Old streets, new vibe

The creation of pedestrian malls on weekend nights has given Hanoi’s Old Quarter a totally different feel.

By JIN NGUYEN on June 05,2015 08:00 AM

Old streets, new vibe

Since Hanoi became Vietnam’s capital a millennium ago its Old Quarter has always been its heart and soul, with busy trade streets, specialised villages, and a boisterousness that only a dense population can bring. But it’s perhaps never been so vibrant and alluring as it’s been in recent months, surprising even residents born and bred in the area with the new appearance accompanying the introduction of vehicle-free pedestrian malls on weekend nights.

More than just walking streets, though, they’re also …

Watching streets

Though starting at 8pm, at 7 many people, especially the elderly, gather around the stage set on the corner of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ma May

Though starting at 8pm, at 7 many people, especially the elderly, gather around the stage set on the corner of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ma May

The first time streets were closed in the Old Quarter over ten years ago to form a pedestrian mall on weekend nights was mostly so that a night market could held, stretching from Hang Dao to Dong Xuan, a strip famous for clothing. The night market soon became a popular spot for local people and foreigners alike to stroll around and hangout, with entertainment activities in the city being a little on the short side at the time.

Then as now, besides clothing are a variety of other goods such as shoes, cosmetics, accessories, jewellery, handicrafts, and souvenirs. Families, couples, friends, or tourists came to see what’s on offer, bargaining for what catches their eye, or just simply strolling around and taking in the scene. Sometimes it’s a human traffic jam around the stalls, but different to normal traffic jams everyone just takes it in their stride and stays relaxed. As the eyes of foreign tourists light up as they see how cheap things are, local people smile at a foreign guy not buying like others but actually selling clothes, calling out ‘Em oi, mua di, re lam!’ (‘Hey there, buy it, very cheap!’).

Despite its undoubted vitality, more was needed than the night market to get the best out of the Old Quarter. At the end of last year six more streets were closed off to traffic on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights: Hang Buom, Hang Giay, Luong Ngoc Quyen, Ma May, Dao Duy Tu and Ta Hien. It seemed to give the crowded streets a little extra breathing space, with the chaos of cars and motorbikes replaced by the footfalls of people and new entertainment and other activities that came with the change.

Like live music shows. Though starting at 8pm, at 7 many people, especially the elderly, gather around the stage set on the corner of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ma May. Thu Nga, a 60-year-old local resident, gets a lot of pleasure out of the music shows, coming early to find a good vantage point and listen to Vietnamese pop songs from the 70s and 80s and Chau Van, a traditional folk art of spiritual singing within Hau Dong, which is a ritual of the Mother Goddess, one of the main religions in Vietnam. Other traditional music can also be found in front of Bach Ma Temple on Hang Buom, like Ca Tru, a complex form of sung poetry recognised as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, and Xam, or blind buskers, which were common in the north during dynastic times.

While folk music is more appealing to the older people wandering around the area, the new and inspired tones found on the corner of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Hang Giay bring in a much younger crowd. With different artists and bands each weekend night, the audience hears a vivid musical collection of pop, rock, jazz, flamenco and others. From New York, tourist Tony Feducia said that although street music is common back home he still found it new and interesting here in Hanoi. ‘I didn’t expect to see it,’ he said. ‘I enjoyed hearing foreign songs I know and also the Vietnamese songs. The singers are talented and passionate.’

There’s also a sprinkling of art and culture to be discovered at the Hanoi Old Quarter Culture Exchange Centre, opened recently at 50 Dao Duy Tu. The three-floor centre holds permanent and temporary exhibitions, workshops, and cultural and art activities every week, aimed at introducing the history, heritage, and traditional crafts of the Old Quarter to the public.

In front of the centre are little boys walking on stilts or little girls laughing on little cyclos or swings. The street also recently had a free playground for kids on the weekends, with games and fun like bamboo jacks, squares, teeter-totters (seesaws), slides, and rope skipping. All equipment at the playground is made from bamboo and recycled materials. There’s also a small stage with free-style dancing and other games. Part of a project called Play Street, which is an initiative of the Think Playgrounds group and supported by the management board of the Hanoi Old Quarter, the playground gives local and visiting kids a place to have some fun, which is lacking in the area.

Drinking streets

Bia hoi is on almost every corner, at the dirt cheap price of VND5,000 a glass, with Ta Hien being the first street to really focus on serving the beer and becoming one of the most lively drinking spots in the capital.

Bia hoi is on almost every corner, at the dirt cheap price of VND5,000 a glass, with Ta Hien being the first street to really focus on serving the beer and becoming one of the most lively drinking spots in the capital.

After becoming weary from walking and watching, it’s time to take a short rest with a drink. Food and drinks are found everywhere, especially bia hoi (draught beer), as drinking on the sidewalk is part of modern-day Vietnamese culture.

Not only on the weekend but every night, from early evening to around midnight, Ta Hien is full of people sitting on the sidewalk and more often than not spilling out onto the narrow street, forcing pedestrians to squeeze their way through. Both local and foreign, most are young and sitting in groups, sipping on bia hoi while chatting and sometimes toasting ‘mot, hai, ba, Zo!’ with each other or even strangers nearby. The fun spreads out down to where Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen meet, which is known around town as ‘Bia hoi corner’. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ said Swiss tourist Viviane Ortner. ‘There are so many people sitting around on tiny plastic chairs drinking beer and enjoying the atmosphere, which is so different to where I come from.’

Many of the bars and cafés also sell bottled beer like Hanoi, Saigon, Heineken, Tiger, and Carlsberg, and snacks are plentiful, such as nem chua (fermented pork roll), pho mai que (fried cheese sticks), grilled pork with bread, noodles, and sausages.

Dancing streets

Old streets, new vibe

While some just drink and chat, others prefer something a bit more livelier.

A busker, or maybe street performer is more accurate, set up his loudspeakers, put on some dance music, and started to passionately dance around in his own style, bringing even more life to the corner. Many stood up and formed a circle around him, to watch his moves. Some joined in, creating a group dance of different styles amid whistles and encouragement from onlookers. Many put some money in his hat when he was done or bought some chewing gum from his partner, who walks around with him.

The dancer, who goes by the name Thanh Quay, or ‘Genie of Dance’, was the first to perform street dancing around the Old Quarter. His success encouraged other dancers and also singers to get involved in street music. One new guy is gaining fame with his Michael Jackson moves and amazing magic tricks. Whenever either of these two guys show up the vibe always goes up a notch.

If you love dancing but don’t want to strut you stuff on the street, there are any number of bars nearby with dance floors and different types of music to groove to. Local and foreign DJ spin tracks at Hair of the Dog, Funky B (formerly Funky Buddha), Ball Bar, Hanoi Rock, Temple, and Dragon Fly, while other places like Rock Store, Factory 47, Mao’s Red Lounge, Local, Fat Cat, and The Couch House also pump out some volume.

Best of all, a night on the town on Old Quarter weekends won’t leave a hole in your pocket. From bargains at the night market and free street music, both old and new, to cheap bia hoi or bottled beer or a mixed drinks at fair prices, you can watch, drink and dance in the old streets to your heart’s delight.

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