The keepers of tradition in Hanoi's hidden alleys

By Quynh Nguyen, Thanh Nga   March 27, 2024 | 10:08 pm PT
Deep in the small alleys of Hanoi lies a world of shops that few people know of - run by artisans who keep vocations many thought disappeared decades ago.
The keepers of tradition in Hanoi's hidden alleys

At 8 a.m., many customers are already queueing at To Hong Phan’s modest barbershop. Located on Hang Ruoi Street, Hoan Kiem District, the shop is tucked away in a short and tiny ten-meter alley, just wide enough for a single person to move through. There are only three seats for customers inside; others have to wait patiently out on the bustling street.

Phan, the 59-year-old shop owner, has been giving haircuts since he was 16 years old. After finishing his service in the army, he started working as a barber on the cramped sidewalks of Hanoi. Phan eventually decided to relocate his workplace to his private residence nearly 10 years ago.

The keepers of tradition in Hanoi's hidden alleys

Phan (standing, on the right) enjoys steady customer traffic at his home shop. On an average day, the barbershop serves 30 to 40 customers. Service costs range from VND50,000 ($2.02) to VND60,000.

"I used to be worried that there would be no customers after the relocation. But luckily, customers follow me wherever I go,” Phan said.
“My shop has no sign and yet it stays busy. Some who live far away have to make reservations in advance to avoid long waits.”

The keepers of tradition in Hanoi's hidden alleys

Vu Thuan Hoa and her husband, Nguyen Thang Long, used to own a photography studio in a townhouse on Quan Su Street, Hoan Kiem District. However, when demand dwindled in the 2010s, the couple, now in their 70s, moved their studio deep into an alley 100 meters from the old place.

Following the relocation, Hoa feared she would have to stop taking photos. Yet, despite the long winding alley that is rather hard to navigate, loyal customers still seek out her shop to have their photos taken.

The keepers of tradition in Hanoi's hidden alleys

Hoa’s photography studio is a 5-square-meter room, set up with a chair and a green screen.

“I have 5 signposts with my phone number put up from the beginning of the alley, so customers can give me a call if they lose their way. You have to make so many turns to get here,” said Hoa.

Hoan Kiem District has more than 1000 small lanes and alleys, most of which are sun-starved all year round and barely wide enough for a single person to pass through. Houses in these alleys usually have a total area of about 15-20 square meters.

The keepers of tradition in Hanoi's hidden alleys

Nguyen Ngoc Long's antique camera repair shop is hidden in an alley more than 10 meters long on Hoa Ma Street, Hai Ba Trung District.

Long's family has been fixing cameras for four generations. In the past, when camera repairmen were scarce, word of mouth drew camera collectors and enthusiasts to their doorstep, despite having no signboard.

The keepers of tradition in Hanoi's hidden alleys

Compared to the past, fewer customers are visiting Long’s repair shop these days. But business remains sufficient enough to sustain his livelihood and preserve the traditional craft. They still seek him out for accessory replacements and custom-made components for their beloved cameras.

At 47 years old, Long has been working as a camera repairman for more than 3 decades, and he has no intention of quitting. Despite the ongoing challenges, vintage cameras are gradually catching on again, which has motivated Long to maintain the profession.

“As long as there are still cameras that need fixing, my shop will still stay in business,” shared Long. “In addition, I also want to continue [passing on] the heritage of my family.”

The keepers of tradition in Hanoi's hidden alleys

For the past 45 years, residents of Thanh Mien Alley, Quoc Tu Giam Street, Dong Da District, have had a skilled tailor at work right next door.

Every single day, 72-year-old Nguyen Thi Hong diligently mends garments in front of her home. Apart from - common textile manipulation techniques, Hong uses a special technique to patch tears and holes by making use of the surrounding threads and fabrics that are still intact. Many people say she’s the last custodian of this technique in Hanoi.

The keepers of tradition in Hanoi's hidden alleys

Hong became a tailor after getting married. The craft was passed down to her by her mother-in-law, who began the profession in 1954.

“In the past, most people came to me to have their clothes mended because most of us only had a few clothing items to wear,” Hong said.

“These days, people own more clothes, some of which are very expensive. Therefore, they try to have worn out pieces repaired instead of throwing them away.”

The keepers of tradition in Hanoi's hidden alleys

After nearly half a century of working with needles and thread, Hong has never thought of quitting her job, despite the low income. Her motivation comes from a passion for preserving tradition, and the joy of breathing new life into worn out attire.

The keepers of tradition in Hanoi's hidden alleys

At the back of a small alley on Hang Ngang Street, Hoan Kiem District, lies the home of Do Duc Do and his zipper repair shop.

The 81-year-old man has been doing his job for more than 50 years.

In his young days, Do would sit on the sidewalks of the street with his toolbox, offering service to passersby who needed it.

In those days, Hang Ngang Street and Hang Duong Street bustled with fellow zipper repairmen. Today, only two or three maintain the profession due to decreasing demand.

For many years, Do has continued his work at home. He’s hung a small sign with his phone number at the beginning of the alley, so customers can call to have their items picked up.

“Some people still think of me and come to my small workplace,” he said. “I’ll keep working as long as my health permits.”

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