|Shoppers' paradise: Visitors check souvernirs at Dong Xuan Night Market. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
|Major attraction: A pho shop in Nam Ngu Street of Ha Noi. — VNS Photo Truong Vi
|Sought after: Bun thang (Vermicelli with chicken, pork and egg), a special food of Ha Noi. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
|Taste sensation: Visitors enjoy food at a cuisine trade fair in Ha Noi. — VNA/VNS Photo Hoang Hai
Pedestrian areas are popular in Ha Noi and for good reason. Tourists can shop with ease, local businesses have more customers and both groups relish the chance to escape the chronic noise and exhaust pollution to enjoy traditional food. Ha Nguyen
Ha Noi will create extra walking streets next month for pedestrians to enjoy the Old Quarter while promoting culture and culinary delights of the 1,000-year-old city.
The streets Hang Buom, Hang Giay, Luong Ngoc Quyen, Ma May, Dao Duy Tu and Ta Hien will join those already closed to traffic in the evening, Hang Dao and Dong Xuan.
"We aimed to tap the strong points of these streets for tourism including century-old food dishes such as cha ca (grilled fish) and pho (noodle soup)," said Nguyen Quoc Hung, deputy director of the Ha Noi Department of Transport.
South Korea visitor Kim Eun-hee said visiting Ha Noi and discovering the Old Quarter and its eating places was a dream come true for her and her friends.
Kim said she had wanted to visit the Old Quarter for a long time and finally got the chance when she was invited to a wedding in Ha Noi.
Cha Ca La Vong restaurant was one of her picks to visit, though it was famous for just one dishù.
"After reading the contents of a little book on the plane, I decided that Cha Ca La Vong would have to be one of my first destinations upon arriving in Ha Noi," Kim said.
"Cha Ca La Vong turned out to be a veritable Ha Noi institution," she said, adding that it was a must-visit place if you enjoyed different tastes on your travels.
Restaurant owner Doan Nguyen said the Doan family was said to have invented the dish and had been churning out cha ca at 14 Cha Ca Street for more than a century.
Seated at a table by the window, we were given cool towels to wipe off the characteristic Ha Noi sweat; our waiter also brought a laminated card that stated the restaurant only served fish and that one serving would cost VND120,000 per person.
A plate of vermicelli rice noodles, a bowl and a set of chopsticks arrived and in the middle of the table platters of scallions, roasted peanuts, Vietnamese coriander and bowls of shrimp paste called mam tom garnished with slices of chilli pepper.
Kim said she added everything to the fish, scallion and dill mixture – lots of peanuts, a few sprigs of coriander, and a large spoonful of the mam tom – stirred it all together and took a bite.
"It was piping hot and I had to wait until my mouth cooled down in order to appreciate the delicate balance of the flavours," Kim said.
"The flaky white fish was perfectly seasoned with what one diner thought must be turmeric or saffron; the fresh dill and coriander gave it an earthy taste while the crunchy peanuts gave it texture.
"After we finished our second pan of fish and polished off all of the trimmings, we sat back completely satisfied."
The shop owners said of the ingredients: two drops of an essence extracted from the perfume gland of the ca cuong (beetle) which has made the Doan family's cha ca recipe such a success for more than a century.
"The dish was so tasty and delicious I will tell my family members and friends to come here to enjoy it. It was unforgettable," said Kim.
Belgian businessman, Daniel Vanhoute who has visited Viet Nam many times, said he never missed a trip to Ha Noi's Old Quarter to enjoy the small streets, tube houses and bustling business.
"I become a pho addict whenever I am in Ha Noi," said Vanhoute, adding that Vietnamese pho is a "world phenomenon".
"I often eat pho from a vendor near my house for its taste and convenience." Pho is one of Ha Noi's iconic dishes. Few people in the capital haven't sat down to a bowl of the steaming noodle soup, with beef, chicken or tripe chunks floating in it – perfect to ward away the winter chills."
|Welcome: Cha ca La Vong (grilled fish) Restaurant in Ha Noi. — VNS Photo Truong Vi
Late writer Nguyen Tuan wrote pho first appeared in Ha Noi in the early 20th century, made with beef. It had since evolved into tens of different varieties.
Anh Tuyet, a cooking teacher and the owner of one of the oldest houses in Ma May Street and a seventh generation Hanoian, said she had been handed down the cooking art from her ancestors.
Tuyet said she had trained hundreds of foreigners to cook.
"My students are particularly interested in preparing traditional Vietnamese dishes such as rieu cua (crab soup), bun thang (vermicelli soup with chicken, pork and egg), and different sorts of sticky rice," said Tuyet, adding that it took her students about two months to learn to cook the dishes well.
Tuyet said her reward was when she saw dishes carrying the Anh Tuyet trademark being presented at luxury restaurants in New York and many other capitals.
On the last day of the recent Lunar New Year, a Viet Nam Television programme on her cooking was aired in the US, moving some Vietnamese living there to contact her.
"They telephoned me to say that watching my cooking programme had made them miss the motherland and their native villages. They expressed a dream of visiting my restaurant to experience the tastes," said Tuyet, adding that their words were very encouraging.
"I will try my best to keep the taste developed by our ancestors."
Meanwhile, Frank Muller from Germany, who has been working in Viet Nam for years, welcomed the opening of more streets for pedestrians only, saying he liked going to the night market with his Vietnamese girlfriend.
"We come to the market not for buying things but to discover the quarter by night and enjoy the fine art and handicrafts performances, particularly traditional arts such as cheo (traditional opera) and ca tru (ceremonial singing)," Muller said.
He said the Old Quarter was very special: not magnificent but very attractive.
"Very few countries in the world have a 1,000-year- old area like Ha Noi. What I most remember about it is the small streets with bustling souvenir shops and special dishes," he said.
The 3km market is located along the centre of the Old Quarter stretching past ancient houses and dead end streets from Hang Dao to Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square.
The market opens from 6.30pm every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Student Hoang Thi Tam said she and her friends liked going to the night market to buy things because prices were affordable and more importantly there was "no bargaining".
Hang Buom Street resident Nguyen Thanh Thuy said it was a nice idea to create pedestrian areas where she and other residents could escape from the noise and gas emissions.
"I think authorities should also arrange parking lots to avoid disrupting residents' trading activities," she said.
Nguyen Van Han, 80, of Hang Ma Street, said Ha Noi's Old Quarter was the busiest business area in the capital.
Some streets carried the name of items or goods produced or sold in the street, which was why their names often start with Hang (commodity), Han said.
A number of them, such as Hang Ma, Hang Tre, and Hang Thiec, were still producing their traditional items while many others had changed to focus on other businesses such as tourism promotion.
Han said five or six generations of his family had produced and sold votive papers for worship and death anniversaries.
"Now we still sell these items but my neighbours sell toys," said Han.
A group of travellers from the US came to visit his stall. The group's leader, James Rhode, who has been in Ha Noi many times, said his friends had asked him to guide them on a tour of the capital.
"The Old Quarter is one of our must-see destinations. Its culture, history and food are very attractive," said Rhode.
He said his group had visited the old house at 87 Ma May Street which had been built in the 19th century with traditional architecture: open air in the middle surrounded by rooms. The first floor at the front was used to sell goods, while the inside was where the goods were produced. The rear of the house is where the kitchen and toilet are located.
The second floor is the worshipping place plus a guest room and bedroom.
The house was repaired and protected as a national heritage in 1999 and is now a tourist attraction.
"Apart from cultural and historical sites in the Old Quarter, we also wish to visit the ruins of the Thang Long royal capital city and pagodas and temples such as Tran Quoc Pagoda to understand more about Ha Noi," said Rhode.
Mai Tien Dung, deputy director of Ha Noi Department for Culture, Sports and Tourism, said between 1.5 and 2 million travellers visited Ha Noi every year.
"But the destination they most like to visit is the Old Quarter, the soul of Ha Noi," said Dung. — VNS