Detective Work in the Old Quarter of Hanoi
A day of detective work, finding out the meaning of the 36 Old Streets, discovering fascinating streets including the iconic Train Street and with our sleuth hats on, searching for the lady who had lost her credit card. Would our detection skills find her?
Our escapade today started in Lan Ong in the Old Quarter of Hanoi sitting on the balcony overlooking the many mo-peds whizzing by. Sipping coffee; Ca phe trung (coffee with egg) for me -delicious and Ca phe sua (coffee with condensed milk) for Tim - too sweet.
As usual, we got chatting; a nice young lady had just completed her degree in History and Education Studies from The Netherlands. She shared that her country believes in free education; even different philosophies such as Steiner are government-funded. We love finding out about different cultures around the world, especially education.
It was time for us to go exploring. It’s said that this area had 36 old streets. This is a fallacy and comes from a poem by Duong Quang Ham, “Invite each other to play around Long Thanh, Thirty-six streets are clearly not wrong;” and the poem then lists 36 roads from this area.
Many of these streets are named after the product they used to sell. For example, Hang Bac was the silversmith’s road, Hang Giay was the shoemakers’ hangout, and Hang Buom sold sails. (I must admit, I copied the poem in Google Translate to see what all the street names meant – sad or what?!)
We thoroughly enjoy wandering around places like this. There’s so much to see; rows of shops selling the same thing and then one suddenly stands out from the crowd. In the UK we used to have the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker in the high street. Here, as in many other cities, we’d see the butcher, another butcher and yet another butcher in one road. Not all of them would be smoking over the dead pig like the one in our photo!
We aimed for O Quan Chuong, one of the 21 gates remaining in the old part of Hanoi. It used to be called Dong Ha Mon meaning ‘the gate of the eastern river’, but the local people renamed the gate to commemorate a military officer named Chuong who died, preventing the French from entering the city here. The portal now means ‘the gate of Chuong officer’.
It was lunchtime; we found a veggie café just down the road. Tim needed to go to an ATM, so I sat waiting for him. When he returned he announced that someone had forgotten their credit card, leaving it in the machine. He had left a note with his WhatsApp number and showed me the card. Ella Mason Walsh.
Now, I’m sure I used to be a detective in my former life. I was on the case to track her down. Tim checked Instagram, no luck. There was an Ella Mason with a photo of her naked bottom; we hoped it wasn’t her!
I went on Facebook. Result! But, the account wasn’t used much. I trawled through her infrequent posts; there weren’t many comments. That’s no help. Then I found a photo of Ella with a young lady called Sophie. I looked at her Fb page, and she had just posted something. Excellent – an active account. I private messaged her, and soon she replied saying she would contact her friend.
We finished our meal, but no response from Sophie or Ella. We carried on our homemade tour. Next stop was the Bach Ma Temple, said to be the oldest temple in the city. It must be ancient as it needed repairing and was all boarded up.
We wandered around snapping a few photos of people unaware of our camera poised on them and their daily activities.
I suddenly remembered that we were near to Train Street. We have seen this on the TV and were intrigued.
Imagine coming out of your front door, taking two steps forwards and tripping over a railway track. That’s what it’s like here. No barrier, no protection, dogs wandering around, women squatting and chatting, kids playing, just like any other residential street – Well, apart from two long lines of metal and then a huge train chugging passed your doorway a few times a day.
We walked up a slope to the track and was just about to cross it when a policeman stopped us. Despite a few local people strolling across, we were not allowed over. Such a shame. I think some stupid tourists have played “chicken” here and with ever-growing numbers of people (like us) wanting to see this unique place, the government ordered the cafes to close less than two months ago and stop tourists. I can understand the reason; I am sure it was becoming a safety concern.
We walked down to the main crossroad, but there were far too many people there, so returned to our friendly policeman, who offered us some seats. A great decision, we were the only ones with him. Just as we sat down, the train appeared around the bend.
This huge red and blue beast came rat-a-tatting along the track with the occasional screech of wheels on metal trundled before us. I tried to get a good photo of it, but someone put their head in front of me, and it wasn’t the policeman!
The train carried on down the track getting smaller and smaller and immediately the locals returned to their daily lives as if nothing had happened.
Just then we received a message on WhatsApp from Ella thanking us and arranging to meet. Hurrah! Our sleuth work paid off.
We met Ella at her hostel. She was so grateful; hugs all round, photo taken, Ella then introduced us to new and old friends from the hostel, a lovely bunch of young women travelling and experiencing life here in Vietnam. We swapped travel stories, and Ella was so easy to chat with. A real sweetie.
Time was ticking; we said our farewells. We wanted to catch a taxi back. As we walked down the street, suddenly Sabine, a lovely Dutch lady we met on the Trans-Siberian Railway, detected us and rushed over for a quick chat. It’s a small world.