To get to know Hanoi's Old Quarter, look up beyond the disheveled advertising posters and banners.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, the streets in Hanoi’s Old Quarter have an unsual air of calm compared to the usual chaos emanating from motorbikes honking, workers drilling and vendors shouting.

The only vehicles left around Hoan Kiem Lake are being driven by toddlers in tiny toy cars, and the streets are no longer jam-packed with crowds of scooters and cars tailgating one another. The quietness evokes a sense of nostalgia, and traces of the past still linger on the emerald windows and rusty balconies decked with ornamental plant pots.

For more than ten centuries, the Old Quarter has been the city's major commercial district.

Strolling through the 36 streets which make up the Old Quarter, there is a visual conflict between the old and the new on the façades of old houses and villas — now retail outlets and convenience stores cloaked behind advertisement boards in blinking neon lights and patio shades.

Most of the houses in the area were actually built at the end of 19th century on the foundations of their sinking forefather, many of which date back to centuries ago.

The houses are roughly 6.5 ft to 19.5 ft wide and usually built around an open-air courtyard. In the old days, the Old Quarter was occupied by mainly small traders and craftsmen who used the fronts of their houses to ply their trade before retiring into their depths. 

Many of the houses on Hang Dao street retain their original architectural style.

During the French colonial times, when the French and Vietnamese elites resided in areas around and to the south of Hoan Kiem Lake, the Old Quarter was inhabited mainly by Vietnamese and Chinese families.

Signs of these mixed cultural influences are still visible on the ancient structures today. 

“Even the smallest details can reveal the owner’s identity, social status and the history of the house,” said Tran Hau Yen The, an art researcher and author of a book titled “Song xua pho cu”. The book was the result of 15 years of research into the architecture of old Hanoi, and explains the significance and history behind the details of the old houses and buildings in and around the inner city, from their window railings and decor, to the balconies and structures.

For The, to get to know the Old Quarter, you should look beyond the disheveled advertising posters and banners.

The balcony of Thanh My jewelry at No. 73 Cua Nam street. © Tran Hau Yen The.

The's blueprint of this house on 73 Cua Nam Street, for instance, gives an insight into the owner — Nguyen Van Thu, whose original business  was  a jewellery store and the year the house was built — 1920.

According to The's research, the house was among the first jewelry stores in Hanoi, with advertising posters in French, Vietnamese and Chinese. The first letters, "Bijouterie Thanh My" or Thanh My Jewelry, however, have been removed. 

The found out that the shop was initially run by Nguyen Thi Bong, who was trained as a goldsmith and silversmith, and the name engraved at the top of the house is that of her husband, Nguyen Van Thu. 

"Displaying your name was a matter of identity, but it also had a commercial value," The added. 

Many family businesses still follow the tradition in Hanoi today. 

Some houses also had Chinese characters due to the fact that some of them were owned by Chinese traders, whose presence in the Old Quarter may have been small but contributed a lot in terms of taxes to the colonial administration. 

A house on Hang Dao Street. The names of the owners can still be seen on many of the old houses, as well as the French-influenced balconies and windows.

Most of the French-style houses in the Old Quarter have a Juliet balcony, but some now also have overhanging balconies. 

The said in the early 20th century, in Hanoi, the wrought iron railings became a trend and slowly replaced the traditional wooden railings, and buildings in the city in the 1920s were largely influenced by Art Deco, a French-imported architectural style. 

There are three main balcony designs in Hanoi: neoclassical, art nouveau and art deco. 

"From the perspective of a blacksmith, it is much easier to make art deco-influenced railings. Compared with art nouveau, which has more detail, it takes less effort," said The.

The Indochina Bank is now the headquarters of the Vietnamese National Bank. Photo via manhhai/flickr.

Despite this, most of the houses at the time were mainly influenced by Art Deco, and Hanoi was the pinnacle of this architectural style. Many of the houses built in the early 1920s exhibited the style, even though the heyday of Art Deco in Europe only started in 1930.

Some of the great illustrations for the Art Deco-influenced public buildings in Hanoi include the Indochina Bank, which is now the the Vietnamese National Bank, and The French-Chinese Bank, now an office of Vietnam Department of Industry and Trade.

During the French colonial times, the walls of the houses were usually painted in yellow and the windows in dark green. The tropical weather could have been the reason for this popular choice.

Urban planning now remains an unanswered question for residents living in and around the Old Quarter. 

Lan, a resident of Hang Dao Street, said after 1954, most of the houses previously owned by traders were redistributed to government workers. Her family has been living in their house for three generations now, and they are not the original owners. 

"Most of the houses here have new owners," Lan said. "The front part is for lease, usually for business, and the back part is still a living space."

Despite being a major tourist attraction, the living conditions here are tough. The rooms are cramped and small, and in many of the houses, two to three families share the same living space, including bathrooms and kitchens. 

One of the aims of the 2030 Hanoi Master Plan is the preservation of old buildings and structures in the Old Quarter, but it remains a challenge, especially when it is a matter of dealing with private ownership, as well as balancing between development and protection of cultural heritage. 

"Times have changed, the old people have left, the doors have been replaced, and the streets have morphed into a different shape," The wrote in the opening of his book. 

This old house at the intersection of Hang Da and Hang Bong is inhabited by a man who inherited it from his father. The house was built in the 1940s, and has been used as a barber's shop since then.

After 1954, most of the houses were turned into public properties and redistributed to civil servants. The family of the original owner of this house - "Duc Long", for instance, no longer live here.

While old architecture in other cities like Saigon can be spotted on mostly public buildings such as cinemas or theaters, in Hanoi, it is the residential houses and small shops in the old quarter that exhibit the French or Indochinese architectural influence.

Many of the houses here are however in dire conditions and in need of renovation, which opens up questions regarding the city's urban planning and the preservation of old houses and precincts.

Story and photo by Bao Yen

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