July 31, 2023
Palestinian man Saleem Hammad, 30, who is dubbed as Hanoi's Ambassador of Friendship for Peace, still remembers the first Vietnamese sayings he learned from gatherings of friends on Hanoi's sidewalks.
He admitted that the sidewalks have had a significant influence on his life in Hanoi, and that many of the things he learned came from them.
Like many of Hanoi's people, Saleem is attached to the city's street culture. He loves the simple food from street vendors in the Old Quarter, the flowers for sale on Phan Dinh Phung Street, and cups of iced tea with a romantic view of the West Lake.
When Saleem was a student at Hanoi University, he often followed friends to gather for tea and chat in the Old Quarter. Partly because he was young and eager to hang out and partly because he wanted to interact more with Vietnamese people to practice Vietnamese. Even talking to iced tea vendors helps him understand more about life in Hanoi.
"Every time I sit on the sidewalk for iced tea, I learn a lot of new idioms and proverbs, and I also learn a lot of information, although not officially, from the middle-aged women who sell tea. It was then that I understood why people often joke that sidewalk iced tea shops are news agencies," said Saleem.
He has a wonderful time enjoying the view of the West Lake, the Red River and the Long Bien Bridge while sipping a cup of tea on the sidewalk.
Talking about his love for Hanoi, Saleem did not forget to mention the dishes sold on the roadside. One of his favorites is Hanoi's com (young sticky rice flakes).
While foreign tourists like Saleem find sidewalk culture interesting, Hanoians are even more attached to sidewalk life.
Every Hanoian has a memory and nostalgia for sidewalks. However, not everyone knows how long sidewalks have existed. According to writer Nguyen Ngoc Tien, who has written many literary works about Hanoi, from 1847 to 1883, Hanoi had only a few clean paved streets, including Phuc Kien (now Lan Ong), Ma May and Hang Ngang, while most of the rest were dirt roads.
In 1883, the first French envoy in Hanoi, Raymond Bonnal, started implementing the policy of renovating the streets. Bonnal built roads around the Sword Lake area in preparation for the construction of the French Quarter in Hanoi. At the end of 1885, the renovation of Hang Kham Street (including today's Trang Tien and Hang Khay) was completed. The street was paved with bricks in the style of Western streets.
Since then, Hanoi's sidewalks have expanded over time, and in the early twentieth century, as luxury hotels began to appear around the Sword Lake area, hotel owners rented sidewalks to open cafes along the way. Not only Hanoi's French residents but also European visitors were thrilled to sip coffee on the terraces while watching the world go by.
Nearly 20 years ago, the city's People's Committee also allowed the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel to set up an elegant and luxurious sidewalk cafe on Ngo Quyen Street.
Thus, the use of the sidewalk by regulation is a way to create conditions for the continuation of identity on the road to civilization. In the regulations, it is necessary to rent sidewalks like the Hanoi government did in the past.
A rich and vibrant street culture is a hallmark of Hanoi and Vietnam.
According to architect Pham Thanh Tung, sidewalks are an important part of the urban spatial structure. It is a transitional space between townhouses and streets and has a clear function. Sidewalks are parts of urban roads that mainly serve pedestrians and combine urban technical infrastructure systems arranged along the route. Therefore, sidewalks are not private property, but public space where the daily activities of the community take place.
About ten years ago, Professor Annette Kim - an urban expert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - published a study on the operation of sidewalks in Ho Chi Minh City that she and her team had researched.
According to the study, only 40% of the pavement area is used for trading, living, and even walking, and 60% is used for parking motorcycles. This is very inadequate and unique to Vietnamese cities.
“Hanoi needs to have a comprehensive survey of sidewalk activity on each street, focusing on streets in the central area, where there are many commercial, cultural and tourist activities,” said architect Pham Thanh Tung.
Tung said that in many cities abroad, pedestrians, vendors and coffee drinkers mingle in a friendly manner. Pedestrians can easily visit a shop or buy a burger from a hawker's cart.
All sidewalk activities are lively but not to the point of being noisy and chaotic. All are strictly regulated by law. Littering, throwing cigarette butts, and spitting on the sidewalk is punishable by a fine. Restaurants can set up tables, chairs, and umbrellas within the permitted area and must pay taxes on this rented use.
According to Nguyen Thi Phuong Cham (Institute of Cultural Studies under the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences), the sidewalks in the heart of Hanoi, such as Le Van Huu, Thi Sach, Ngo Thi Nham, Tran Xuan Soan, Lo Duc, and Hoa Ma streets, are truly a living space.
"It is a place where housewives set up charcoal stoves for cooking, but the sidewalk is also a place for workers and street vendors to work and rest. They can take a nap at noon and then continue with their livelihood," Cham said.
Phung Quang Thang, Deputy Chairman of the Vietnam Travel Association, suggested that good planning and management of sidewalks will bring great benefits and increase the attractiveness of urban tourism.
He emphasized that the first priority of sidewalks must be for pedestrians; the second is public services, such as public seating, signs, and toilets. If the sidewalk is wide enough, the sidewalk economy can be developed.
"When the sidewalk economy works well, people make a conscious effort to decorate streets and buildings. Beautiful streets will naturally attract local and international tourists," Thang said.
Hanoi has joined UNESCO's Creative Cities Network. As Hanoi strives to develop to the level of other modern capitals, it is still not doing away with the street life that defines this place. Sidewalks do not detract from Hanoi's image, but effective maintenance and management is what needs to be considered.
That's the consensus among cultural experts and city officials.
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