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Hanoi would not be Hanoi without its Old Quarter, a maze of streets dating back to the 13th century, its present-day chaos just a different version of the old chaos, when specialized trade guilds were responsible for each street. The quarter is exhausting ("What's with all the honking?!" my friend asks) and crowded; you'll be jostled by passing motorbikes, cyclos, and hawkers with shoulder-poles hanging pendulous burdens of local produce. The quarter is one of those places in the world that grows on you the more you experience it.

Said to resemble a tree sprouting from the cool waters of Hoan Kiem Lake, the streets are like chaotic branches and tendrils as they fan out in jagged patterns across the area north of Hanoi's famed lake. Limited on one side by the Red River and on the other by the once-great Hanoi Citadel, whose walls are still standing in some areas, the Old Quarter is, as the name denotes, the oldest area of the town and has long been an important economic center. In its earliest inceptions, the Old Quarter was accessed by a series of canals on its northeast edge that lead to regional waterways. The western end of the quarter was developed in the early 19th century when the completion of the Hanoi Citadel left open areas that were settled by outlying villages and tradespeople. The quarter hosts the city's largest market, Dong Xuan, and welcomes the bulk of foreign visitors to the city with its maze of streets, multitude of services, and great hotel and restaurant "finds." Getting lost in the maze is one of the biggest joys of Hanoi.

Most interesting are the Communal Houses set up by the guilds in each area. Like small temples to honor a local god, many to the Bach Ma, or "White Horse," who represents the city of Hanoi, these little courtyard areas are usually protected from the street and have often hidden entrances or just humble low roofs out front that give way to elaborate interior courtyards and temple buildings. Aside from communal houses, you find standard Buddhist and Daoist temples among the city's crooked streets. Most notable is the Bach Ma Temple in the eastern end of the quarter.

Keep an eye out for the classic Old Quarter tube house, the best and most accessible example of which is at 87 Ma May St. or at 38 Hang Dao (directly north of the lake). Tube houses are so named because they are just that: a long, narrow tube of space that is subdivided into sections that served the family's every need. Why so narrow? And, in fact, why do Vietnamese still build so narrow and high today? Properties were taxed on the basis of their street frontage, and real estate has always been expensive in this bustling quarter (real estate prices in Hanoi rival any city in the West these days). Tube houses are divided into sections. The front is the business office, where any goods are displayed and where business is conducted. In a succession of courtyards and interior spaces, some two stories, a tube house has areas set aside for gardening and for servants, and, at the back, private family quarters with the kitchen and the loo, which was traditionally nothing more than a large latrine pot that fit into a nook and had to be emptied regularly. You can spot traditional homes by their low tile roofs parallel to the street.

European buildings of the French are more elaborate, usually two-story structures, with architectural flourishes like overhanging bay windows and a high sloping roof, some of the mansard variety. The more time you spend in the Old Quarter, the more adept you get at finding the old among the new. In fact, many shops with the most modern, neon-lit storefronts on the first floor are, in fact, old colonials, so be sure to keep an eye on the roofline to spot some antique gems among the clutter.

The Old Quarter evolved from workshop villages organized by trades, or guilds, and even today, streets are dedicated to a product or trade. Some streets still offer the services of old -- for example Hang Thiec Street, or Tinsmith Street, is still the place to buy tin receptacles and for sheet-metal work -- but others have changed: Hang Vai, or Cloth Street, is now home to the bamboo trade, and many old streets support new trades. You won't find anything named "Motorcycle Seat Repair Street" or "Cheap Plastic Toys Imported from China Street," but they do exist. It's a fascinating slice of centuries-old life in Hanoi, including markets that are so crowded that the streets themselves narrow to a few feet.

Hanoi's Old Quarter is also where the seeds of Communist revolution were sown -- starting in 1907 with the Tonkin Free School Movement, a program of study at a school in the Old Quarter, just north of Hoan Kiem Lake, which focused on Vietnamese traditions instead of the de rigueur French curriculum. The Old Quarter school was closed down by French officials, but the patriotic zeal that founded it would never die and instead produced small workers' strikes throughout the 1920s, many of which brought bloodshed. Old Quarter trade guilds were fertile ground for the worker's revolution, spawning independent presses; over time, Communist cells emerged that would unite during the August Revolution of 1945. The Old Quarter was, in fact, Vietnamese turf during violent skirmishes with the colonial French in their bid to control the upstart colony from 1945 until complete Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu and French withdrawal.

I had the good fortune of meeting an American Viet Kieu, or returning Vietnamese, on a trip in Halong Bay and hearing about his life in old Hanoi and his impressions now. Born on Hang Bong (Cotton St.) in the Old Quarter, he grew up in a house near West Lake but had spent a lot of his youth careening about the commercial streets at the town center while his mother worked as a seamstress. Asked what was different between the old Hanoi and the new (this was the his first time back since taking flight after the Geneva Accords divided the country), the kind gentleman talked only of the similarities, saying that his home out near West Lake is just as it was (and the owner abruptly slammed the door on him when he told her why he'd knocked, for fear he'd come back to re-claim his house). He said that the Old Quarter, barring the proliferation of motorbikes, neon, and improved pavement, was exactly as it was when he left Vietnam in the mid-1950s. For those who decry the cacophony and chaos of motorbikes, cars, and trucks in the district, it's important to remember that the Old Quarter is a market area, a place for business, and business in Vietnam is conducted at high decibels. The streets of the Old Quarter have always been busy and noisy, only now it is modern traffic that makes the racket, not shouting hawkers pulling bullock carts.

Note: There is an initiative to make the Old Quarter a pedestrian-only zone, and on weekend nights, the length of pavement along central Hang Ngang and Hang Duong is closed to car and motorbike traffic. A night market has opened up with lots of flea market-style sellers of tourist trinkets.

The following is a translation of just some of the streets and the trades that were practiced in the Old Quarter. Some of the streets below still sell or produce the same items; others have evolved to more modern goods, but the clumps-of-industry principle remains. Look for the following:

Street Name Translations of Old Quarter Trades

Hang Bac silver

Hang Be rattan rafts

Hang Bo baskets

Hang Bong cotton

Hang Buom sails

Hang Ca fish

Hang Can scales

Hang Cot bamboo mats

Hang Da leather

Hang Dao silk

Hang Dau beans

Hang Dieu bongs and pipes

Hang Dong brass

Hang Duong sugar

Hang Ga chicken

Hang Gai hemp and rope

Hang Giay paper

Hang Hom coffins

Hang Khoai sweet potatoes

Hang Luoc combs

Hang Ma paper replicas/toys

Hang Mam fish

Hang Manh bamboo shades

Hang Muoi salt

Hang Non conical hats

Hang Quat fans

Hang Than charcoal

Hang Thiec tin

Hang Thung barrels

Hang Tre bamboo

Hang Trong drums

Hang Vai cloth

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.