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Chợ Âm Phủ and the Embattled History Behind Hanoi's Book Street

19/12 Street was once a mass burial ground for those who died in the National Resistance against France in 1946. The event shaped the history of the city and the relationship that thrived for 71 years between locals, the street and chợ Âm phủ (Hell Market).

An embattled history

It was 1946, one year after the end of the Second World War. Japan had lost in the Pacific, leaving behind Indochina and its desire for independence. But as soon as feeble autonomy was granted, the French began to re-enter their prized possession in the Far East. A war was inevitable, and both sides knew it. Several treaties and ultimatums were given to resolve tensions between the Communist Party of Vietnam and France, which proved ineffectual. By December 19, Hồ Chí Minh, the President of North Vietnam, finally initiated the conflict and declared a "National Resistance" against the French regime throughout Hanoi.

President Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of the National Resistance against France (December 1946).

For 60 days, Hanoi became a makeshift barricade, shielding the capital from the French forces with anything that citizens could make use of. But the bloodshed never stopped, and with no time to set up proper burials for the dead, the streets themselves became tombs in which soldiers and civilians lay. Various parts of the city were designated as temporary burial grounds, including Le Chan Street, which covered the Old Quarter’s Hang Bong-Cua Nam section. The mass grave was in use up until a year later, when North Vietnam failed to control the city center and was forced to evacuate to their war bases. The National Resistance effectively ended and marked the start of the First Indochina War.

A barricade made out of chairs, tables and shelves during the Battle of Hanoi (1946).

During peacetime, in 1981, the remains in Le Chan Street were exhumed and finally put to rest in Bat Bat Cemetery in Son Tay. To commemorate the date and the sacrifice of the citizens of Hanoi, the city’s administration changed the name of the street to 19/12 — phố 19 tháng 12. Life soon prospered once again in the street that, for almost 35 years, was known as a resting place of the dead. In 1986, the city of Hanoi decided to open a market along the street, bearing the same name. What was once a small group of bazaars soon became a bustling "model standard" market of the city. But residents did not refer to it as the 19/12 Market.

The devastated Old Quarter after the National Resistance Against the French Colonial Empire (1947).

They instead called it chợ Âm phủ

In Vietnamese tradition, it was considered uncommon, if not blasphemous, to speak casually about the underworld, let alone naming a market after it. But the merchants and locals seemed to see it in a different light. They believed that the name, mysterious as it was, depicted the true history of the land, and so it was their way to remember the dead.

As such, the respect and fear for the lingering souls set an unwritten rule among merchants to be truthful and honest, and to never become swindlers. By failing to do so, the souls of 19/12 Street, omnipresent at the site, would pass on judgments to them, in this life or the next. This embrace of spirituality differentiated chợ Âm phủ from others, as the competitiveness among merchants was replaced by a sense of community, a rare sight to be found in the setting of a hustling Vietnamese market. It continued to flourish under these principals for over 30 years, adding a unique layer to the history of Hoan Kiem District and the city of Hanoi.

Chợ âm phủ in 2005.

However, by the 2000s, the government began its efforts to modernize the capital city, and new infrastructure project were to be built around the city center. Hell Market was no longer a part of that vision, and in 2008, 19/12 Street was repossessed and demolished for a new shopping mall/residential building.

The decision was met with heavy protests from locals and historians. Petitions were made soon after, citing the importance of the street and the market in Hanoi’s cultural history. To resolve the backlash, the city administration agreed to stop the construction of a new shopping mall and replaced it with a book street. The original structures of 19/12 Street would be kept, but unfortunately, there would be no plans to restore the Hell Market. The book street finally opened to visitors in 2017, and is well-known as a popular entertainment and educational location in the city center.

Kiosks inside Chợ Âm phủ in 2005.

From Hell Market to Book Street

After years of violence and restlessness, the street now emanates an aura of tranquility, signifying the change of Hanoi in a new era. It feels appropriate as a reading hub and a much-needed public space that is often hard to find in the city’s labyrinthine landscape. However, the street feels sterile, devoid of its history, which defined not only the name 19/12, but also an entire generation of people who have lived and died with the street. All one can do is to reminisce in silence, as life keeps on moving, oblivious to a past that yearns to be heard.

It is said that nostalgia is merely a mechanism for those who are afraid of change. But perhaps it is just a fear of history being unwanted, or chosen to be neglected, by a city that prides itself in its past. Nevertheless, aside from famous historical sites, how much of the "other" history of Hanoi is unmentioned, and how much, since this article was written, has begun to fade away?

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