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Jul 17, 2023 / 14:32

Quirky tunnel-like alleys at the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Despite its dense and compact living space, the Old Quarter has the charm of a “living tradition” in the eyes of visitors: full of energy, creative chaos, and dazzling colors.

If you are a visitor traveling alone and without a local guide, you’re likely to get lost in the winding tunnel-like alleyways of the capital’s renowned Old Quarter.

Deep “tunnels” above ground

 The tiny alley at 96 Hang Buom opens up a different world. Photo: Dan Tri

Walking down streets such as Hang Buom, Ngo Gach, Hang Chieu, or Hang Duong, visitors can easily stumble upon tiny alleys - narrow passages that are just wide enough for one person to pass through.  

Observing daily life here, visitors can find many interesting things. When the lights go out, it can take up to 10 minutes for non-locals to grope around in the “tunnel” at Alley No.96, Hang Buom Street trying to find their way out with only the light from their cellphones.

Occasionally, one will encounter a group of tourists entering this alley to explore, but none return. Then only the locals can explain this strange thing. Nguyen Van Quyen, who has lived in the house he bought at Alley 96 Hang Buom Street for decades, compared it to “a tunnel”.

The Lane of 96 Hang Buom is just wide enough for one person to pass through. Photo: Dan Tri

“From time to time, groups of tourists come here looking for adventure. Except for the locals and tour guides, few people know that the dark Alley 96 is the passage from Hang Buom Street to Ngo Gach Street,” the local man explained.

It’s common for visitors to get a chilly feeling when they step into the deep alleyway. That’s because the path is narrow and dark - it’s so dark that the overhead bulbs inside must be on 24 hours a day. Still, there are corners where the light doesn’t reach, and explorers must resort to their handphones to light the way.

At first glance, you might think there is only one household here, but that’s not the case!

This small, poorly-lit alley is lined with dozens of old, damp, and cramped houses that never see the sun. Visitors will have to walk a long way down the winding passage before they can see people passing by on Ngo Gach Street thanks to the light that shines between the two high-rise buildings at the other end.

A "tunnel" alley in To Tich Street, Hoan Kiem District in Hanoi. Photo: Vu Luong
As a resident of the Old Quarter, Nguyen Thi Mo said that the house she and her husband live in was inherited from her in-laws. According to her, there used to be many alleys around the streets of Hang Dao, Hang Ngang, Hang Duong, or Hang Bo, running from house to house, street to street.
“So many that strangers could easily get lost,” she stated.

Life of the “tunnel” dweller

It’s hard to imagine that those tiny alleys have been home to dozens of households in the Old Quarter for many generations. Life inside the “tunnels” is quite different.

Without natural light, more than a dozen households living in Alley 96 Hang Buom Street had to install electric bulbs that are on day and night.

Quyen said that the residents of the “above-ground tunnel” at 96 Hang Buom Street would never see the sun if they didn’t come out of the alley. He wasn’t exaggerating.

Life is still going on inside the Old Quarter's tunnel-like alley. Photo: VOV

In this alley, without looking at the clock, it’s hard to tell if it’s morning or afternoon without looking at the clock. In this local’s words: “Day is the same as a night in this place”.

However, the man still hasn’t left the “tunnel” because the house is filled with memories of him and his wife. “Even if we sold it now, who would buy it? Who would choose to live in a dark alley that looks like a dead end from the outside?”, he admitted.

Unlike Quyen’s family, Tran Thi Tha - the sister-in-law of Nguyen Thi Mo, bought another house for a more comfortable life. She still rides her bicycle to her old house on Ngo Gach Street every day because her family still has a small stall here.

In the past, Tha lived with her husband and two sons in this 10-square-meter house, which was passed down from her in-laws. Recalling the inconvenience of living in a narrow alley, she said: “The alley is so dark and small that no transportation means can get in.”

The couple decided to buy a house in another neighborhood, especially as their adolescent children began to need their private spaces.

 A hidden eatery inside lane No.16 To Tich Street in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Photo: Vu Luong

Concerns about overpopulation

According to the locals, these small alleys used to communicate not just two streets but numerous. Later, as the neighborhood became overcrowded with residents, many of the passages were encroached on and closed.

In fact, this appalling overcrowding is turning out to be a serious obstacle to the planned reconstruction of the old quarter.

Experts consider Hanoi of “36 Streets” one of Asia's most densely populated urban areas.

According to the statistic from Hanoi Board for Old Quarter Management, the average living area is just 0.9 square meters per person.

Despite the cramped dwelling places, the people in Hanoi's Old Quarter still preserve the beauty of their spaces. Photo: G-Rin

For decades, these uncomfortable living conditions have been created by the high population density in the Old Quarter. People make use of every space in the nook and cranny to make bedrooms, severely restricting the flow of light and air.

Thus, behind the picturesque façade of the old quarter, rightly considered one of Hanoi’s prime tourist attractions, unhealthy living conditions are often hidden in long, narrow “tunnel” alleys.

Nevertheless, in the eyes of foreign visitors, the Old Quarter still has its charm of a “living tradition”. William Edwards, a traveler from New Zealand, told The Hanoi Times: “The street life of the Old Quarter is full of energy, and its creative chaos with dazzling colors, smells and sounds composes the true essence of Hanoi.”


A hidden gem inside a "tunnel" alley in Hanoi. Photo: WeCheckIn.vn