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Walk north from Hoan Kiem Lake, across Dau Go, and suddenly you’re in the tumultuous streets of the Old Quarter, a congested square kilometer which was closed behind massive ramparts and heavy wooden gates until well into the ninetieth century. Apart from one gate, at the east and of Hang Chieu, the walls have been dismantled, and there are few individual sights in the quarter; the best approach is simply is simply to dive into the back lanes and explore.

Everything spills out onto pavement which doubles as workshops for stone-carvers, furniture-makers and tinsmiths, and as display space for merchandise ranging from pungent therapeutic herbs and fluttering prayer flags to ranks of Remy Martin and shiny-wrapped chocolate. With so much to attract your attention at ground level it’s easy to miss the architecture, which reveals fascinating glimpses of the quarter’s history, starting with the fifteenth century merchant’s houses otherwise found only in Hoi An. Hanoi’s aptly named tube –houses evolved from market stalls into narrow single-storey shops, windows no higher than a passing royal palanquin, under gently curving, red-tiled roofs. Some are just two meters wide, the result of taxes levied on street frontages and of subdivision for inheritance, while behind stretches a succession of storerooms and living quarters up to 60m in length, interspersed with open courtyards to give them light and air; to get a better idea of the layout, pop into the beautifully restored example at 87 Ma May. Nowadays, the majority of facades bear distinctly European touches faded wooden shutters, sagging balconies and rain-streaked molding – dating from the early 1900s when the streets were widened for pavements. Certain occupants were too wealthy to influential to be shifted and you can find their houses still standing out of line along Hang Bac, Ma May ands Hang Buom, three of the Old Square’s most interesting and attractive streets. Ma May also retains its own dinh, or communal house, which traditionally served as both meeting hall and shrine to the neighborhood’s particular patron spirit in this case a fourteenth –century mandarin and ambassador to the Chinese court.

 

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