The Old Quarter of Thirty-Six Streets

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A STROLL THROUGH THE OLD QUARTER

A constantly vibrant microcosm of Vietnamese city life, Hanoi’s Old Quarter of Thirty-Six Streets is the liveliest urban maze I know. As you pick your way carefully around parked motorbikes, people squatting on tiny plastic stools at pavement cafes — locals call them ”dust cafes” — wandering vendors balancing carrying poles and merchandise being unloaded, don’t forget to look up. Soaring above the old two-storey shop houses, it’s a wonder that the new five and
six-story buildings, sometimes no more than nine feet wide, don’t need flying buttresses.
Countless cyclo and Xe Om (motorbike taxis) will offer their services – the polite negative response is thank you, “cam on”. Arriving is unimportant, wandering slowly and looking, is. Resign yourself to getting happily lost. The curves, diagonals and dead ends of these lanes seem intentional to ignore the cardinal compass points. Yet streets are well marked; most shops display their addresses. In extremity, just mutter “Hoan Kiem” and someone will cheerfully point you towards the lake.
In early times, just north of Hoan Kiem were two more lakes, Hang Dao and Thai Cuc. Bountiful with fish, Thai Cuc was connected to Hoan Kiem by a small stream over which there was a wooden bridge. Vendors along the bank sold fish caught in the lake. What a delightful scene this conjures up