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May 08, 2024 / 13:09

Hanoi's oldest book street preserving the city's reading culture

From one small bookstore to a dozen today, Dinh Le, the oldest book street in downtown Hanoi, has been a favorite destination for Hanoi's book lovers for decades.

For Hanoi's youth of the 20th century, an outing to Hoan Kiem Lake must include a visit to the General Department Store, the forerunner of today's Trang Tien Plaza, eating Trang Tien ice cream, and visiting Dinh Le's "book street".

After generations, and despite the fact that many others have sprung up around the capital, the title "Book Street" is still associated first and foremost with the few hundred meters of Dinh Le Street.

 Dinh Le Street is a favorite destination for book lovers in Hanoi. Photo: Hai Yen

History of Hanoi’s first-ever “book street” 

Dinh Le Street is a thoroughfare communicating Ngo Quyen Street with Dinh Tien Hoang Street. 

In the 1990s, the street was colloquially known as "Do De Street" because it was a notorious place to exchange US dollars (the "Do" for dollars and the "De" for Deutschmarks), two hard currencies at the time.In the pre-1990s years, Hanoi's two largest state-owned bookstores, the National Literature Bookstore and the Foreign Literature Bookstore, were located on Trang Tien Street. This made the area formed by Dinh Le Street, Nguyen Xi Street and Trang Tien Street the busiest bookselling triangle in Hanoi.

 Dinh Le- the first "book street" in Hanoi. Photo: Ngoc Nga

However, its status as a “book street” originated from a small bookstall owned by Pham Thi Mao, which later became Mao Bookstore at No. 5 Dinh Le Street today. At first, Mao sold books on the street’s sidewalk. This was followed by a number of 'mobile' book stalls at the intersection of Dinh Le and Nguyen Xi. In 2003, when the Hanoi authorities decided to abolish the sidewalk book stalls at night in order to ensure smooth traffic, the stallholders switched to renting houses along Dinh Le Street, most of which were medical equipment shops.

At present, the book street features various shops such as Hoa Bookstore, Huy Hoang Bookstore, Lam Bookstore, Ngan Nga Bookstore, or Tan Viet Bookstore, among others.

At present, there are several shops on the street, the most famous of which are Hoa Bookstore, Huy Hoang Bookstore, Lam Bookstore, Ngan Nga Bookstore, Tan Viet Bookstore, and others.Word of mouth has it that book lovers in Hanoi will find what they're looking for on Dinh Le Street.

The big, tall and full shelves here satisfy all kinds of readers, from students to the elderly, from business people to art lovers. As for prices, new books here often come with a 10-20% discount off the cover price, while second-hand books can be as much as 40-50% off. Thanks to attractive bargains and a wide range of reading materials, Dinh Le Street is never empty.

A one-of-a-kind attic

Mao Bookstore opens a 'heaven' for book lovers, both local and international. Photo: Thu Hien

Dinh Le bookstores have been around for decades, nurturing the passion of generations of readers. The pioneer, Mao Bookstore, is tucked away in a narrow alleyway at 5 Dinh Le Street. Identifiable only by a sign with the simple words "Mao Bookstore" and an arrow pointing to the second floor, it is truly a bookworm's paradise in Hanoi. Even though mega bookstores have sprouted up all over the city, not to mention those on the ground floor, the antiquated place still has a special appeal for customers.

Separated from the vibrant space outside by a wooden staircase, the weathered attic houses huge bookcases that leave little aisles. The subjects are varied: Buddhism, philosophy, spirituality, feng shui, Eastern and Western literature, even children's comics. With its hospitality and lack of hustle and bustle, this old-fashioned bookshop has survived for decades and witnessed the growth of countless readers.

After Mao's death, her husband, Luy, ran the shop for several years. These days, customers only see him occasionally, as his daughter usually takes his place.

 The simple but impressive sign of the Mao Bookstore on Dinh Le Street. Photo: Nhu Y

Having lost his soul mate, he often stays home and writes poetry to ease his longing for her. The attic, filled with books, is decorated with verses from his poems, as well as notes from customers expressing their admiration for the couples. There was also a framed quotation on a door from the encyclopaedist Le Quy Don, a favorite of Mao's when she was alive: "Hundreds or thousands of taels of silver and gold / Not as good as several sets of classical books."”

On the second floor of the old tenement, there are now two more bookshops, Nguyet Linh and Chuyen (Story). It is said that when the owner of the former started her business, she also asked Mao to lend her money and books. Selling books from this small building proved far more profitable than she had expected. Like the lender, the borrower's shop is often crowded with customers.

A few flats away from the Nguyet Linh Bookstore is the Chuyen community space - a combination of reading, community research and knowledge exchange in a very "youthful" way. Its activities include discussions, shared book readings, family film screenings, workshops or cultural tours, with the hope of helping to inspire a love of reading and to develop and spread reading habits among young people.

 Visitors to Dinh Le Street can read a book while sipping a cup of coffee. Photo: Cafe Kohibito

Dinh Le Street is relatively short but spacious. As a result, it has become one of the many interesting highlights of the pedestrian zone around Hoan Kiem Lake, with old-fashioned cafes and mobile drink and snack stands, children's car hire and other services at weekends. Here, visitors can buy books, have a cup of coffee, or enjoy some typical Hanoi street food.

Despite the fast pace of modern life, there are still book lovers who take the time to enjoy the culture of reading by visiting any bookstore on this street - especially listening to the sweet melodies and inhaling the characteristic scent of books at the shop on the second floor of 5 Dinh Le Street. The "street of books", which still regularly welcomes young visitors, proves that the precious cultural beauty is always preserved, like a mighty trend in the capital of the millennial civilization.