The Changing Face of Hanoi’s Ancient Quarter

by Melissa García Lamarca

Bustling. Vibrant. Dynamic. These are just a few adjectives that describe Hanoi’s "36 Streets" — or Ancient Quarter — an area that has existed since the city was founded in 1010. Originally the center of supply for Vietnamese rulers in the Imperial City, and a residential area for "commoners," the area emerged as an important trade and craft center in the early 13th century. This was due to its privileged location between the country's seat of power — the old citadel destroyed by French colonizers — and the Red River, whose flow provided an important connection to nearby regions.

The urban morphology and function of the Ancient Quarter has, remarkably, remained largely intact throughout Vietnam's more recent history of French colonization and decades of war. Its "spaghetti" street pattern remains from the 15th century, when trade streets emerged that specialized in a particular craft or good, still reflected in street names today. Constant division of properties over the centuries led to the creation of the Quarter's characteristic "tube" or "tunnel" houses, providing live-work spaces for the residents of the area.

"Tube" houses in Hanoi's Ancient Quarter. Source: Ingolf Vogeler

The Ancient Quarter's vibrancy dropped significantly during the decades of the communist centrally planned economy (1954 to 1986), as the state intervened to control and direct economic activities across the country. But after Doi Moi, major economic reforms launched in 1986 to shift Vietnam toward a "socialist-oriented market economy." The country is now fully in the throes of rapid, market-driven growth.

Since the late 1980s, the Ancient Quarter has undergone a massive entrepreneurial boom. A high percentage of the local population has benefited, as they have transformed their "tube" houses into shops, cafes, restaurants and hotels. There is a thriving pavement economy, with street hawkers — overwhelmingly women — commuting there each day from the countryside to sell vegetables and other goods. Foreign tourism is also booming.

International organizations and local architects have proposed plans to maintain the Quarter's character through conservation projects and construction guidelines that would limit building heights, protect the "tube" style development and so forth. But the economic benefits of building up are too attractive for many entrepreneurs. Despite existing height regulations, the right connections and payments tend to bring the desired results. This, alongside Buddhist beliefs in impermanence and embracing change, have made it difficult to build widespread support for preserving urban heritage. Thus, debates over the best way to maintain the character of the Ancient Quarter continue amidst continuing transformation.

Credits: Photos by Melissa García Lamarca.

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