The streets and lanes are narrow, crowded and cluttered. The precinct oozes with every expectation and stereotype a visitor would expect from an Asian metropolis that bustles with trade, street affairs and people. One has to be reminded that this city of Ha Noi is the capital of a Communist state, but the business penchant and practice that is so evident in the Old Quarter comes from long traditions and establishments. Families actually live above their shops and every day a vibrant neighbourhood system, that intertwines livelihoods and strong community links, provides meaning and continuity to every resident. The street names each and every time include the Vietnamese word "Hang", which just means merchandise. I saw street plates with names like Pho Hang Buom, Pho Hang Chiew and Pho Hang Mam - Pho referring to a street.
Hang Bac is Silver Street, Hang Gai is Silk Street and Hang Tre is the Bamboo Street. In contemporary Ha Noi, some of these streets do now offer produce and products that vary from the original names. Still, Hang Huong, or Incense Street,has the lingering aromatic sweetness of joss sticks. To me, the Old Quarter is the original super market or department store and can have hidden delights if one takes the time to explore, listen and observe. The Cha Ca La Vong, an eatery which specialises in a marinaded monkfish dish, has been operating for more than a hundred years, despite the change in political leaders, modernity and populations. Fermented rice, saffron and galangal is mixed with the ever popular fish sauce to make this marinade.
Sailmakers Street or Hang Buom is now laden with candies, sweet meats, freshly ground coffee and imported alcohol like brandies and whiskies. Nothing beats getting the grassroots feel when visiting Ha Noi as staying in the Old Quarter. Its central location and easy walking access to other interesting parts of the city centre (except for those around the West Lake) make it a magnet for tourists young and old. Perhaps the better way is to adapt to and learn crossing the roads in Vietnam first in Ha Noi rather than on the wider roads of Ho Chi Minh City in the country's south.
People rise early in the Old Quarter. Residing in a hotel there, I could hear the rising crescendo of activity, conversation and traffic as early as 6 am. Interesting items of note are roasted sour pork hash, pottery, meat jerky, grilled cuttlefish and jewellery. A few members of my group and I took an evening cyclo ride past shops and other fascinating retail outlets. Above, a view from the upstairs of a well known coffee joint and below, heritage styled furniture grace guest accommodation. Pop up markets are set up after sunset. The evening before I flew out of Vietnam, I had the opportunity to try the pho, the rice noodle soup that originates from Ha Noi.
The Dong Xuan Market is the oldest institution of its kind in Ha Noi. The Bach Ma Temple has a unique and magical White Horse. Artisans have settled in this Old Quarter since the 11th century when a national celebrity Ly Thai To built his political capital here, the cherished Thang Long (Or Rising Dragon). Today it is worth staying in or visiting the many tubular designed houses or stop by the Memorial House Museum, a tribute to merchant life of the past. There were 36 original gates in this precinct, but only one remains intact today - the Quan Chong, or the Gate of the Commander of the Regiment. Today the Old Quarter is also known locally as the 36 Streets, although others opine that the number 36 refers actually to the number of trade or craft guilds once having businesses in this area. An interesting aspect of this historical area is that there used to be porridge sellers providing food to candidates who came from all over the country to sit for the imperial examinations nearby.