Tran Phu Street: A Vietnamese Neighborhood
Tran Phu St runs westwards from the edge of Hanoi’s old quarter for just under a mile. Although not a long street, it has much of the bustle and variety that makes Hanoi such an interesting place to live – from old colonial buildings to bia hoi, street vendors and song birds in cages, it is all here. The street is lined with tall sau trees (Dracontomelon duperreanum) for much of its length and the light from the afternoon sun coming through the leaves is particularly beautiful.
Firstly, a bit of history. Old maps of Hanoi (such as this one from 1925 grid ref. L11-14) show the street as Boulevard Felix Faure prior to independence. Faure was President of France from 1895 until 1899, when he died in flagrante delicto with a thirty year old female companion, prompting some cheap shots from the Parisian press (and Georges Clemenceau, whose take on Faure’s demise was “Il voulait être César, il ne fut que Pompée”…).
Despite the circumstances of his passing, eight thousand miles to the east, the street bore his name until independence, when it was renamed after Tran Phu, a famous Vietnamese revolutionary. Tran Phu was the first Secretary General of the Indochinese Communist Party, who died in prison in Saigon at just 27 in 1931. There is a shrine and commemoration at a house on Tho Nhuom St, nearby, where he wrote the “The theses on bourgeois revolution of civil rights”.
Walking westwards, one of the first places you pass is the Anh Hoa bakery, which sells fantastic fresh bread. Incongruously for a country renowned for the quality of its street food, there is also a doner kebab stall outside the bakery, proving once and for all the world domination of mystery meat in a pita. Then on your left is Tong Duy Tan, generally referred to rather unimaginatively as “Food Street” – a bustling street of small places selling everything from black pigeons (considered to be medicinal) to water snails. Hotpots are particularly popular in winter months, usually washed down with liberal quantities of Hanoi vodka, locally produced and extraordinarily cheap.
Soon after that is the railway. Houses back straight on the rails and it’s not unusual to see people washing vegetables, and children playing alongside. This is also an ad hoc recycling centre – you often see old women in conical hats bringing lots of cardboard, plastics, and pieces of wire here for sorting. Just a few hundred metres north of Hanoi train station (or “Ga Ha Noi” in Vietnamese), this is the northbound line that runs to Lao Cai (on the Chinese border) and also to Dong Dang in Southern China.
A little further down is a very popular bia hoi – essentially a pub on the pavement. Bia hoi is a Hanoi tradition, still going strong: dozens, sometimes hundreds of men (almost always men) sitting on tiny blue stools, often with their shirts rolled up to expose their bellies as they chug cold bia hoi (fresh beer) for around 8000 dong (30p) a glass.
The middle part of Tran Phu is lined with small shops – if you look hard enough behind the gaudy neon signs or walk behind the shops, you can see some of the original villas from the French period. There are often stalls selling lottery tickets, set up in the afternoon under the trees, which are very popular, and this is the place in Hanoi to come for them. Gambling is illegal in Vietnam (other than for foreigners), but the state lottery thrives, having been established in the sixties to fund public works. Street vendors also bring their bicycles laden with flowers or porcelain to set up shop along the road.
Just a little further down is GoldMalt, which I’ve written about previously here. This is a Czech-style brauhaus, where the beer – either a pilsner, a dark beer, or a mix of the two – is brewed on site. It is very popular and usually filled with jovial Vietnamese men enjoying the beer. There’s often a goat tied up along the street – the beerhouse also does plenty of grilled meat and beery food (including German sausage – or “xuc xich duc” in Vietnamese). Outside there is also a tasty pop up bun cha stall, one of several small eateries that come and go throughout the day along Tran Phu.
After GoldMalt, you reach the Vietnamese Olympic Authority. This is housed in some rather impressive colonial era buildings, and was apparently commandeered by the Japanese to accommodate one of their generals during the Second World War. Unfortunately, it is now also a rubbish collection point – the carts of rotting food that are often here make for a pretty noxious stench in the summer, so it’s not always good to linger admiring the architecture.
Past that, a row of shops selling all sorts, from Hawaiian shirts to leather waistcoats, and a bike repair shop, whose owner is a chicken enthusiast and proudly shows off new chicks whenever the opportunity arises. The cockerel prowls the pavement, and the hound often has to hurry past on the way to the park to avoid being pecked. You’ll also see old men with bike pumps and soda bottles of fuel – one man service stations for Hanoi’s thousands of mopeds – and pavement barbers, who offer some al fresco grooming options.
Arriving at Dien Bien Phu, a road named after the famous victory over the French in 1956, which leads up to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, a few hundred metres to the north west, you then have to weave through the traffic to reach Lenin Park, where Vladimir Ilyich looks sternly over the panoply of daily Vietnamese life.
After the park, Tran Phu enters the diplomatic quarter and there’s less bustle on the streets, with the Chinese, Singaporean, German, Iranian and other embassies. The American flag flies over two villas which house the Hanoi HQ of the US Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, whose mission is to investigate the 1664 unaccounted for American soldiers from the war across Indochina.
Also along this part of the street is the Ministry of Justice, housed in a beautiful old building which is painted in characteristic yellow.
It takes less than twenty minutes to walk along Tran Phu, but we see something new every time we do so – a daily reminder of how lucky we are to live in such a fascinating city.