The history of Hanoi's Old Quarter spans 2000 years. It lies between the Returned Sword Lake to the South and the Long Bien Bridge to the North. The former city rampart, now called Tran Nhat Duat Street, marks its East border and the citadel wall on Ly Nam De Street its West. Present-day Hanoi ('Inside the Riverbend') was once a turtle and alligator-infested swamp, then a cluster of villages made up of houses on stilts. The villages were unified by Chinese administrators who built ramparts around their headquarters and called the area "Dominated Annam." In the late tenth century the Vietnamese attained independence from the Chinese. King Ly Thai To made the city his capital in 1010 and gave it the name Thang Long ('Soaring Dragon'.)
According to legend, the King began rebuilding the former Chinese palace, but the walls tumbled down. While he prayed to the local earth god, a white horse emerged from the temple and galloped West. The King decided to build his citadel walls along the traces of its hoof prints and declared the white horse the city's guardian. The White Horse (Bach Ma) Pagoda on Hang Buom Street still pays homage to that guardian.
In early the thirteenth century guilds evolved from the collection of tiny workshop villages which clustered around the walled palace to satisfy the court's demand for the highest quality products. Artisan guilds worked and lived together developing systems for the transport merchandise from the village of manufacture to the designated streets in the business quarter which sells it. The Commercial city was ideally located between the Palace and the transportation capabilities of the river. A market was at the onetime confluence of the To Lich and Red Rivers (the ancient market Dong Xuan, still stands and remains an active market today.) Skilled crafts people migrated there to fill that need.
A majority of the street names here start with Hang, which means merchandise or shop. The guild streets were named for their product or location. For example, skilled silversmiths from Hai Hung province now occupy Hang Bac Street one of the most ancient streets in all Vietnam.
Each guild had its own patron saint to which many local temples are dedicated. Hang Bong Street has five such temples.
Because inhabitants of each street came from the same village and performed the same craft, streets developed a homogeneous look. Commoners' homes, evolved out of market stalls before streets ever came into existence. Because shops were taxed by the width of frontage on the market, storage and living space moved to the rear. They developed into the long and narrow houses, called tube houses.
Although the area is often called the 36 old streets, there may have actually been more. Some believe that the number 36 came from the Fifteenth century when there might have been 36 guilds. Others attribute the name "36" to a more abstract concept. The number 9 in Asia represents "plenty." Nine times 4 (the four directions) would make 36 which means simply: many.
By the seventeenth century the city was protected by 16 gates which were locked at night by heavy wooden doors. The Quan Chuong gate built in 1744 still stands at the end of Hang Chieu street. At the end of the eighteenth century, the Nguyen Dynasty set up its capital in Hue. Thang Long, renamed Hanoi, lost its political power but retained its economic vitality. The citadel of Hanoi was reconstructed and remains the western boundary of the Old Quarter.
By the late nineteenth century, Hanoi once again became a political center, now of the French Indochinese Union. South of the Lake, native buildings were razed to make way for the cream-colored colonial offices and villas whose shutters and doors were invariably green, Rivers and ponds were filled as health measures against mosquitoes and to increase available land. North of the lake the maze of narrow alleys continued to grow haphazardly. After the French withdrawal in 1954, Hanoi became the capital of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and socialist austerity prevailed. During the American War resources were devoted to fighting and the Old Quarter hardly changed. In 1972 when the city was bombed, buildings were destroyed in the Kim Lien district but the commercial quarter remained intact.
The Old Quarter is precious legacy of Hanoi's ancient past, but the area is challenged by rapid changes. Today handicraft production is being increasingly replaced by restaurants, repair shops, and tailors. Craft workers constitute only 9% of the population. Traders make up 40%. As the population increases, historically important buildings have become living spaces, schools or shops.
At the same time, since the policy of economic openness policy of 1987 a dramatic building boom has begun, threatening the charm of the district. Multi-story buildings are going up which use out-of-place finishing techniques and designs. Local, national, and international agencies are formulating plans to preserve the historic ambiance of the Old Quarter.