Uncovering Hanoi’s hidden charms.

Hanoi’s landscape seems to sprawl endlessly into an inconceivable labyrinth of concrete roads, rivers, bridges, buildings and houses, and at its center is a mass of higgledy-piggledy streets and alleyways. The Old Quarter has been the heart of commerce in Hanoi since its founding by Ly Thai To in 1010, with the same pattern of warren-like streets since the 15th century.

So how does one make sense of exploring Hanoi? Two long-term residents of the city, Isabelle and Julie, have set out to help with the creation of a detailed map and guide to the city’s well- and lesser-known charms. When the pair first moved to Hanoi six years ago, they had only the most basic tourist maps in hand but after a visit to Bangkok, where they encountered Nancy Chandler’s map, they were taken with the idea of a hand-annotated map and decided to make one for Hanoi.

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“When time allowed, (Julie is a teacher, Isabelle a doctor) we would hop on Isabelle’s bike and just head up and down the streets marking down our discoveries with dots and numbers, trying to be as methodical as possible – some days we would be out for 10 hours,” says Julie.

Unlike most conventional maps, Nancy Chandler’s Maps show more than just the classic tourists sites and street names. They go into incredible detail including street specialities, food stalls, restaurants, shops, tiny hidden temples, and other quirky particulars. It was not just about what they could see from the street, the two ladies had to dig deeper, speaking with and getting to know Hanoians along the way in an attempt to understand more about the city.

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“Once, I was attracted by what was inside one of the long, dark, damp corridors of the old town, so I stepped into a derelict tiny courtyard and stumbled upon an old woman crouched over a blackened, battered pot over a cooking fire,” recounts Julie. “It was her kitchen – outside, bare, basic, uncomfortable. She stood up, listened to my awkward words in Vietnamese, and with a stony face seized my elbow to drive me out of the place. Or so I thought. In fact, she was taking me to her living room, the only place where she could decently offer me tea and willingly communicate.”

Because of a severe housing shortage after the war, the Old Quarter became one of the most densely populated areas in the world. This is part of the reason why people live their lives out on the streets and even the railways, and why Hanoi has such a rich street culture. The two explored alleyways discovering shortcuts, ancient wells and community houses, learning along the way not to worry about invading what we would perceive as people’s personal space.

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They also came to appreciate Hanoians’ great ability to take people as they come and not pass judgment – although perhaps this is to be expected in a city where people head out to parks to do exercise still dressed in their pajamas.

“When we were visiting promising bars, restaurants or hotels we often had to stop three or four times on the same street but we could not face taking off our helmets, hanging them up, and then combing our hair to look presentable, so imagine the sight of the pair of us taking lifts, visiting rooms or going through menus while chatting in a foreign language with our helmets on, like pizza delivery boys, and no one seemed surprised!” says Julie with a chuckle.

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Hanoi is as good a place as any to lose one’s inhibitions as the ladies found out when they discovered Huong Sen Massage off Nghi Tam. “It is a very traditional Vietnamese style spa with absolutely no frills, a place where Vietnamese ladies go in groups to socialize and relax. It is warm and noisy with women of all ages strutting around absolutely naked, except for their mobiles glued to their ears. We are always welcome and much stared at. No one speaks a word of English. Just imagine all these women soaking in a line of giant wooden buckets, with only a shower cap on our heads, drinking unidentified thick green beverages in a misty atmosphere.” But they didn’t just try the spa for their map; it has now become one of their favorite places for a soak, a steam, and a massage.

The first map was released in 2010, geared primarily towards expats. The most recent version, created in partnership with Nancy and Nima Chandler, includes even more information about the city. The beauty of the map is that it doesn’t tell you where to go, but opens up the possibilities of this charming but chaotic city. It is full of tips about Hanoi’s eccentricities, telling you where to find song bird clubs, antique electric fans, unusual architecture, and even padded- bottomed underwear!

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All Drawn Out

After meeting Isabelle and Julie, I explored some of their favorite places with the help of the map.

One of the first places I headed off to find was Cua Hang Mau Dich (“State-run food shop”) on Truc Bach island. Although the island is tiny, all the roads seem to go round and round in circles and at first we were only able to find pho cuon stalls with brash young men calling out for us to stop. Eventually we found the right road and the small unassuming French-era building tucked behind strangling climbers with barely a sign for identification. Inside the dark building every wall and surface is cluttered with ration-era paraphanelia from food stamps to black and white photos to soviet fans. Many of the tables are made from old singer sewing machine frames.

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Prices are cheap but then dishes are austere with a distinctly higher bone-to-meat ratio. The restaurant harks back to the difficult bygone days when rationing was still in place – ration tickets are issued to you upon ordering. It still manages to have some delicious, but very simple, dishes including pounded fish cakes, tofu in tomato sauce, ‘burnt’ rice, and chicken fried with lime leaves – delicious until you realize that you are nibbling the morsels of meat off a head. It is very popular with Vietnamese and much more authentic than many of the standard guidebook recommendations.

On another day, with map in hand, I wandered down Phan Huy Ich, a charming street still lined with French villas from the 1920s. I headed to a little café and contemporary art space called Manzi. It’s a calm place to step into, out of the bustle of Hanoi, and enjoy a particularly bitter and strong ca phe nau da while looking at the ever-changing art exhibitions, flooded by light from the tall french windows.

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Next I headed off on one of the map’s self-guided walking tours – indicated on the map by a dotted brown line. It winds through the Old Quarter taking you down some of the most interesting streets such as Lan Ong, a traditional medicine street, where you can smell the herbs before you even begin to see bags of hanging sea horses and geckos amongst other peculiar things. The walk takes about 2.5 hours leading you in a sensible circuit down most of the traditional guild streets.

Another of Isabelle and Julie’s recommendations is to take advantage of the lake road around West Lake (which didn’t exist when they first arrived) and go cycling and temple hopping. Cycling is by far the best way to see the city as bikes can be parked almost anywhere so it’s very easy to stop at any point. On our way along the lake we also got to watch all the men out fishing. After wondering who would dare eat fish out of West Lake, based on the murky color and copious rubbish, I began to chat with some of the men. One younger guy, who spoke very good English, explained he is an engineer and does this merely as a hobby – he never actually eats the fish.

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Afterwards we cycled on to Chua Van Nien on the far northwest side of the lake. We headed downstairs under the temple to a specially designed grotto complete with a small flowing stream. Soon we were pacing around and turning a huge pink marble linga, a very unusual experience as lingas are not usually found in Hanoian temples. All the temples are marked on the map along with cafes and bars such as Commune and 21 North where you can stop for a break on your way around the lake.

Since the most recent map went to print, one of the new art and nightlife spaces included – Zone 9 – has closed permanently. But of course new places are always cropping up so it is a good idea to check for updates on the website. One of their new favorite cafés, Kafe, didn’t make it on the current map but is causing a stir as a hip place for young Vietnamese and foreigners to meet and eat tasty casual food in a light and airy converted French villa, with a large roof terrace for when Hanoi’s weather behaves.

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The map is an invaluable tool for getting to know Hanoi. It is now included in every room in the Sofitel Metropole and is available at Bookworm, Hanoi’s English language bookstore. It has clearly been a labor of love for the two, driven by a passion for the city rather than commercial reasons.

“Our main hope is that it will motivate people to explore and enjoy Hanoi for themselves,” say the two.

Additional Info
Nancy Chandler Map of Hanoi website which includes updates: www.nancychandler.net/product_update. asp?pId=1105#Sightseeing

Huong Sen Massage
68 An Duong (off Nghi Tam)

Cua Hang Mau Dich
(“State-run food shop”) 37 Nam Trang, Truc Bach

Manzi
Café and art space
14 Phan Huy Ich

Commune
Café and bar on the West side of West Lake
www.communehanoi.com

21 North
Café, bar, and music venue
www.21northhanoi.com
The Kafe
18 Dien Bien Phu
www.thekafe.vn/index.php/en/
For Historical and Cultural Walks Through the Old Quarter:
Friends of Vietnam Heritage, a non-profit educational group
fvheritage.org/events/city-walks/

The Hanoi Bicycle Collective (bike rentals and tours)
www.thbc.vn

Bio: Jura Cullen has been based in Hanoi for the last two years. She has also lived in Sudan, the US, France and the UK. Her blog Hound in Hanoi (juraphotos.wordpress.com) includes photography from quirky things seen in Hanoi with her Nubian hound Tala, and other travels around the region and world.

Images by Jura Cullen