There’s a whole list of ancient streets in Hanoi, most of them located in and around the city’s Old Quarter. Thanh Nien, or the ‘land bridge’ as some have taken to calling it, sits in the middle of West Lake and Truc Bach Lake, acting as a link between the two lakes.
The street is renowned in Hanoi for its beauty — the blackboard trees that line it give shade to the pavements, and the ancient temples and Buddhist flags hanging off of the trees give a sense of spirituality and tranquillity.
Of an evening Thanh Nien is popular with couples who come to walk down the breezy street and look out onto the surrounding lakes. It’s also a popular hangout for young Hanoians who, after all, it derives its name from; Thanh Nien in Vietnamese means ‘youth’. The name was given to the street by Ho Chi Minh after a group of students and young people helped to widen it in 1960.
Alive with History
Thanh Nien is home to Hanoi’s oldest pagoda, Tran Quoc Pagoda, which was built in the 6th century. The temple sports a recognisable tower that is illuminated at night, along with several other surrounding ancient structures, giving the street its reputation for beauty. Also present is a fig tree that was grown from a cutting of the Bodhi tree under which Buddha is said to have found enlightenment. The tree was a gift from the first President of India, Rajendra Prasad, in 1959.
The pagoda was originally built on the banks of the Red River, but when the water started to encroach on it, it was moved to Thanh Nien, where it now sits on a small Island in West Lake. You can visit the temple for free between 7.30am and 11.30am, and 1.30pm to 5.30pm, every day.
On one side, Thanh Nien Street curves around Truc Bach Lake. Even outside Vietnam, the lake is famous. It was the site where the now US politician John McCain crash-landed after being shot down by an anti-air missile during the war. McCain was captured and was a prisoner of war in the 'Hanoi Hilton' for the remainder of the conflict. Unlike other lakes in the capital where planes were shot into, McCain’s aircraft has not been turned into a war memorial.
If you want to get a real sense of Truc Bach, you can take a giant swan out for a romantic paddle (or a cheeky BYOB session) from the jetty next to the floating Highlands Coffee on the lake.
At the bottom of the street close to Ba Dinh Square is Quan Thanh Taoist Temple. Dating back to the 11th century it is considered one of four sacred temples in Hanoi. The temple is open to the public and entrance is VND10,000. Inside is an impressive bronze statue towering four meters high, and an art gallery, where original paintings are on sale to the public, averaging around VND750,000 a piece.
Thanh Nien is well known for its abundance of bo bia sellers (despite the name, unfortunately bo bia involves neither beef, nor beer). These crunchy treats are made from sugar cane, shredded coconut and sesame seeds rolled up in a corn wrap. While a little dry, they’ll certainly satisfy a sweet tooth, and cost VND10,000 a serving.
Once the sun gets eaten up, the youth of the city descend on the Kem Ho Tay, opposite Tran Quoc Pagoda, to satisfy their craving for ice creams at between VND6,000 and VND7,000.
Further up the road, and just off on to Truc Bach Road, is Bao Oanh Café, which is renowned for its kem dua (coconut ice cream, VND70,000), as well as its stunning five-storey view of Thanh Nien, West Lake and Truc Bach.
For those with a more savoury tooth, at the bottom of Thanh Nien, on the corner of Quan Thanh Street mobile vendors dish up banh xiu pao for VND7,000 a serving. The mix of meat, egg and fruit in a pastry wrap is a great way to fill up on the cheap while you wander around.
What to Buy
It’s impossible not to glimpse the flower traders going about their rounds with an abundance of colours, a bouquet of which is yours for VND100,000.
It’s often equally irresistible to buy a good bit of tat from one of the sellers outside Tran Quoc Pagoda, with wares including beads, incense, little ornaments, and red-eared slider turtles, small ones which cost VND30,000 to VND50,000, and bigger ones (the size of your hand) which cost between VND200,000 and VND300,000.
A popular tradition has been to raise the turtles for a couple of weeks and then release them back into the lake for good luck. The turtles have to be released on a specific day laid down by a fortune teller. The turtles are then in all likelihood fished straight back out of the lake and resold.
For your shopping and grocery needs, Dan’s Bistro (28 Thanh Nien) specializes in imported goods, and on the opposite side of the street, the café at number 5 Thanh Nien, serves up some of the finer tra tranh (lemon tea) and mia da (sugarcane juice), both for VND10,000 a glass.
One for the Bucket List
Thanh Nien Street has a lot to offer visitors, being one of the most aesthetically pleasing streets in the capital. Boasting a fair amount of cafes, it’s a great spot to bring a date, learn about the city’s past, or play bumper swans on Truc Bach Lake.
PHOTOS BY TEIGUE JOHN BLOKPOEL