The Old Quarter of Hanoi

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The Old Quarter of Hanoi

The great paradox of Ha Noi’s Old Quarter is that it is utterly contrary to Western expectations and at the same time completely familiar. The social forms and customs one encounters in Pho Co (Old Quarter) can be unsettling, but the human Interactions, both between the residents of the quartet and between residents and visitors, can seem as familiar as walking down a street in one’s hometown. That is, basic human motives and attitudes can emerge from divergent social practices. Learning to negotiate this paradox in all its subtlety is what draws me back again and again to the ancient streets.

If you are looking for the core, the essence, the heart of Ha Noi, you will find it in Pho Co. It is a square kilometre of extremes — elegance and dirt, grace and chaos, friendship and anger No other place I have been to, with the possible exception of the ancient Medina in Fez, Morocco presents the difficulties of understanding thrown up by the Old Quarter in Ha Noi. I am speaking, of course, of the reactions of Western visitors, but the more I discuss the matter with Vietnamese friends, the more I am convinced that this little area also presents paradoxes of perception for people native to the place.

One does not head into the Old Quarter for peace and quiet. Even some citizens of Ha Noi avoid the place unless they have a good reason for going there My friend Quynh, for instance, has grown up in Ha Noi, but does not like to go to the quarter because it is crowded and noisy unless we are going to Hang Dieu for Bun Bo (rice noodles with beef) or Cha Ca (grilled chopped fish), she avoids the Old Quarter, My Vietnamese teacher, who with her husband has just built a house for her family out on the Red River dyke near West Lake shudders visibly when she contemplates what it would be like to live there. She warns me against eating “on the street,” not knowing that my favourite places are open to the air, if not literally on the sidewalk.

Most of the time, I enjoy the bother and irritations of this part of the city. For two months in the summer of 1989, I lived on the northern edge of the Old Quarter and spent at least part of every day losing myself in the frenetic ambience of its narrow, shop-lined, oddly. angled streets. The streets were initially laid down not by planners, but by the traffic of feet and wagons over the course of centuries as the city developed. That is why, unlike the French Quarter, planned by colonial architects according to their idea of the rational, the old streets retain their ability to surprise and delight—and sometimes frighten—pedestrians. The irrational is eternally interesting and there is nothing rational, in the Western sense, about the layout of the Old Quarter, though much of it makes perfect sense on its own terms.

It also makes sense to remember that the Old Quarter is at least occasionally irritating to the Vietnamese, who are after all, mostly trying to make a living under difficult circumstances. And it’s not a bad idea to remember that you represent a potential sense of income for many of those who live in the quarter. For the most parts, your encounters will be delightful, but the Vietnamese are as prone to human foibles as we tourists, so make allowances—this isn’t Disneyland, where the staff is paid to be nice to you.


Before I came to Viet Nam, I read as much as I could about Vietnamese history and customs, and while these studies helped prepare me for what I would see in Viet Nam, my real education has come from walking the streets of the Old Quarter and the back alleys of Ngoc Ha. It is impossible to feel the texture of the customs of a country merely by reading about them. No doubt it is also impossible for an outsider to ever get completely inside another culture, but it is at least possible to pull back successive sets of curtains, revealing new scenes as one enters more deeply into a new reality. One of those curtains is language. If you’re going to stay more than a week in Ha Noi you really should learn to count in Vietnamese, to say Chi – hello and goodbye – (It’s the same!), and perhaps to say a few other phrases, such as “I don’t want to buy that” and “I don’t need a ride, thanks.” But it’s a difficult language for Westerners – its six tones almost impossible to hear without training. Learning to distinguish between the sounds of the words for “yoghurt” and the words for “fix” or “repaid” almost involves becoming another sort of person altogether – in my case, the sort of person who can sing, which I have never been able to do. Still, “I try to speak Vietnamese very well!”


But if a visitor to Ha Noi cannot master the language of words and sentences, what about the language of food? Vietnamese food in general and the food of Ha Noi’s Old Quarter in particular offer the visitor both the familiar and the unusual. And much can be said in this language. One of the first things you need to do in your exploration of the Old Quarter is to recognise that it is likely to be different from anything you have seen before. This is especially true of—but not limited to—what the Vietnamese eat. In the West, Vietnamese food has acquired a reputation for lightness and intensity of flavour, a tribute no doubt to immigrant chefs. Most of the food you will encounter in the Old Quarter will bear little resemblance to the Vietnamese food you have eaten in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Montreal or London. Take one of my favourites, Banh Goi: a round wheat flour “tortilla” is folded over a bit of meat and vegetables in the shape of a half moon or pillow and fried into a kind of Vietnamese taco. A couple of these served with salad and a beer will set you back one US dollar and a half, all of which seems familiar and comforting, which is no doubt why I return again and again to the shop at 29 Luong Van Can. (I’m also fond of the owner and her little brown and white dog.)


Through centuries of invasion, flood, draught and barely sufficient yields of staple crops, Vietnamese—especially those living in the north—have made a virtue of necessity, learning to use whatever foods were available to them. And after the bleak hardships of the French and American wars, many Vietnamese are taking great joy In returning to the traditional foods of their regions – foods that can sometimes bring a Westerner up short. There is of course Thit Cho, dog meat, which you actually don’t find much in the Old Quarter – it’s more common out on the Red River dyke. Then there are various members of the Insect family. I mention these as a reminder that the language of food has a vast vocabulary, which different cultures use in different ways.

On my first night in Ha Noi last April, jet-lagged, I wandered into a sidewalk restaurant on Phan Dinh Phung Street and ordered a Halida Beer. I wasn’t really hungry – I just wanted to watch the world go by. There were two groups of young people in the restaurant – both included men and women, a slightly unusual situation in Viet Nam, where the sexes are generally more segregated in social settings. One group seemed to have finished dinner and was having a few drinks of something red in little short glasses. The other group sat at a table with a pot of soup simmering on a brazier. From my vantage point beside the pillar, screened from view, I was about to be introduced to two culinary practices Americans – me included – will find, well, exotic. The red liquid? Picking up the menu the waiter had left on the table I discovered that the folks over there near the door were drinking “goat’s blood with alcohol.” It is a beautiful colour, by the way, the translucent fed of hibiscus flowers, and is served in recycled Coke bottles – hardly the use to which the buttoned-down executives back in Atlanta Georgia might have imagined for the left-over containers of this quintessentially American drink. The other group was having Trung Vit Lon with their soup, for which there is no really satisfactory translation into English, though it is usually called “half-hatched duck eggs.” It’s a boiled egg with an almost fully developed bird inside. Many of my Vietnamese friends swear by this delicacy, though a popular saying warns children to shut their eyes when they eat it.

My favourite streets in the Old Quarter are Hang Ma, Hang Quat and Hang Thiec. Hang Ma and Hang Thiec are among the few streets in the quarter that have retained their ancient trades, giving them perhaps a deeper history than other streets such as Hang Duong (Sugar Street), which now sells mostly ready-to-wear clothing. The first two are natural choices – Hang Ma sells colourful votive paper, “ghost money” and other paper objects – such as houses and motorbikes – associated with the cult of the ancestors. The objects are burned In temples, pagodas and communal houses on the first and fifteenth days of the lunar month as offerings to the dead. One of the most attractive and profound aspects of Vietnamese culture is the way the dead continue to be members of the family. It is common to see ordinary Vietnamese burning votive paper on the sidewalks in the evenings, a way of communicating with parents and grandparents no longer living, but still very much present in the lives of their descendants. The rising smoke is a language the dead can understand.


Hang Quat, which originally sold paper fans, is now lined with shops selling altar furnishings. It and Hang Ma are easily the most colourful streets in the quarter and the predominant colour is red, the colour of luck in Vietnamese cosmology and folk belief, much of which has been adapted from Taoist traditions filtered through centuries of village ceremonies and beliefs. In addition to banners bearing. the Chinese characters for luck, health, long life, and wealth, one can find porcelain images of various Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist deities. Especially popular are Guan Yin, a female Buddha is usually known as the Goddess of Mercy, and the dual figures of Ong Dia, the god of the earth and Ong Tai, the god of money. These two are the pair you see on small altars piled with fruit, incense and votive paper near the entrances to shops all over Viet Nam. Inscribed on the altars in Chinese you will often find sayings such as “The things of the earth bring forth wealth.” A distinguished Vietnamese scholar tells me that the two gods were traditionally not worshipped together and that their partnership is a result of the new entrepreneurial spirit of Doi Moi (renovation).

Hang Thiec intersects Hang Quat, but it could not be more different. This is the street of tinsmiths. The noise of hammers striking metal begins early in the morning and goes on late into the night. Mostly with hand tools Vietnamese craftsmen extend an old tradition Into modern times, fashioning a wide variety of kitchen utensils, boxes, and tanks for Bia Hoi (draught beer) and water with relatively simple tools. In Viet Nam, despite the birth of the market economy, labour is cheap and machines are expensive, which is why one sees so many people working with simple tools, but on Hang Thiec necessity is made a virtue and the result is the production of useful items that retain the marks of an older tradition of craftsmanship than the modern market usually makes room for. Not beautiful in the way of Hang Ma and Hang Quat, Hang Thiec, still, can stand as a symbol of Viet Nam in transition, old ways feeding energy into new ideas, ancient techniques and an Immense capacity for work combining to produce creative and unpredictable results.


Finally, take the standard “one hour very cheap” cyclo ride if you must – it’s not a bad introduction to the Old Quarter, but after that stuff, the guidebook in your purse and strike off by yourself. Don’t traipse along in a big group – you’ll spend so much time keeping your friends together that you won’t see Of hear or smell a thing, which is as good as not being there at all. Eat Pho (flat noodle soups), eat Bun Bo or Bun Cha, eat Banh Goi, and eat Trung Vit Lon if you’re brave. Get turned around, get completely lost. Let the noise wash through you like a wave. Walk till your feet ache. Walk at different times of the day, until you begin to sense the rhythm of the streets. And if you find yourself on Bat Dan at eight o’clock in the evening, stop into Café Quynh, sit down and order a beer Of a lemon juice. Don’t try to order food, there isn’t any. Café Quynh is the quietest place in Pho Co – from there you can watch children play, you can watch the action at the Pho kitchen across the street. You can sit silently in the heart of the oldest part of Ha Noi considering whatever amazing journey has brought you to this place, worshipping in your own way the god of luck.