Hanoi: Preserving the Past

Part 2 of 2

Visitors will not find many shopping malls or fast-food drive-throughs on the 45-minute ride from the Noi Ba International airport to the Old Quarter in Hanoi. Traveling from the 33.2-meter wide Nhat Tan Bridge towards my boutique hotel, the roads seem to depart from the present day and slip into the narrow, congested alleys from the 13th century. These ancient pathways, which are also known as the 36 Old Streets, are frequented by tourists from all over due to the strong ties to their cultural roots. The label pays homage to previous trades practiced in the neighborhood centuries ago. Through the years, the trades and goods have evolved but the street names and original establishments remain.  

These old and original wood panels created the accent wall for the dining area on the ground floor of Home restaurant.

While the historic Old Quarter continues to be one of the most visited addresses, visitors who venture outside that area will discover that the practice of protecting old homes is also valued and exercised. In the Truc Bach area which is a kilometer from the Old Quarter, l discovered a newly restored 1930s colonial villa that the owners converted into a restaurant called “Home.”

The author (middle) taken with Giles Katigbak, and Home restaurant's General Manager, Mr. Chinh Dinh

“The idea is to promote Vietnamese cuisine globally. We feel this home best presents those values because of its French colonial details. It also pays tribute to our history,” says general Manager Mr. Chinh Dinh.

The Cong Caphe branch on Ma May street.

Together with a design company called New Space, the team went to work on the existing structure. According to Hanoi’s heritage laws, owners of colonial villas are not allowed to demolish their structures unless they are deemed uninhabitable. A majority of the architectural details were salvaged with minimal changes done to the exterior and brick walls. To update the interiors, the designer’s contemporary approach in exhibiting vintage accessories and materials created that global ambiance aligned with the group’s vision.

According to Mr. Chinh Dinh, they painted the exteriors yellow and the windows blue because the
Vietnamese believe those colors will bring good fortune to the owners.
Shelves display old books from Hanoi.

Due to the good condition of the building, the restaurant was launched after 45 days and opened in June this year. Mr Chinh Dinh reveals, “We worked around the original 80-year-old stairway that leads to the second level. We also embraced the weathered wood for our shutters, doors and other details. If I am not mistaken, these are created from ironwood that is valuable and quite expensive if you try to purchase them today.” While this particular wood is a challenge to work with, the pieces created from them will last for centuries. They make up some of Hanoi’s temples, including the 11th century Bach Ma temple which is the oldest in the city.     

Coffee plays a big part in the Vietnamese lifestyle, making Vietnam second to Brazil
as the largest producer of coffee. To date, owner Linh Dung now operates 18 branches
of Cong Caphe.

    Back in the Old Quarter, the old favorite Green Tangerine restaurant has been serving French and Vietnamese dishes inside a French colonial villa built in 1928. It is another home that was carefully restored, transporting guests for years to a more nostalgic era with their al fresco courtyard and colonial interiors. Refurbished houses such as these are common stories and are dotted all over the city. The reigning coffee shops in Hanoi are located in old homes or structures as well. The popular Cong Caphe, which serves one of the capital’s best ca phe cot dua (coffee infused with coconut frozen yogurt), can be enjoyed in several of these old buildings throughout Hanoi.

A lotus decorated spiral staircase in the middle of Green Tangerine's courtyard.
The Green Tangerine restaurant is found in a charming colonial villa built in 1928.

In an international conference held early this year, Vietnam was applauded for its valiant effort in conserving and upholding the richness of its heritage, resulting in increased support from UNESCO and other relevant organizations. Deputy Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Dang Thi Bich Lien credits the city’s heritage for increasing tourism, an important factor for Hanoi where more than a third of the city’s gross domestic products comes from the service industry. This year, Hanoi was awarded by Travel + Leisure, a popular travel magazine, as one of the Top 10 Best Cities in Asia for the second time in a row based on the city’s culture, restaurants, landmarks, shopping and value. It also ranks fourth in Trip Advisor’s list of World’s Best Destinations.

The interiors of this cafe revolve around a Communist theme, decorated with accessories from the Vietnam-American era.

Hanoi still needs to refine its heritage laws. There are ongoing debates regarding the restoration of cherished landmarks such as the Long Bien bridge by Gustav Eiffel and the state of the Old Quarter due to the increasing number of tenants. Nonetheless, we can all learn from the people of Hanoi on how they safeguard their national treasures.

 Special thanks to Mr Chinh Dinh of Home Restaurant for the interview.


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