Story: Bui Kim Anh
Photos: Dan Toan

While some Hanoians may have heard the old chant – “Take a stroll all over the Thăng Long Citadel/Thirty six streets lie ahead in total” – few have actually explored all 36 streets in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

A corner between Mã Mây Street and Đào Duy Từ Street

Shaped like a chessboard, Hanoi’s Old Quarter has existed for over a thousand years. Some streets are still home to businesses plying the same trades as when the streets were founded. Many old Hanoi street names start with the word “Hàng” – which means “Wares”. This word is followed by the name of the specific product on offer, such as Hàng Tre (Bamboo Wares) , Hàng Bc (Silver Wares), Hàng Thiếc (Tin Wares), Hàng Mã (Votive Offerings), Hàng Chiếu (Mats), etc.

According to historians, when the Ly dynasty moved the capital from Hoa Lu to Thăng Long, Hanoi had no streets but was comprised of clustered villages. After the court moved nearby, the area became rapidly urbanized. Craft villages in Sơn Tây, Thưng Tín, Phú Xuyên, Trch Xá, Hưng Yên and Hi Dương developed to supply goods to the court. Fellow villagers specialized in producing similar merchandise.

Kim Cổ pagoda, Đường Thành Street

Maps of Hanoi from 1770 and 1810 show that the Red River was still connected to Hoan Kiem Lake, which was a dead-end branch of the river. The To Lich River still flowed to the Red River and was linked to West Lake and the Thien Phu River and downstream to the NhuRiver. The Red River had alluvial water that appeared red, while the water in the Tô Lch was clear. This river was busy with boat traffic. Boats could sail into the Old Quarter to trade.

Mã Mây Street was formed by two older streets – Hàng Mã (Votive Offerings) Street and Hàng Mây (Rattan)Street. Hàng Mây Street bordered Hàng Bum (Sails) Street by the NhRiver, where boats carrying bamboo, rattan (mây) and reeds moored.

During French colonial times, the lakes and marshes were filled and the Old Quarter refurbished. Many Indian and French traders did business here. Two smaller markets were cleared to found Đng Xuân Market. The Sword Lake – Thy Khuê tramway was built across the Old Quarter.

Hàng Vải Street
Many streets beginning with the name Hàng no longer exist, like  Hàng Bt (Flour). Other streets now sell different goods. However, Hàng Thiếc (Tin) still offers tin, aluminum and glasswares. Hàng Chiếu (Mats) boasts several mattress vendors along with shops selling other items. Hàng Chĩnh (Jars) was formerly called la Rue de Vases. It was connected to the river, where boats carrying ceramic jars and jugs from Phù Lãng Village, terracotta pots, jars and urns from Hương Canh village and ceramics from Thổ Hà moored. Today, the street is still home to a few workshops selling gravestones and stone carvings. Hàng Mã Street still sells votive offerings. Business is especially brisk in lunar mid-August. Hàng Ngang (Transverse Street)
and Hàng Đào (Peach – a reference to pink silk) Street were once home to vibrant silk shops run by Indian merchants. Today, silk and brocade have given way to off-the-rack clothing. Hanoi’s Old Quarter remains a trading hub, where products may be found to suit every budget. Foreign tourists flock here to see the historic Old Quarter.

The merchants are no longer from the same village but hail from all over northern Vietnam. Many traditional wares have been replaced. Hàng Khoai (Potatoes) Street now sells kitchen wares. Hàng Đưng (Sugar) Street is famous for dried fruit. Hàng Gà (Chicken) Street offers printed wedding cards.

“The Geographical Record” by Nguyn Trãi referred to Hanoi and its 36 streets, divided into two wards with 18 streets each. However, there were more than 36 streets with names starting with “Hàng”. These “Hàng” streets are also found in Nam Đnh, Hi Dương and Hi Phòng.

Lãn Ông Street

In Hanoi, some of the streets sold items unique to the capital, such as Hàng Lng (Parasols) and Hàng Kiu (Palanquins). These items were only used by mandarins serving the feudal court of Thăng Long.

Long ago, most of the houses had thatched roofs. Only a few wealthy Chinese merchants could afford tiled roofs. In the 18th and 19th centuries, tube houses with steep roofs proliferated. Some of these old houses may still be seen on Mã Mây (Rattan) and Thuc Bc (Traditional Medicine) Streets. Many streets still have some old connected French colonial shophouses.

Hanoi’s Old Quarter has a lot of history. If we can preserve it, we can keep part of the old Thăng Long Citadel intact, in tandem with a modern and developed Hanoi. As Hanoi grows bigger, it abounds with tall buildings. Yet Sword Lake and the narrow Old Quarter streets remain, along with their nostalgic names.