The problem with Hanoi's Old Quarter

The problem with Hanoi's Old Quarter

The GM of a luxury Hanoi hotel says Vietnam's capital is missing out on the region's most compelling urban experience

I took a walk one recent Saturday afternoon. The sky was overcast but there was no threat of rain and the temperatures were perfect.

Not surprisingly the parks just outside the hotel were jammed with weekenders.

There were the usual suspects. The glamorous young women decked in their bridal finery, posing for pictures against the backdrop of my hotel and the magisterial colonial French building across the street.

There were legions of people playing badminton, with and without nets. Young men kicked shuttlecocks back and forth with a dexterity that surprises me still, spiking the object with the soles of their feet when need be.

In front of the statue of Emperor Lý Thái Tổ (974-1028), adolescents caromed their skateboards. One couple sat, she at some embroidery and he punching away at his smart phone.

Hanoians are starved for open space, and on a day like this when the weather’s fine and it’s time for games, they put more pressure on the available space like no people I’ve ever seen.

But I digress. I was taking a walk. I drifted into a circuit of pedestrians making their way around Hoan Kiem Lake.

The sidewalk was wide, the going was good. But trouble started at the head of the lake. That’s where I made my way into the Old Quarter on Hang Dao.

If you know anything about Hanoi, you probably know a bit about the Old Quarter, otherwise known as the 36 Streets where, hundreds of years ago -- some say right after the Mongol invasions -- the guilds set up shop, each trade to their own street. The streets today are as commercial as they ever were and, to my mind, this place is the most fascinating part of Hanoi.

"The streets are so thick with vehicular traffic that walking is not quite the word for it," says Kai Speth, general manager of Hanoi's Sofitel Legend Metropole. "Making your way is more like it." More on CNN: 7 ways Hanoi is unlike any other Asian city

In fact, if not for what I’m about to tell you, I’d be wondering why UNESCO hadn’t inscribed the Old Quarter on its World Heritage list.

The ground floors of the street-side shops, known as mat tien (main street front) to the Vietnamese, are chock-a-block with commercial goods, so much so that the wares literally spill out the open maw of these shops.

The merchants perch on tiny stools, monitoring browsers, awaiting a sale.

But these same sidewalks are crowded with parked motorbikes and the streets are so thick with vehicular traffic that walking is not quite the word for it. Making your way is more like it.

The motorbike-ridden sidewalks force you out into the street, where you’ve got to fend for your well-being as the vehicles hurry by.

More on CNN: Is Hanoi losing its Asian-ness?

Contrast this with the streets of Hoi An’s Old Quarter where my family and I spent a couple of days some weeks ago.

They shut down the streets of their Old Quarter to vehicles in the morning and evening, creating pedestrian zones that are without peer in Vietnam. I can’t wait to go back.

And this is what we want for the Hanoi Old Quarter.

I know, I know, people will say I’m being precious with this appeal for pedestrian friendly zones in downtown Hanoi. What about the people trying to earn their daily bread?

To that, I would say, the status quo isn't working. Hanoi is the beneficiary of one of the world’s most fascinating commercial districts.

Why settle for the dysfunction we’ve got when there’s an opportunity to create one of Southeast Asia’s most compelling urban experiences: a walk in the Old Quarter?

Instead of having people leave Hanoi, talking about congestion, let's have them talk about how they can’t wait to go back.

Kai Speth is the general manager of Hanoi's Sofitel Legend Metropole.

The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kai Speth.

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