Sunday, October 27, 2019

Hanoi’s Old Quarter

                                            by Jim Goodman

clean and orderly--the Old Quarter after French renovation
       In 1010 Lý Thái T, founder of the new Lý Dynasty, moved the capital of Đi Vit from Hoa Lư, in present-day Ninh Bình province, to the abandoned former Chinese administrative center on the Red River.  After a vision he had when arriving at the site, he called his new city Thăng Long (Rising Dragon), today’s Hanoi.  In designing its layout he divided the area into two parts:  Hoàng Thành, the Royal City, and Kinh Thành, the Commoner’s City.  Throughout the city’s ups and downs, this partition persisted until modern times.
Bạch Mã Temple, the first temple in the Old Quarter
       A sprawling walled compound comprised Hoàng Thành, featuring many royal palaces, administrative buildings, ponds, groves and gardens.  High-ranking mandarins, royal family relatives and military officers lived just outside the Citadel.  Kinh Thành included everything between the Citadel’s eastern gate and the Red River.  It soon drew a host of migrants, largely crafts workers and others employed by the palace, and in later times new residents to provide services to the growing population. 
       The Kinh Thành area--Hanoi’s contemporary Old Quarter--had a very different landscape a thousand years ago.  The Tố Lịch River, which ran along the northern wall of the Royal City, flowed through the northern side of Kinh Thành and into the Red River at today’s Chợ Gạo..  On the southeastern side, the water of what is now Hoàn Kiếm Lake was connected to the Red River.  The residential area in between was a partly reclaimed marsh with many ponds.
tree shrinn--an ancient custom still alive
bamboo work outside on HàngVải, like the old days
       It was not very crowded back then.  Households had plenty of space for a house, workshop, garden and pond or well within their compounds.  They built stilted wooden and bamboo houses.  They became organized into craft guilds whose members lived on the same street.  Houses could not rise higher than a royal palace and they could not have an upper story window facing the street, from where a commoner (or assassin) could look down on the king if he passed through the city.  Another regulation limited how wide they could be.  Thus, when families expanded their buildings they did it lengthwise, back into the courtyard, instead of upward.  This was the origin of-the ’tube house’ style that came to characterize the city’s architecture.
lacquer workers, centuries ago
       The typical craft guild membership all came from the same village.  Some of these might also erect a small communal house (đình) to service their community or a modest temple honoring their village tutelary deity.  Besides the Bạch Mã Temple on Hàng Buồm, the oldest in the city, and Báo Thiên Pagoda, where the cathedral now stands, the city’s other temples were outside the main settled area.  From the survival of the custom evident in Hanoi today, one could assume Kinh Thành also had shrines to the spirits of particularly impressive old trees.
       No major transformations took place when the Trần Dynasty took over in 1238.  Growth affected the rural areas more than the city.  Princes and high mandarins had their estates in the countryside and hosted an assignment of soldiers.  Three times that century Mongol armies invaded Đại Việt.  Facing overwhelming numbers, the Vietnamese adopted the strategy of evacuating villages and removing all the food supplies—‘empty houses and gardens’.  Occupying a deserted capital and unsuccessful at foraging for food, the Mongols had to depart and Vietnamese guerrillas slaughtered them on their way out.
neighborhood temple on Bát Đân street
      Thăng Long residents rebuilt their city after each invasion, but in the late 14th century their Chăm rivals in south central Vietnam attacked and sacked Thăng Long three times.  The city revived, but the dynasty did not.  The ambitious official Hồ Quý Ly moved the capital to his home district in Thanh Hóa, 160 km south, slaughtered the extended royal family members and proclaimed a new Hồ Dynasty in 1400.  Two Trần princes escaped and appealed to China for help.  The Chinese invaded in 1407, captured Hồ Qúy Ly, but did not restore the Trân. Instead they took over administration and ruled for twenty harsh years before a native uprising, led by Lê Lợi from Thanh Họa, expelled them.
early 20th century house
one of a few remaining old houses
       Unlike its predecessors, the Lê Court required its officials to live permanently in the capital, now renamed Đông Kinh.  The new neighborhoods were clustered around the southeastern side of the Citadel, while more village migrants came to live in the Old Quarter, where the government filled in more of the marshes.  Most of the work produced in the city was on contract.  The idea of stocking non-contracted goods in a shop didn’t take hold for another century or two. 
mandarin being carried into the Old Quarter
       Đông Kinh faced no external threats for the next few centuries.  The Old Quarter staged a market day the 1st and 15th of the lunar month, when villagers flocked to town.  Every few years the government hosted the examinations, drawing hundreds of scholars and enlivening the city’s atmosphere.  In general, life in the commoners’ city was not affected by political developments, like the coup against the Lê regime and establishment of the Mạc Dynasty (1527-1592).  When civil war broke out the battlefields were far away and until Lê forces captured Đông Kinh in 1592 the war did not affect the capital.
beer break late 19th century
       The victors did nit sack the city after evicting Mạc forces.  Peace, order and ordinary commerce returned so quickly that the Lê commander Trịnh Tùng ordered the city walls completely leveled.  He also took absolute control of the government, keeping the restored Lê emperor as a figurehead confined to the Citadel.  His successors got caught up in a violent quarrel with their erstwhile allies the Nguyển family, whose lords ruled the southern provinces while the Trịnh ruled the north.
typical ward gate
       Intermittent wars failed to change anything, so the two sides signed a truce in 1670.  The result in Đông Kinh was a century of growth and prosperity.  All the marshland of the Old Quarter was filled in by now, though several ponds remained, used as food sources.  River commerce thrived.  The two main ports were the confluence of the Tố Lịch and Red River at Chơ Gạo and Tây Lường Gate, where the Hoàn Kiếm Lake channel entered the Red River.
       Though the city walls were gone, new walls and gates began to separate the wards. These were locked and guarded at night, isolating the separate neighborhoods.  No one could pass through the gate without being examined by the watchmen, who were armed with thick staves.  Without an acceptable excuse, people could not enter these guarded neighborhoods after dark anyway. 
city wall and entrance gate, 19th century
       Most were just doorways in a high earthen wall that stretched across the lane.  Wealthier neighborhoods like Hàng Ngang had fancier gates, protruding from the wall, with an entrance surmounted by a tiled roof with upturned corners, supported by wooden pillars.
       Most streets in the commercial quarter were wider than nowadays, and paved with rectangular stones with slightly curved surfaces that facilitated water run-off in the rains.  But the lanes that twisted around the city’s ponds and connected the main streets were themselves narrower, mostly unpaved, quite muddy in the rains and never very clean when dry.  Sanitation was a low priority in Đông Kinh,, with no unit assigned by the government to keep the city clean.
Hàng Khay, 19th century
       Mid-18th century, the city’s population exceeded 100,000, making it one of the biggest and most densely populated in East Asia.  Political developments threatened its future, though.  In 1749 Trnh Doanh rebuilt the city walls as a defense against rural insurrections.  The walls had 21 entrance gates, locked and guarded at night.
       Rebels never breached these walls, but the Trnh regime was in decline.  So was the Nguyn Lords realm in the south.  In the late 18th century armies of the Tây Sơn Revolt from south central Vietnam deposed the Nguyễn regime and later swept north, captured Đong Kinh in 1786, ended the Trinh Lords’ rule, restored the Lê emperor’s authority, then returned to their base around Huệ. 
      The aging emperor died soon after and his son Lê Chiêu Thống, in his first act as an independent emperor, ordered all the Trịnh palaces around Hoàn Kiếm Lake to be burned to the ground.  Unfortunately, the fire spread to the Old Quarter and consumed three-fourths of the houses.  Two years later he called on the Chinese to buttress his authority against the Tây Sơn, provoking the latter to march on the capital, drive out the Chinese, terminate the Lê Dynasty and set up their own.  It lasted until 1802, when Nguyễn Ánh’s army conquered the city and founded the Nguyễn Dynasty.
       Assuming the royal name Gia Long, the Nguyển emperor demolished the old citadel and replaced it with a smaller one and filled in the estuary connecting Hoàn Kiếm Lake with the Red River.  He made Huế his national capital and rarely visited the north.  He renamed the city Thăng Long, but with a different character for Long, rendering it Rising Prosperity.  It must have sounded overly optimistic to its residents.  The chaos of the last two decades had reduced the population to about 15,000, while official neglect of its infrastructure left nearly everything in need of repair and restoration.
\streetcar, early 20th century
       Nevertheless, under energetic and competent local administrators, by 1831, when Gia Long’s successor Minh Mạng renamed the city Hanoi, prosperity had returned and the city now had over 50,000 residents.  The Old Quarter streets were repaved with brick, new craft guilds set up residence and popular subscription enabled the renovation of old temples and the construction of new ones.  The city still had its walls and gates, locked at night, but at a later hour, allowing for the first stirrings of nightlife, with theaters and song cafés.  
       As the Nguyễn Dynasty fell into decline, by the 1880s French armies were fighting for control of the north.  Some of these battles took place in the Old Quarter, but by 1885 the French had won.  Two years later they made Hanoi the capital of the French Indochina Union.  Drastic changes ensued.  They immediately demolished the Lý Dynasty temple Chùa Bạo Thiên to erect St. Joseph’s Cathedral, created a French Quarter of European-style mansions for its colonists south of Hoàn Kiếm Lake and opulent administrative buildings near the Citadel.  
French postcard of Hàng Nóm
       They didn’t move into the Old Quarter, but remade it.  They filled in the ponds and the part of the Tố Lịch flowing through its northern side.  All the ward gates and city walls and gates came down except for one—Ô Quang Chướng.  They widened the streets and realigned the houses evenly.  They renovated the dikes, sharply reducing the flood threats, and in the early 20th century installed gas lighting on the streets, a huge water storage tower at the top of Hàng Giấy and eventually a streetcar route through the city. 
       Life improved, the city grew and bustled and then, with the end of World War II, disaster struck again.  Chinese Guomindang troops entered the city, ostensibly to receive the Japanese surrender, and ransacked it.  The new Provisional Revolutionary Government was forced to allow French forces to re-enter Hanoi in return for the Guomindang evacuation.  Shortly afterwards fighting broke out between the French and Việt Minh soldiers.  Most of this took place in the Old Quarter.  By the time the Việt Minh withdrew and the French took full control, only about 10,000 were left in the city.
copper and bronze ware, Hàng Đồng
tin workshop, Hàng Thiếc 
       Many returned, though, and built new houses of brick and wood, without stilts, and the wealthier families added stories to make them higher, since there were no laws restricting size anymore.  The Việt Minh campaign for independence continued, but the battles were far from the capital.  The final battle took place in Điếnbiếnphủ in the northwest, sparing Hanoi of any further damage.
reed mats, Hàng Chiếu
       After 1954 developments in Hanoi were slow.  While American planes bombed parts of the city during the American War, the Old Quarter, having no strategic value, wasn’t targeted.  After the war, Vietnam remained relatively isolated until the late 1980s, when the đổi mới (renovation) policies commenced and the country integrated with the global economy.  By the 21st century, Vietnam had become a popular tourist destination.
       The Old Quarter was one of the major attractions.  Increasing prosperity had resulted in many changes, like new buildings of four and five stories and the gradual disappearance of classic wooden, tile-roofed houses.  But the layout remained constant.  Some of the streets were still dominated by the craft they were named after, like Hàng Thiếc’s tin workshops and Hàng Bạc’s silver jewelry shops.  Others were partly so, as bamboo blinds were still available on Hàng Mành, reed mats on Hàng Chiếu and copperware on Hàng Đồng.  Its temples, shrines and đìnhs also still existed.
       Hanoi is not likely to suffer future bombings or invasions. Nor will the Old Quarter change its basic form.  Tourists appreciate it as the liveliest and most interesting part of Hanoi, largely unaware of its long and checkered history.  Local Vietnamese are quite conscious of that, though, and revere it for that reason.  The Old Quarter is the heart of their ancient capital, so often destroyed and always reviving—truly a phoenix city.

basket shop on Nguyễn Siêu street, built over the filled in Tố Lịch River

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