass down to his son. In an era when mass production dominates, right in the heart of the country’s capital, Nguyen Phuong Hung remains devoted to his labor-intensive craft. Living at 26 Lo Ren, or “Smithy” Street, Mr. Hung is a blacksmith.

Polishing a ring on Hang Bac street

His is the only blacksmith workshop still running in Hanoi. It is like a living museum reflecting the street’s name. In his sixties, Mr. Hung’s passion for his craft is as warm as the heat radiating from his furnace, as powerful as his hammer strikes, and as sure as his shaping of decorative iron patterns. Mr. Hung’s products remain popular thanks to his skills and attention to detail. His experience is evident in how he controls the furnace’s temperature and forging time so as to produce quality products. In centuries past, the existence of a blacksmith was proof of local artisans’ contributions to production and daily life, since metal tools were an important indicator of development during the pre-industrial age. Countless knives, scissors, and the iron railings of Hanoi’s old villas were made by the blacksmiths on Lo Ren Street, of whom Mr. Hung is a descendant.

Glittering gold, shimmering letters

Of all the guild streets in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Hang Bac, which translates as Silver Shops, is probably the one that has changed the least. Urbanites still view gold and silver jewelry as objects of wealth and beauty. In this prosperous land, there is a constant demand for jewelry. Even in difficult times, owning a piece of jewelry is a form of financial security. Therefore, the street, which is only 280 meters long, is still home to jewelry shops and workshops. Torch-lit houses facing the street are still full of goldsmiths working hard to produce items that are indispensable for special occasions like Tet, longevity celebrations, and weddings.

Nguyen Phuong Hung in his small workshop on Lo Ren Street

Much more ordinary than jewelry but closely associated with the history of Hanoi’s literature and books are hand-carved stamps. This craft still thrives inside shops on To Tich and Hang Gai streets, since these wooden stamps appeal to tourists. In the 19th century, this busy area was home to woodcut print shops such as Lieu Van Parlor, Quan Van Parlor, and so on. Some of the items produced here included novels of classic verse such as Truyen Kieu (The Tale of Kieu) and Nhi Do Mai (The Plum Tree Blossoms Twice), and engravings of folk customs in the “Mechanics and crafts of the Annamites”, an illustrated collection published in 1909. As the tradition evolved, businesses working with engraved stamps of letters or decorative patterns like Tinh Hoa and Phuc Loi boomed in the 20th century.

Nowadays, stamp-making shops are scattered on adjacent streets like Hang Quat and Hang Bong. The stamp patterns now come in the shapes of animals, decorative logos, Chinese characters, or elaborate signatures. They are popular for their precise and sophisticated but rustic engravings on thng mực (Holarrhena pubescens) – a special type of wood that is light and easy to cut. The crimson ink stamped onto paper by these wooden stamps creates bold motifs and letters that look more special than the uniform designs created by mass-produced rubber stamps.

Hand-carved stamps

Strolling through Hanoi’s Old Quarter, admiring ancient houses painted by time, a traveler’s heart is warmed by the sight of artisans working on craft streets named after these traditional wares. This beauty touches our soul, reminding us of the artisans who gathered in and shaped the culture of the former citadel.