When people talk about Vietnam's capital city, they often use the term "the 36 streets of Hanoi.” It is because, at the beginning of the 20th century, the city used to have only 36 streets, most of which are now part of the famous Old Quarter.
Each street had merchants and households specialized in a particular trade. The street names help identify the trades, even though these days the names have lost some of their relevance.
Let’s take a look at some rare, century-old photos of these streets, recently introduced to local readers by news website VnExpress.
1. Hang Mam Street
Hang Mam Street got its name from various kinds of fish sauce and fermented fish ("mắm") that merchants carried from the banks of the Red River to the Old Quarter for sale. (Hang means merchandise or shop.)
Due to the unpleasant odor of the products, the vendors stopped walking around and stayed put, forming the Hang Mam Street.
Before 1900, the shops in this street specialized in fish sauce, dried fish and dried seafood products. In the 1930s, there were more shops selling other products such as bowls, jars and steles.
Nowadays, fish sauce vendors have all moved to Hang Be Market. Hang Mam Street still gets its name but in fact there are only shops selling glazed terra-cotta and rock products.
2. Hang Chieu Street
Hang Chieu Street is also called Dong Ha Street. It specialized in mats. It looked like a bastion rather than a residential area or shopping place. Haoians usually called this street Pho Moi (New Street) as all of the houses in this street had been rebuilt after a big fire in 1888. The street, between Dong Xuan Market and the Red River Wharf, was always crowded.
3. Cho Gao Street
This is Cho Gao (Rice Market) Street. Rice was the most important agricultural product; therefore, rice trading was the most lucrative business in Hanoi in the early 20th century. At that time rice was mostly transported on waterways, so the rice market was located near the Red River.
4. Hang Bo Street
Hang Bo Street was the place for shops owned by Vietnamese, Chinese, British, American and Japanese merchants. The name “bồ” referred to the baskets made from bamboo and rattan sold widely in the street. There were also shops selling Chinese paintings and stationery products. During Tet (Lunar New Year) holidays, calligraphy masters sat on mats along the street to sell lucky characters.
5. Hang Hom Street
Residents in Co Vu Village in Ha Dong, the former capital city of Ha Tay Province near Hanoi, now an urban district of Hanoi, reportedly moved to the Old Quarter to make a living with their traditional craft: making wooden trunks for storage. Gradually their business flourished and they formed the Hang Hom Street. During 60 days of battle in late 1946 and early 1947, all of the houses in the street were destroyed and had to be rebuilt.
6. Hang Be Street
Hang Be Street was located close to the Red River, specializing in wooden rafts ("bè") and house-building materials. Gradually, the categories of products expanded to forestry products sent from mountainous areas and seafood products from coastal areas. The street is still crowded nowadays, and it is called “the market for the rich” in the Old Quarter.
7. Hang Trong Street
This street was like a corridor linking the Old Quarter and the Sword Lake. There were a lot of hotels, and shops owned by embroidery and inlay craftsmen in the street. And particularly the street is famous for Hang Trong paintings – a genre of Vietnamese woodcut painting.
8. Lo Ren Street
Lo Ren Street is formerly Tan Khai Village, which was formed by blacksmiths hailing from the suburban district of Tu Liem. After a section of the To Lich River, which ran through the village, was filled up, the village turned into a crowded street. Residents in this street make their living by blacksmithing and trading iron and steel materials.
9. Hang Thiec Street
Hang Thiec is the street of tinsmiths. The craftsmen produced oil lamps, candle sticks and incense burners from tin. But tin was mostly used for the welding of other metal products. There were also shops selling basins and water tanks made from scrap metal and toys for children.
10. Hang Duong Street
The "Sugar" Street was famous for candy shops which were particularly crowded during the days before Tet and the Full Moon Festival. The street also had many clothing shops owned by Indians and grocery stores owned by Chinese people.
11. Hang Khay Street
Hang Khay Street was located on the southern bank of the Sword Lake. “Khay” means tray, the most famous product sold in this street. The tray was made of wood and inlaid with pearls or sea snails. This short street also impressed people with the image of young girls selling flowers on the sidewalks.
12. Sword Lake
It would be a mistake if we talk about the 36 street without mentioning the Ho Guom (Sword Lake). The lake was formerly known as Luc Thuy meaning "Green Water".
13. Le Quai du Commerce
The most important place for commercial operation of the 36 streets was the road along the Red River's embankment that today is Yen Phu-Tran Nhat Duat-Tran Quang Khai streets. One side of the road was the gateway to downtown areas and the other side was the Red River, which was always crowded with cargo ships from all parts of the country.
As soon as they arrived in Hanoi, the French realized the importance of the quay so they launched very imposing construction and named the road Le Quai du Commerce. The quay also ran through a train station on the Long Bien Bridge and a bus station in Ben Nua, which today is the Long Bien Bus Station. After the historic flood in 1926, the government built a breakwater, separating the road from the Red River.