Hanoi can be compared to an oriental Calypso, who attracts and retains travelers with images of female street vendors balancing goods on their shoulders, solemn temples, and amber houses laying hidden behind rows of flame and Pride of India trees.
Hanoi’s The Huc Bridge (Source: Internet)
The Old Quarter, West Lake, and Hanoi ancient villages stand for the three cultural aspects of the city that give travelers the full-on sensory experience that can’t be found anywhere else. So pack your adventure spirit and embark on an excursion diving deep into the soul of this millenial city.
The Old Quarter – A merchant hotspot
Through the ups and downs of history, the soul of Hanoi still remains intact in its artisan workshops and commercial stores, without which, Hanoi would become a nonentity. The city of thirty streets and guilds was formed in the 15th century and is a collective of several trade villages. Each of them worships a patron saint of its profession and is dedicated to a specific handicraft, which has given the narrow streets of Hanoi their evocative names such as the Hemp Street, Mat Street, and Bowl Street. The best way to explore the Old Quarter’s maze of streets and alleys is at the slow pace of a Hanoi cyclo tour with pedicab, a once very practical method of urban transport.
Silk Street (Source: Internet)
Hang Dao (Silk Street) can literally translate into the street that sells red-dyed fabrics. If the thirty-six streets and guilds of Hanoi resemble a mulberry leaf, Silk Street would be the stalk from which the web of smaller streets spread. The locality of Hang Dao justifies its position as an ever-hectic main street.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Silk Street was entirely a trading spot. In each lunar month, on the 1st, 6th, 11th, 16th, 21st, and 26th, people brought gauze, silk-floss, and satin from weaving villages to Hang Dao. After the First World War, the Indians came and brought with them cotton fabrics, making traditional silk-selling shops significantly decrease in number.
Silk Street no longer retains any vestige of its former activities. From the mid-1980’s, with the adoption of the market economy, watchmaker’s shops, ready-made garment shops, and haberdasheries proliferated. Along with them came the concrete buildings that posed a threat to the existence of the small and pleasant-looking houses. Traces of the old Silk Street can still be found at number 90A, which displays a stele that bears evidence of the construction of a communal house to worship the tutelary god of the Dai Loi guild and the patron saint of dyers.
Phat Loc lane
Phat Loc alley (Source: Internet)
Unlike other streets in the Old Quarter that have somewhat forfeited their former practices and traditions to adapt to the new lifestyle of Hanoians, Phat Loc lane still retains some valuable vestiges of the Old Quarter’s former glory.
The building at number 30 is the family shrine of the Bui clan, the first people that settled there. The Vietnamese show respect to gods and ancestors by upgrading and re-building temples and communal houses, resulting in the destruction of several ancient structures. However, in the case of this family shrine, the revenue generated from the clan members was so modest that they were unable to make any major changes to the shrine, so the house has remained mostly intact for over a century. The building is a tubular house that is long and narrow. It is divided into compartments along the length; each of them is separated from the other by a courtyard that houses potted ornamental plants and sometimes basins of miniature mountains.
Dong Xuan market
Dong Xuan market in the early 20th century (Source: Internet)
There was a time when pickpockets of Dong Xuan were equivalent to “gangsters of Chicago”. The market is located at the very heart of the Old Quarter and was once a vibrant hub of local trade. Traders arrived at the crack of dawn from all over the country, wove through an ocean of buyers and other sellers and unloaded heaps of goods. Dong Xuan market with its dignified standing has won the hearts and minds of Hanoi’s residents, poets, and writers, who highly praised Dong Xuan’s hectic pace of life.
For Vietnamese, Dong Xuan market is also associated with small tea stalls set up on the pavement with young and pretty women as the proprietors. Most Hanoians cannot resist the temptation of a cup of piping hot green tea with sugar after a hearty meal, or a few sips of rice wine, or the charisma of the attractive woman who are serving it.
West Lake – A city retreat
West Lake at dawn
West Lake and Truc Bach Lake used to be one, until they were separated by a causeway named Co Ngu (Now it is Youth promenade). Truc Bach means white silk woven at the Ivory Bamboo village. The name was derived from a pavilion built by a Trinh seigneur on the lake’s bank as the residence for his neglected concubines. The women then devoted their time weaving white silk, hence the name of the smaller lake.
West Lake was known by many names, one of them is Dam Dam (Lake of the Mist), which was popular in the 11th century. To find out why it has such an evocative name, take a Hanoi cycling tour and paddle to West Lake early in the morning in winter, when a mist swallows the landscape and leaches every single color, leaving behind a stony-grey wash drawing for you to behold.
Another name of West Lake is Dam Xac Cao (Fox Grave Lake). According to an ancient legend, the lake was the inhabitance of a nine-tailed demon fox, which threaten the lives of lake’s residents. Later, Tran Vu saint killed the fox and destroyed its lair. The crater formed by the destruction of the fox’s cave was filled with water to prevent the fox from resurrecting. That body of water is the West Lake we know today.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
Tran Quoc pagoda (Source: Internet)
The sparsely populated neighborhood of West Lake boasts a quintessential slice of ancient Vietnamese spiritual architecture that is unaffected by the world beyond. Conveniently located on the leafy Kim Ngu (Golden Fish) peninsula on the East side of West Lake, Tran Quoc stands out for housing a one-of-a-kind garden with several Buddhist towers that date back to the 18th century. The highlight of the garden is an 11-story stupa. Each storey is encircled by six arched windows. Each of them displays a Buddhist gemstone statue. Atop the stupa is a nine-storey lotus, also made out of gemstone. The stupa is located opposite the Bodhi tree that grew from a cutting of the original tree in Bodh Gaya, where Buddha sat under and found his enlightenment. This arrangement is to emphasize the purity of lotus and the wisdom of Bodhi.
Quan Thanh temple
Quan Thanh temple (Source: Internet)
This temple is one of the few remaining relics of Taoism left in Vietnam. It is one of the four temples that stand in the four directions of the Thang Long Citadel to defend it. Facing North, Quan Thanh temple has four pillars in front and a three-arched-entrance gate which holds two belfries. One of them houses a bell that was cast over 300 years ago.
The god worshiped in Quan Thanh is Tran Vu, who defeated the nine-tailed demon fox in the legend of the making of West Lake and the guardian of the North. His copper statue is one of the bronze casting masterpieces in Vietnam. The statue possesses several features that show the tranquil majesty of a god according to Vietnamese tradition; a square face, high forehead, thick lips, and a large nose. Tran Vu wears an armor made out of turtle shells and snake scales while sticking his sword, entwined with a snake, into a turtle; his other hand makes a gesture of Taoism which means eradicating evil.
The outskirts of Hanoi
As Huu Ngoc, a famous Vietnamese culturist said: “To understand the soul of traditional Vietnam, one must go to the countryside”. However, this culture trip does not necessarily require embarking on a lengthy excursion. Hanoi’s outskirts are peppered with ancient villages that to some degree retain their traditional appearance and spirit. These villages are well worth putting on your destination list for a Hanoi cycling tour.
Cuu village’s gate
While uong Lam village takes the spotlight and has becomes well-trodden by both local and international tourists, Cuu village is rather under the radar. This town used to be a flourishing tailor village under the French colonial era. This profession also brought wealth to its residents and explains why Cuu village mostly features buildings in French Gothic architecture. When travelling in the village, blend in with the locals by going on a Hanoi cycle tour in order to not disturb the village’s tranquility.
Traces of its former glory can be found in handsome houses that gracefully blend Vietnamese and French architecture. One of the oldest and finest buildings of Cuu village belongs to the Bui’s family. The house’s entrance is embossed with a prawn whose chelae hold a board that reads: “Nhap Hieu Xuat De” (pious to one’s parents and yielding to one’s siblings). The house’s doors resemble a book, which is an iconic Vietnamese architecture element while the pillars are embossed with floral patterns, which can be related to French style. The house was extravagantly ornamented to show its owner’s high status.
Duong Lam village
Wars and modernization (or westernization) have disfigured several Vietnamese traditional villages, but Duong Lam is a rare exception. Only four kilometers West of Son Tay town lies a truly lost world of laterite structures, tombs, and temples that are characteristics of the Vietnamese Midlands. This space is a maze of back roads, alleys, and footpaths.
A Duong Lam’s ancient house (Source: Internet)
Duong Lam is not only praised for preserving its typical traits of a traditional village, it also houses a wealth of history. Duong Lam is believed to be the homeland of two Vietnamese emperors; one of them put an end to a thousand years of subjugation by the Chinese. With its richness in significance and spiritual achievements, Duong Lam is regarded as a worthy counterpart of the ancient city of Hoi An.
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