Hà Nội – the old charm?

My first time in Hà Nội…probably in 1991 or 1992, all my trips to Hà Nội at that time – only for business, I didn’t have time to explore Hà Nội properly….my itineraries were simple : from airport to hotel, from hotel back to airport, and in the between hotel and airport – the hotel’s restaurant!

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Thê Húc bridge over the Lake of the returned sword or simply Sword Lake

In 2012, after a 7-year long, I came back to Hà Nội and for the first time, as a free man, without any plan, just for pleasure! I like Hà Nội. I love the culture, I fall in love with the cuisine in Hà Nội…but that was Hà Nội in the old days.

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Young couple enjoy their moment at the Sword Lake, the Golden Turtle temple on the background

Hà Nội has autumn and winter, not that sharp but more fun than Sài Gòn, where only two – the day-long rain season and the extreme barbecue sun season! I love Hà Nội because Hà Nội has lakes, beautiful lakes with a historical legend like The Lake of the returned sword.  

According to the legend, in early 1428, our King Lê Lợi was boating on the lake when a Golden Turtle God surfaced and asked our King to return his magic sword, the King remembered long in the past the Dragon King gave him the sword to fight against the Ming China and his promise to return the sword back to the Golden turtle after the victory over China.

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another couple also enjoy Sword Lake, I love the guy’s outfit!

For people, born and living in Sài Gòn, especially before 1975, the word “Hà Nội” sounds dangerously mysterious because it was in the North with the communism, at the same time – romantically beautiful thanks to those novels by the famous Northern novelists, back to early 20th century, long before the war. My curiosity, my love toward to Hà Nội probably was born after reading these beautiful novels.

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The alley around the Sword Lake

I love the expression – Hà Nội with 36 streets, it sounds much better, more lovely in Vietnamese “Hà Nội 36 phố phường”. Nowadays, these 36 streets are located in one quarter – the Old quarter. The most famous trait of the Old Quarter are its areas dedicated to one specific trade or guild.

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Bamboo wares street (Hàng Tre)

In the old days, the farmers, the craftsmen from villages around the town used to gather in one area of their guild to sell their wares to merchants. The crafts or guilds of each area gave the names to the streets of the quarter…such as Hàng Tre street “bamboo wares street” or Hàng Đồng street “copper wares street”. Nowadays many streets remained with the old name but the crafts or guilds have already gone for long!

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Joss paper street (Hàng Mã), i.e burnt for offering to the dead.
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Cooper wares street (Hàng Đồng)
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The cooper wares street never without a blacksmith

It’s quite interesting to listen to the conversation between two people in Hanoi, the words they use, the expression, the way they address to each other…I love that! It’s very different from Sài Gòn in the South and to me, it’s quite lovely funny.

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Still peaceful alley in the old quarter

Some said in Hà Nội people are good at speaking, good at selecting nice words but…just to please you! I was told it’s difficult now to find the original Hà Nội voice, the original accent…original “Hanoians” don’t live in Hà Nội anymore!

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and not far from there  – a busy drinking street.
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Are we in the old quarter? It looks like somewhere in Saigon!

In 2012, actually I came back to Hà Nội, with a mission, to meet an artist who specialized in “reviving” the old, damaged family photos. We call “truyền thần”, i.e a portrait painter who could show the inner essence of the subject, not only the outward appearance.

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Beautiful gallery in the old quarter

Seven years ago, I read an article about the artist. I called and sent him my family photos, after two months over the phone he asked me to pick up the paintings or he could send over to Sai Gòn for me. I told him I will be in Hà Nội, I was so pleased with his amazing job. Today I passed by his small studio in Hàng Ngang, not open, hope it’s just closed for lunch time. When I first met him, back to 2012, he was already in his early 70s.

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Another gallery with the artist

Food in Hà Nội is simply marvelous. I like the taste, I like the story behind the table that Hà Nội people could create and share…but many Saigoneses couldn’t bear the taste. To them, it’s terribly flat or too much MSG. Really?

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People enjoy a bowl of beef noodles – Phở on the street
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Here you go….my bowl of Phở – one of the best in town!

The living style in Hà Nội is different from Sài Gòn, sometime I find it a bit “exaggerated” but sometime quite “charming”. I love the way people here, very early in the morning, queue for cheap but good “breakfast”. You may wonder what kind of “breakfast” they queue for?

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People queue to buy an early meal. as breakfast, for the family
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Here you go – the sticky rice with peanut! The vendor from the Hanoi suburb.
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Traditional fish stew – very tasty to me but not for everyone in South due to galingale flavor

Street vendors or peddlers or hawkers, I don’t know which word is better. Anyway in Hà Nội these sellers are another charming colorful picture for the old quarter, by the times they changed a lot. I still remember an old movie made in the South before 1975 – “Gánh hàng hoa”, literally means a street flower vendor, based on a novel by two famous novelists in Hà Nội, in early 20th century. It’s about the destiny of a street flower vendor in the old Hà Nội, a broken-heart story.

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Today the flower vendor on bicycle, not on shoulders, to ease her daily hard work.
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Moving around the old town, the flower seller carries the typical Northern flowers on her bike.
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Hard to imagine if one day these boxes will replace the flower street vendors
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The coffee shop in the old style when people sitting on a small, low chairs.
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or a fancy coffee shop to witness the crowd, the busy traffic on the street outside

Hà Nội has much more to offer, beautiful corners, quiet alleys in the old town, good meal, Hà Nội still has many colonial French architectures…but I remember another Hà Nội, back to early 1990s, more peaceful, more “original” or “traditional”, today I was struggling while walking in the old town, the noise, the traffic, the crowd, the merchandises on the sidewalk…made Hà Nội like a big market not a village anymore.

5 thoughts

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post! I feel as if I’d been right there with you. You’ve really captured the atmosphere of Hà Nội, from its art galleries and historic sites to the street food and busy commercial streets. It looks like a truly fascinating city!

    PS: I wish I had the confidence to dress that like young man in the fancy suit. How marvelous!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much Heide! I really love your compliments! I made me feel so good! Hà Nội used to be a nice old town but nowadays suffers an extreme urbanization, the old charm is fading away years after years. Once again thank you very much for checking my blog! P.S: I’m glad that you also like that fancy suit 🙂 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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