Saturday, April 5, 2008

Around Ha Noi's Old Quarter

If you make the trip to Viet Nam, and you opt to stay at one of the luxury Western Hotels, you will have forsaken the intrinsic value of the cultural impact of the country. These luxurious hotels are not in the Old Quarter, but the ones that are will leave an indelible mark on your experience. The first time we came, we stayed at the Lucky Hotel I, and believe me, I would not have hesitated for a second to return. But, we would have then missed the seduction of the Hong Ngoc Hotel, - another gem in the Old Quarter. There is a difference between the "Old Quarter" and the "French Quarter", though they are relatively close to one another.

paper goods of all kinds are sold in this area

The Old Quarter (also referred to as the Hoan Kiem District due to its proximity to the lake of the same name) is famous for its 36 streets, which you will read and learn about in every guide book you pick up. History claims the genesis of this district around the early 13th century, when skilled craftsmen and guildworkers migrated to the area and set up shop in clusters, selling similar products. This is also reminiscent for me, of the cooperative, or prefecture set up of Japanese paper craftsmen, but not as "primitive". Each street was home to a specific type of product and thus was named accordingly.

The names have not changed but do keep in mind that Hang Gai Street is the main drag. It also made its claim to fame through the purveyors of silk and silver which set up shop there. One can also find stunning lacquerware, embroidered prints (of which we bought several).

very narrow

From an architectural standpoint, one is struck immediately by the unusually narrowness of the shops; this trait seems to also translate to the apartments and homes in most of the country. This was due in part to taxation which was determined by the width of the store front. As for the housing, it seemed more economical to build vertically than horizontally (another similarity to Japan, where real estate has gone wild). Thus, with each succeeding generation, the house would acquire a new floor.

notice the vertical character of the housing

Artists are everywhere in the Old Quarter; most are busy at work forging famous paintings from renown masters. Where else in the world can you get a Klimt for US$75 unframed? The framing cost more than the artwork, but it was worth every dong (VN currency). Yes, you can find original Viet Namese art, some of it falling into the "naif" category. It has still not made a name for itself, but it's a matter of time.

pagoda and banyan tree fight
for real estate

Don't fight the fact that street names may change after a block or two; it is simply a reflection of what they are peddling. I also didn't think it terribly important to remember which street is named for what, as we both take tremendous pleasure in losing ourselves on these crowded sidewalks, and literally continuously taking mental snapshots of everything and anything that appears.
Shoe Street?

As you may have guessed, walking is the most intimate and magical way to discover the treasures of the Old Quarter. If you get tired, hop a cyclo (seekloh) to your next destination. If it's brutally hot, take a cab; it will cost you peanuts...However, you might miss a splendid, sprawling banyan tree that may be cutting across the wires which are criss crossing above head just about everywhere. Each street will most likely also offer a pagoda or the remnants of one. The Viet Namese are not terribly religious people, but they are spiritual and most worship their ancestors. They do make their prayers in front of Buddha normally, but within the pagodas, there may be photos of martyred monks with offerings and incense on the side of their likenesses.
You will see a lot of red flags with a yellow star, accompanied by matching T-shirts, hats, and other "souvenir-like" items. Yes, this is communist Viet Nam, but you'd hardly know it.

It is impossible to have a bad meal in this city, or any other city in Viet Nam for that matter. We found more exotic fare this time around, but you are never left wanting for anything here. There is a definite fusion of Asian and French flavors which the chefs here make their own. Béchamel sauce in Ha Noi? You bet! and it's outstanding. Life is literally on the streets, and you either fall in step with everyone else, or you'll be left behind. And that would be a pity.

it's sheer madness on every single street

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