Exploring the Unusual Tunnels in Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Visitors to the Old Quarter are often amazed by its lively atmosphere, creative chaos, and vibrant colors. Despite its tight quarters, this part of town is like a “living tradition” – brimming with energy and history.

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For solo visitors without a local guide, navigating through the narrow and maze-like alleyways of Hanoi’s famous Old Quarter can lead to getting lost.

Above-ground “tunnels”

The streets of Hang Buom, Ngo Gach, Hang Chieu, and Hang Duong feature tiny alleys that are only wide enough for one person to pass through.

Within these alleys, visitors can discover fascinating sights. In the dark, it can take non-locals up to 10 minutes to find their way out of Alley No.96, Hang Buom Street, relying solely on the light from their cellphones.

Sometimes, curious tourists venture into this alley, only to never return. The locals, however, can explain this mysterious phenomenon. Nguyen Van Quyen, a long-time resident of Alley 96 Hang Buom Street, describes it as “a tunnel”.

“Groups of adventurous tourists come here from time to time. Except for the locals and tour guides, few people know that the dark Alley 96 is the passage from Hang Buom Street to Ngo Gach Street,” explains the local resident.

Entering these narrow and dark alleys can give visitors a sense of unease. The lack of natural light requires residents in Alley 96 Hang Buom Street to keep the overhead bulbs lit 24/7. Yet, there are corners that remain in darkness, where smartphones become the only source of illumination.

At first glance, it may seem like only one household resides in these alleys, but this is not the case. Dozens of old, damp, and cramped houses, devoid of sunlight, line these small and dim lanes. Only after traversing the winding passage can onlookers see people passing by on Ngo Gach Street, where light shines between two high-rise buildings.

Nguyen Thi Mo, a resident of the Old Quarter, explains that she and her husband inherited the house they live in from her in-laws. According to her, there used to be many alleys connecting the streets of Hang Dao, Hang Ngang, Hang Duong, and Hang Bo, forming a labyrinth that easily confuses strangers.

The life of alley dwellers

It’s hard to imagine that these tiny alleys have been home to generations of households in the Old Quarter. Life within these “tunnels” is vastly different.

In order to escape the absence of natural light, the residents of Alley 96 Hang Buom Street have to rely on constant electric lighting. Without this artificial illumination, the locals in this “above-ground tunnel” would never see daylight.

Within this alley, it’s difficult to distinguish between morning and afternoon without checking the time. One local aptly describes it as “day being the same as night in this place”.

However, despite the conditions, people like Quyen choose to remain in the “tunnel” because of the memories associated with their homes. Even if they were to sell their properties, it’s unlikely that anyone would buy a house in a dark alley that appears to be a dead end from the outside.

Tran Thi Tha, sister-in-law of Nguyen Thi Mo, has a different approach. She purchased another house in a more comfortable neighborhood, but still visits her old house on Ngo Gach Street daily due to her family’s small stall located there.

Tha used to live with her husband and two sons in a 10-square-meter house passed down from her in-laws. Recalling the inconvenience of living in such a narrow alley, she mentions that “the alley is so dark and small that no mode of transportation can enter”.

As their children reached adolescence and required more space, the couple decided to buy a house in another area.

Concerns about overpopulation

According to locals, these small alleys used to connect not just two streets, but numerous ones. However, as the neighborhood became overcrowded, many of these passages were encroached upon and closed off.

The Old Quarter of Hanoi, known as the “36 Streets,” is considered one of the most densely populated urban areas in Asia. The average living area per person is just 0.9 square meters, according to the statistic from the Hanoi Board for Old Quarter Management.

For decades, the cramped living conditions have resulted from the high population density in the Old Quarter. People make use of every available space to create bedrooms, severely limiting the flow of light and air.

Behind the picturesque facade of the Old Quarter, seen as one of Hanoi’s top tourist attractions, lies the hidden reality of unhealthy living conditions within long and narrow “tunnel” alleys.

Nevertheless, foreign visitors still find charm in the Old Quarter as a “living tradition.” Traveler William Edwards from New Zealand states, “The street life of the Old Quarter is full of energy, and its creative chaos with dazzling colors, smells, and sounds embodies the true essence of Hanoi.”