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Amid Phố Cổ, the Unassuming Cultural Exchange Center Tells Stories of Hanoi's Heartland

In the heart of the Old Quarter, the Hanoi Cultural Exchange Center carries a rich repertoire of knowledge and stories of the city’s architecture and history.

While strolling the bustling street of Đào Duy Từ, a building caught my eye. Amidst the thousand activities of the old district, a building with yellow lanterns, rows of flowers, and delicate silk threads adorning its facade stood out as serene. It is the Hanoi Cultural Exchange Center.

The yellow-tinged entrance to the museum.

In contrast with the bright colors of the exterior, everything inside is dark and quiet. In the main room, I saw some ladies weaving silk on their impressive handlooms while surrounded by finished products. With no information that I could read, I thought I was lost in another space-time dimension with ancient craftsmen.

Silk weaving in action.

I later learned that the Hoàn Kiếm District People's Committee had set up this space as an exhibition to promote Vietnamese heritage. There are two sections of exhibitions. The first, the temporary exhibition, celebrates the traditional silk weaving craft of the Northern Delta. While this showcase is lively with artisans and colorful products, the heart of the center lies on the second floor, and the permanent exhibition "permanences and metamorphosis."

Tradition costumes and textile techniques.

Upstairs, in a small and nondescript room, rows of tables look empty at first. But upon getting closer, one recognizes a wealth of knowledge regarding the urban planning of Vietnam’s capital.

The information, written in Vietnamese, French, and English, traces more than 1,000 years of history of the well-known 36 old craft streets of Hanoi. It starts with the story of how Emperor Lý Thái Tổ chose Hanoi to be the capital of his kingdom in 1010. Legend has it that the Emperor saw a golden dragon taking flight here, and so he named the new seat of power Thăng Long, or Soaring Dragon. There was also a commercial reason to locate the capital here, for Hanoi was located at the junction of the mainland and river routes, which made it ideal for transporting goods. Then little by little, craftsmen and merchants left their villages and settled here, creating streets that specialized in the craft of their origins.

An old map of Hanoi from 1885.

The arrival of the French marked a major turning point in the history of the district. The exhibition illustrates this transition. With early photos joining text come lessons about how colonial forces attempted to clean up the city, having deemed the rural characteristics of the "natives" unhygienic and sordid.

Houses in Hanoi are usually an interesting blend of old structures and modern utility.

The central part of the exhibition focuses on the architectural evolution of the old quarter with models and drawings of tube houses, so called because they are often very long (up to 60 meters) and were once made of wood. During colonial times, some buildings were inspired by the neoclassical style, using elements of old architecture, or in the 1930s, the art deco style appeared with the use of concrete.

Dioramas showing past architectural styles.

The architectural evolution continued with the war with America, during which neighborhoods were not only affected by the bombings but also suffered from wartime and planned economies. Cement was restricted, so extensions of existing houses were allowed, but only with recycled materials. Once private trade resumed following economic reforms in the 1980s, and the country experienced extremely rapid population growth with neighborhood changes to match.

Vignettes of Hanoi streets.

The exhibition comes to an abrupt end with an empty glass room and a turned-off television. Some final bits of information let visitors know that the city is undergoing profound changes. Hotels and office buildings are replacing old houses, thus breaking the harmony of the district. To preserve its identity, the government classified the old quarter as a national heritage site in 2004 and adopted in 2013 regulatory measures to protect its architectural and urban heritage.

Hanoi during the French occupation.

I was pleasantly surprised by the exhibition's critical and objective portrayal of Hanoi's heritage history. Despite one simple scenography that ended awkwardly, the rather brief exhibition offers us the true history of the district marked by colonization and the breakneck expansion that disfigured the district.

A range of architectural styles in Hanoi.

This center of the city remains a very popular tourist area, and many know only superficially the secrets of these streets. The Cultural Center offers a glimpse of the phase-by-phase urbanization of the old district, and also the necessity to protect the cultural heritage of the buildings within a place that remains one of the last examples of traditional market districts in Southeast Asia.

The Hanoi Cultural Exchange Center is located at 50 Đào Duy Từ Street, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm District, Hanoi.

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