Viewing Hanoi’s old quarter through foreign eyes
Love it or loathe it, the vibrancy of Hanoi’s old quarter always provokes a reaction, its throbbing effervescence giving the capital’s residents a sense of its own unique character and a charm that has captivated the hearts and minds of the city’s foreign residents, who have spoken of their love of this lively, interesting and beautiful place.
To begin with, they feel scared whenever they get lost in the old, similarly-named streets, the pavements crammed with food stalls and the roads filled with traffic chaos.
Chantrelle Nielson, an American who has lived in Hanoi’s old quarter for the past year, said that, to begin with, she was afraid of walking on the pavements.
“The streets are so jumbled up and the names are hard to remember. We would take short walks to find something to eat, then we would get lost and spend an hour trying to find our way back to the hotel. It felt like trying to swim in a very fast river”, she said.
However, Hanoi is the most lively place that Nielson has ever seen. She loves to go to one of the restaurants or coffee shops overlooking the streets in the area to sit and watch the traffic and life in the vine-covered buildings, the terraces with caged birds and the families going about their daily business.
Hanoi old quarter, which are often referred to as the 36 old streets, are located in an area covering 100 hectares in Hoan Kiem district – the capital’s centre. The area is surrounded by Hang Dau street to the North, Hang Bong, Hang Gai and Cau Go to the South, Tran Nhat Duat, Tran Quang Khai to the West and Phung Hung to the East.
A majority of the street names start with “Hang”, which means merchandise or shop. The guild streets were named for their products or locations. For example, skilled silversmiths from the northern province of Hai Duong now occupy Hang Bac street, one of the most ancient streets in all of Vietnam.
Most of the streets are noisy and crowded with people buying or selling their wares. In Hang Thiec Street, people can watch local craftsmen manufacturing oil lamps and candle sticks and hear the unmistakable sound of tin or iron being struck with a hammer.
Writer Carol Howland is the author of a book entitled “Dragons in the roof – one year in Vietnam”, and says that “Walking in the 36 old streets looks like finding paths in noodle soup”.
She feels that each section of the old quarter contains a craft village where traditional handicraft techniques are passed from generation to the next.
Carol Payne, a US student said that sitting under the canopy with her friends at Au Lac cafe behind the famous hotel Metropole is very gentle and beautiful. However, this sense of peace is shattered when she wanders north into the old quarters, as the streets change and begin to meander off, defying any sense of direction.
The local residents she met could not speak of the city in terms of compass points as people do in North America . In fact, they didn’t seem to be able to point out things on a map either.
However, she said that getting lost is also fun because it is during those times that she experiences the infinity of the district. There is a richness of detail, in terms of the architecture, human life, the unexpected pagodas, street vendors, hidden alleys, market streets and sidewalk cafes.
Carol thinks that the old quarter is very special. It resembles a giant department store, with a neighbourhood of merchants and artisans engaged in the same trade. Apart from the buildings, replete with distinctive French architectural features and office buildings, there may also be a pagoda in the next small alley.
David Lowe, a 36 year-old English from Liverpool, said that he loves walking down the old quarter’s streets as they are really lively. Although he has lived all over the world, he considers Hanoi to be the best place he has lived in, as he can feel that the city is actually alive.
“In Hanoi, particularly in the old quarter, there is always so much going on. You can stop for five minutes and there is just so much to take in. It gives the area a lot of its character and makes it lively. It reminds you that you are in a real working city, with people going about the hustle and bustle of their daily lives, the sounds and the smells, the things to see. I love to sit down and just watch the world go by for 10-15 minutes. I think the old quarter gives Hanoi a lot of its unique charm,” he confided.
Foreigners who visit Hanoi have their tastebuds tantalised by many kinds of special food, such as bun cha, pho, chao ca, bun ca, trung vit lon, banh ran, bun oc and mien cua tron.
A wealth of luxury restaurants have appeared in the old streets to serve foreign visitors with Western or Asian food, such as French baguettes, Italian pizza and noodles, Japanese sushi, Thai curry and mixed soup and Korean salted vegetables.
Chantrelle said that she never felt homesick for the food she ate at home, because of the amazing, authentic French pastries, which were better than most that she could get in America. She also loved the Italian food.
“I could go on and on about other places I remember. I think I could have eaten for five more years in Hanoi and never have discovered all the great food there. I also love rice wine”, she added.
She said she wouldn’t ever forget the food she ate in Hanoi. According to her, the Vietnamese food in the US is all southern style, because that is where all the immigrants come from.
“I remember very distinctly the flavour of the little orange chilies, and the red chili sauces and garlic vinegar for the pho. I loved the beef noodle rolls on Truc Bach island, it was quiet there and its such a nice place to sit and eat”, she said.
She will always fondly remember all of the different types of bananas on offer, as well as the range of fruits, particularly pomelo, dragonfruit and the most delicious of all, watermelon.
David said that his favourite food is smoked mountain pig, as the meat is dried and smoked, and has such a distinctive smoky rich taste. He spoke of his love of walking around the old quarter, being able to stop at any point at food vendor’s stalls offering complete, unique food that they have been making for years, and making really well.
According to him, the most significant feature of Hanoi and what makes it such an appealing city to foreigners like him is the people. “I came here four years ago and was only here for a month, but I really enjoyed being in this vibrant, bustling, charming, unique place. However, without the people you bump into everyday, it is just buildings. You come here because you feel welcomed here” he said.
Chantrelle thinks it is wonderful to be able to watch everything that is happening and enjoy the food. For her, everything in Hanoi was a result of the energy that she felt coming from the development of the economy. She said she hopes that Hanoi can preserve its history and its beauty for years to come./.