Failing to walk the culture preservation talk

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The crowded walking street that goes through the Old Quarter in Hanoi

The other day my friend from Ho Chi Minh City visited Hanoi and asked me to take him to the famous Old Quarter.

He insisted on touring the area via a walking street that was set up in 2004, running for nearly one kilometer through Hang Dao, Hang Ngang, Hang Duong and Dong Xuan streets. He imagined it would be a silent street where visitors could leisurely walk and soak in the old culture of Hanoi, looking at moss-covered walls and old-looking houses.

However, to our disappointment, the street was nothing more than a crowded, messy market.

That day, when we were about to enter the street, we heard a string of swearwords and saw a woman lunge at another woman, grabbing the latter's hair. Very soon, a man joined the fight with a plastic stool that he liberally and forcefully applied on the head of one of the women.

As we were watching what was happening with astonishment, a passerby told us: "They're just fighting over parking lots. You'll get yourselves injured, if you don't stay away from them."

The warning made us leave the site immediately and head to the street, which was brightened by numerous lights. It was noisy and messy as well.

It was full of stalls selling lots of items with various prices, colors and unclear origins. In fact, there was not a single space along the street that was not taken up by a stall. Even local houses on the street's

sides were used for the same purpose.

And yes, on the walking street, we were occasionally scared by sudden sirens from motorbikes trying to clear the way for transporting goods to and from the stalls, even though there were signs prohibiting vehicles from entering the street.

At its inception, Hoan Kiem District authorities had claimed that the pedestrian street would promote Hanoi's culture, including traditional crafts and food and drinks. The reality is nowhere near this vision.

In a moment, my friend and I found ourselves trapped in a long market surrounded by numerous stalls that effectively buried the beauty of Hanoi's old culture and traditional crafts.

As Hanoi has recently opened another pedestrian zone in Ba Dinh District, it is time they studied successful examples in other cities around the world and follow them to make the new one a true highlight for local tourism.

Take Brussels, for example. Its Rue de l'Etuve has a pedestrian zone that is small but orderly and culturally rich, especially in terms of food and drink, attracting a considerable number of tourists every year; or the pedestrian street Huchette in Paris. The narrow passage is full of nice eateries and bars, but never loses the touches of local culture.

Or, near home, in Thailand, the night-walking street Khao San in the northeast of Bangkok with eateries that serve all kinds of Thai food.

It is good to make investments in preserving and promoting local culture and heritage, but if initial investments are not followed up with due diligence and perseverance, it will turn out to be an exercise in futility. 

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