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The unique sidewalk culture of Hanoi: A funky initiative of French

Through centuries, sidewalks in Hanoi have not only been part of the urban landscape, but more importantly, they are also open exhibitions of the capital’s cultural traits that can be found nowhere else.

Each Hanoian has memories, sweet or bitter, of the sidewalk. However, not everyone knows exactly when the walkways were first built in the city.

The history of the Hanoi sidewalk

A street vendor on Hang Dao Street in 1940. Photo: Harrison Forman/ Kinh te & Do thi

According to a journalist, writer, and Hanoi specialist, Nguyen Ngoc Tien, between 1847 and 1883, Hanoi only had a few paved streets, where a large number of Chinese resided, including Phuc Kien or today’s Lan Ong Street, Quan Co Den- now Ma May Street, or Hang Ngang. Most of the rest were still earthen roads.

There were no sidewalks or drainage ditches in the “36 streets” commercial quarter. Each time it rained, the roads here were submerged under dozens of centimeters of water, and carriage drivers had to ring a bell for pedestrians to stay away and not get splashed with mud.

In 1883, after a discussion between Hanoi’s Police Commissioner and Governor Nguyen Huu Do, broken tiles were used to pave several roads. During the same year, Bonnal, the first French Resident Superior in Hanoi, began street reformation policies.

Accordingly, the Sword Lake area was reorganized. Roads surrounding the lake were built, thoroughfares connecting the Don Thuy concession area with the Old Quarter were widened, and a French quarter started to be built east and south of Sword Lake. By the end of 1885, the reformation of Hang Kham Street, currently the Trang Tien and Hang Khay Streets, was completed.

The road here was widened and tarred, while sidewalks on its two sides were paved, with phoenix flower trees planted for shade in the summer. Hang Kham’s sidewalks were the first ones in Hanoi to be westernized.

Hanoi’s Old Quarter Area in 1941. Photo: Milwaukee Library at Wisconsin University, United State/ Hanoi Library

Over time, sidewalks in Hanoi were extended. Bonnal also reformed the old quarter, ordering the residents to build rows of houses - not thatched ones - with drainage ditches, number the house number, and build sidewalks.

On December 12, 1889, Landes - Hanoi mayor - issued a decree leasing sidewalks to citizens for opening shops or cafes for 40 coins per square meter. The collected sums went to sidewalk maintenance funds. 

In the early 20th century, as luxury hotels increasingly emerged around Sword Lake, the hotel owners rented sidewalk spaces to open cafes. Both the French living in Hanoi and tourists from Europe enjoyed sipping coffee while watching the streets at these cafes.

The government at that time also promulgated sidewalk usage regulations. Sidewalks in the “36 streets” quarter had to be at least three meters wide, while those in the streets east and south of Sword Lake - Ngo Quyen, Le Phung Hieu, Hai Ba Trung, Hang Bai or Tran Hung Dao - at least five and at most 7.5 meters wide. In addition, 3-meter, 5-meter, and 7.5-meter-wide sidewalks are 10, 15, and 20 centimeters above the roadbed, respectively. Similarly, there were detailed regulations on the height, windows, and balconies of buildings.


The lofty mission of the war     
Boys in the bomb shelter in 1967. Photo: Thomas Billhardt/ Kinh te & Do thi
 When the Northern region of Vietnam was under American air raids, the sidewalk of Hanoi undertook a new mission. Personal air raid shelters - concrete tubes six to eight square meters wide - were set up under sidewalks for people to enter when hearing the sirens on the top of the Grand Opera House.

Recalling this period, Dinh Dong Ha - an unofficial Hanoi researcher - shared that, around August 5, 1964, the US launched the first air raids in the Northern region. Hanoians were evacuated to other localities, leaving behind a desolate city with only paper notes on house doors for passing soldiers or workers, reading: “The key is kept at the neighborhood leader’s / Mr. X’s.”

Famous German photographer Thomas Billhardt took a lot of snapshots themed Hanoi streets during this period, including the famous photo of four children poking their heads out of a bomb shelter on the sidewalk of the Metropole hotel in 1967.

Hanoians were in bomb shelters in front of the Metropole Hotel in 1967. Photo: Lee Lockwood/ kienthuc.net.vn

The book “History of the Party Committee of Hanoi 1930-2000” (Hanoi Publishing House) wrote that in Hanoi during the American war, bomb shelters were dug along all the streets and beneath every house. It is reported that 40,000 individual bomb shelters and 9,000 collective bunkers, enough for 90,000 people, were dug during the anti-American War.

All streets in the inner city of Hanoi have personal bomb shelters. The hole was dug straight down into the sidewalk, enough to accommodate one person. Every 20 meters, such an individual pit staggered on both sides of the sidewalk. Personal bunkers prefabricated from coal slag, topped with straw that effectively protect people against the shrapnel. 

Hanoi also has a rather special bomb shelter that was built partially underground in the area of Ly Thai To Flower Garden today. The spacious cellar can accommodate dozens of people and has access to the octagonal house. Today, above that basement, trees and buildings have grown.

In 1973, as the Paris Peace Accords was signed, American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, and peace was restored in the North, the shelters were filled.

Public water dispensers on Hanoi’s sidewalk before 1975
Hanoi in the 1990s. Photo: Thomas Billhardt