During a relaxing weekend, there’s nothing better than to head to the heart of the Old Quarter, walk along the wide, empty streets, and be surrounded by smiling faces. This is no longer just a dream of mine.
The hustle and bustle of Hanoi
Every time I’m in the downtown area near Hoan Kiem Lake, what haunts me are the frightened eyes of foreigners and some Vietnamese, waiting hesitantly for the oncoming traffic to slow down so they can cross the street. This has never been my ideal of Hanoi. The hustle and bustle makes me want to rush home and escape from the chaotic crowd. Walking in this city is a luxury, because the streets are where tens of thousands of cars blow dust everywhere, and crossing the streets is an adventure sport in itself.
When a bustling night market made up of hundreds of stalls sprang up on the small, crowded streets, the claustrophobia seemed to only increase. The Old Quarter, which has been the cradle of Hanoi’s trade for centuries, has an abundance of small shops. A few small corners dedicated to tuong (Vietnamese traditional drama), cheo (Vietnamese opera), xam or quan ho singing are easily overlooked among the 4,000 shops and the sweaty crowd trying to move along the narrow streets.
What Hanoi lacks is a place dedicated to fun, to revelling, to peace.
“Freeing” the Old Quarter
One autumn day in September, the Old Quarter of Hanoi was, suddenly and surprisingly, freed. On the once crowded streets around Hoan Kiem Lake, children played and teenagers rode around on their roller skates and hover boards. People poured into the streets to find a sense of tranquillity. With the ban on motorised vehicles around the area during the weekends, there is no more dust and no more loud engine noises. There are only trees, smiling faces, stories and peace.
During my first time visiting Hanoi’s new pedestrian street, I was overwhelmed. I had an encounter with Ms. Hanh, a 50-year-old Hanoian, who was standing idly on the sidewalk for a while. She said that every time she stepped off the sidewalk, she felt an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety, a feeling that every Hanoian is familiar with. It’s difficult to let go of this kind of stress.
Every weekend, 16 streets in Hanoi welcome nearly 20 thousand people, who flock here to enjoy the atmosphere in the heart of the city, to peacefully walk and admire the streets and enjoy simple pleasures that they could not have had before.
The Old Quarter – a living museum of folk games
Hanoi’s pedestrian streets have unexpectedly become a lively museum of folk games. What’s even more surprising is how the urban residents have caught up with these long-forgotten games. It turns out that they were only forgotten because there was no space to play and no friends to play with.
On Hanoi’s pedestrian streets, you can surprise even yourself with your own friendliness and how easy it is to make new friends. Hai Anh, a hyperactive 7-year-old boy, used to stress out his parents because he needed a place to play every weekend. Now he’s here every weekend, despite living over 20 minutes away. Around the monument for martyrs, people always join the traditional games. The young boy plays along, and not even 20 minutes later, he’s chitchatting with his new friends as if they are old acquaintances. Nearby, a few girls are skilfully juggling in a ball game, one of countless childhood games popular a few decades ago. Other boys and girls cannot take their eyes off some of the bright and colourful toy figurines. On the canvases nearby, children enthusiastically learn how to make toy figurines according to the instructions of an artisan.
On another corner, a crowd circles around bamboo dancing. Don’t be surprised when you see a father carrying his baby to dance, or when the bamboo stick breaks after being stepped on by a young child. It’s the adorable awkwardness of urban people.
On one corner, people are rope jumping. Another corner is brought to life with capture the flag and shuttlecock.
If you want to enjoy the atmosphere of pedestrian streets without vehicles, visit during the day, when there are only about 3,000 – 5,000 people.
At nighttime, the streets are not wide enough for the influx of people who are there to have fun. Sometimes the amount of people triples. The best way to get to know this new atmosphere is to join a game, such as tug of war, where each side can be as long as 7 – 8 metres thanks to the dozens of participants of all ages. You won’t care how focused you were or how loud you’re cheering once the game starts. The initial awkwardness will vanish, even if afterwards, you hands have rope burn.
An outdoor venue for the arts
One side of the lake, by Ba Kieu Temple, is filled with the tunes of traditional Southern music. The other side, by Nam Huong Hall is soothed by the melodious sounds of xam singing. In front of Ngoc Son Temple, old scholars perform calligraphy.
Sixteen streets are not enough to host the diverse culture. The space attracts street artists who are always ready to give all they’ve got. Sometimes it is filled with pop songs, sometimes it’s rock and roll, or it may be a stage for teenagers to perform choreography to a popular K-Pop song. Sometimes, the streets roar with magic tricks, balloon art, and stilt walkers. The pedestrian streets opened around Mid-autumn Festival, which means the streets were filled with joyful lion dances. One weekend, on a small corner of the sidewalk, a foreign duo played the trumpet and sang a beautiful ballad. Sometimes, it becomes the field for soccer players to display their ball skills, which excites and amazes onlookers. On Christmas Eve, the streets were filled with music and a Zumba flash mob, attracting hundreds of young people.
Every time I visit, I get excited and eagerly wait to see what the streets have to offer.
Following Hang Ngang, Hang Dao, and turning to Dao Duy Tu, Ma May, Ta Hien, Hang Buom, a culinary paradise awaits. These streets are always crowded thanks to the diverse dishes on offer: skewers, grilled poultry, grilled sausages, roasted chicken wings, fried chicken legs with chilli. Foreign photographers taking pictures of Hanoi are always amazed that Hanoians can do everything on the sidewalk, whether it’s getting a haircut or eating. Now, Hanoians can eat comfortably on the streets. On these streets vehicles are banned from 7 pm onwards during the weekend.
Hanoi used to be dusty, noisy and scary, and Hanoians used to dream about busy yet safe and fun pedestrian streets similar to those of Thailand or Hong Kong. Now, this dream has come true. It is a gathering place for festivities, entertainment or music – all to be enjoyed without any fog or traffic noise. Here you can experience the old way of life and traditional cultural forms, which even Hanoians did not think they could preserve in this modern metropolis.
Nhung Nguyen | Wanderlust Tips | Cinet