The Soul of Old Hanoi

At first glance, Hanoi’s Old Quarter appears as a dirty, crowded and chaotic area. But if you take time and explore it more closely, you might find its charms hidden beneath the ugly appearance. From the sound of the street vendors, the fragrance of milky flowers to simple figurines made of glutinous rice powders, all these small things represent the eternal soul of Hanoi.

Tucked between the Hoan Kiem Lake, the Long Bien Bridge, a former city rampart and a citadel wall, Hanoi’s Old Quarter has a history that spans more than a thousand years. Started as a snake and alligator-infested swamp, it evolved into a crafts district in the 11th century when the Vietnamese reclaimed independence and King Ly Thai To built the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long (the old name of Hanoi). Soon, skilled craftsmen migrated to the city and artisan guilds were gradually formed by people originating from the same village and offering similar services.

Hoan Kiem Lake
A silent moment at Hoan Kiem Lake – The southern border of Hanoi’s Old Quarter

The craftsmen worked and lived together in a specific area, creating a cooperative system for merchandise. Finally, they gave the name of their crafts to the designated streets of the quarter, such that most streets acquired names beginning with hàng (Wares), for example, Hàng Da street (leather wares street) or Hàng Thiếc street (tin wares street). While several of these streets are still specialised in the trade that gave them their names, others have been replaced with another type of wares to meet the demand of modern-day customers. For instance, Hàng Buồm street (sail wares street) no longer sell sail equipment. Instead, it has become dominated by traditional cakes and candies.

Hanoi's Old Quarter
The chaotic streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Everything spills out onto pavements.
Milky flowers
Milky flower – A symbol of Hanoi’s autumn. Their sweet fragrance is mentioned in various songs and poems.

While wandering around Hanoi’s Old Quarter, you will encounter at least one or two street vendors. Even though it isn’t a feature unique to Vietnam, street vending is still an essential part of city life. No one has ever known what time or age they did appear. The only thing we know is that they serve as an informal yet extremely important agent in the local economy.

Strange as it may sound, street vendors do have stable trading relationships and frequent customers. Quality is, therefore, preserved to an acceptable extent and local people who shop for fresh grocery can enjoy the luxury of having products delivered to their door daily without any extra cost. Products vary as widely as needs call for, with vegetables, fruits, flowers and home-made dishes are the most common goods. Nevertheless, bargaining is virtually obligatory, especially if you are a tourist.

As you continue exploring the Old Quarter, you might come across some tò he, one of the rare surviving traditional toys of Vietnam. Amid the bustling scene of the Old Quarter, it’s easy to miss these colourful toy figurines because only a handful of craftsmen can still produce them. Made of glutinous rice powders, tò he is edible and can be kneaded into any shape and form, ranging from flowers, animals to characters in folk stories or cartoon. It is considered a cultural ambassador of Vietnam because it represents the skill and imagination of the Vietnamese craftsmen.

Tò he
A future tò he maker


    1. Len Kagami

      Thank you for your feedback! I will update this post as soon as I have a better photo of tò he. My current one is so bad and posting it would be a disgrace 🙂

  1. Jolene

    Are you back home? Reminds me of “old” Shanghai with its bustling street activity and people essentially living their lives out in the open. Is there a “new” Hanoi and is that what you will show us next??

    1. Len Kagami

      Yes, Hanoi was expanded in the last decade. Nearby villages such as Ha Tay, Ha Dong, etc. became parts of the “new” Hanoi. I didn’t intend writing about them, but thanks to you I might have a look at them 🙂 Let’s see if I can see anything special in these areas.
      Posts about my hometown, Ho Chi Minh City (commonly known as Saigon) will come this year. So stay tune! 😉

      1. Jolene

        Oh great, do let us know all Saigon has to offer! I’m sure a lot has changed in the past couple of decades for Vietnam.

      2. Len Kagami

        Thank you, Sara! It will definitely be published in this year 😉 I already have the idea for that post, but some photos are still missing.

  2. Bama

    I have yet to make it to Hanoi, but I’ve heard and read great things about it. But this is the first time I learn about tò he. I had to google it up to see the different variations of the figurines, and oh my! They’re meant to be eaten? They’re just too pretty and cute — although the same can be said about those super cute Japanese bento meals.

    1. Len Kagami

      Yes, tò he are 100% edible but people usually don’t eat them for two reasons. First, as you said, they are too cute. Second, they don’t taste good 🙂 It’s just glutinous rice powders mixed with food dyes.

  3. Nano @ Travel With Nano B.

    Len, I was so happy to read this, because I was contemplating on our next destination in Asia and Vietnam is high on the list. I think we will definitely visit. I’m particularly keen to see Hoi An. xx

    1. Len Kagami

      Hoi An is high on my list as well 🙂 I really want to see how much it has changed in the last decades. 15-16 years ago, the town was just a ruin. It was literally dead. Locals also left the town because there was nothing to do there. You only saw a few tourists and service was terrible. But now it is Vietnam’s top destination 🙂

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