One of the most charming aspects of life in Hanoi is how there seems to be a street for everything.
Pho cuon street, money-exchange street, sunglasses street, handmade wooden furniture street; whatever you need, it can often be found in a street with a concentration of shops so similar you wonder how they all stay in business.
In the middle of Ba Dinh, however, Ngoc Ha Street is the kid who can’t make up their mind about what they want to be when they grow up.
Tourism hotspot, local market, banh cuon HQ or the place to get your glasses fixed and business cards laminated; Ngoc Ha really is the jack of all trades.
As the first street to be featured in Street Portrait, it’s only right that Ngoc Ha is home to some of the best street food around.
Bun Cha Huyen Linh (136 Ngoc Ha, Ba Dinh) is an unassuming, barely two-metre wide restaurant. However, anyone drawn in by the smell of pork fat dripping into burning coals will find some of the best bun cha in Hanoi, where each meatball is wrapped in la lot leaves before meeting a fiery fate on the grill.
There are a few banh cuon (steamed rice paper rolls) restaurants dotted along the main stretch of road, each one with their own take on this iconic northern dish; and all of them far superior to franchised chains such as Gia An.
Head into the alleyways, starting at Ngo 158 Ngoc Ha, and you can find pho bo, thit xien (grilled pork skewers) and an excellent Japanese pancake restaurant.
One of the people making a living from selling food in this labyrinth of alleyways is Nguyen Thi Xuan Huong.
Huong, now 54, has lived in Ngoc Ha Village for the last 40 years and in her current home since 1988.
“Life here is so peaceful and convenient,” says Huong, as she prepares another batch of pork skewers for her trusty old grill. “We’re near a school, a police station and a hospital.”
Selling out of her shophouse just past the corner of ngach 158/51 Ngoc Ha, Huong has first-hand experience of the development speed of the area she calls home.
“When my family first moved here, the village consisted of only single-storey homes,” she explains. “The temple and lake have recently been widened and renovated, and all the buildings are much taller these days.”
Calling up to her daughter to bring more pork down from their second-floor living space, she motions at a pair of foreigners passing on their tragic yellow Yamaha Nouvo.
“There’re many expats living around here now,” says Huong, as her daughter descends with a bucket of meat, and a face covered in cucumber slices. “I guess that means this must be a great area to live.”
Aside from the convenient public services, Huong says that the alleyways a little further up are also home to a lively morning market, where she can find all the fresh vegetables, meat and other produce she needs for her family and her business.
The lake and temple Huong referred to are almost opposite her shophouse, and both are named for the street they are found in.
Ngoc Ha Lake is a small, U-shaped body of water, which has become known as a location for releasing fish into for good luck around Tet. The temple, Dinh Ngoc Ha, which sits on the land forming the centre of the U-shape was recently reopened after a renovation taking around two years.
There’s no great historical backstory to the temple, but it’s a very pleasant place to sit and read, walk the dog or watch the resident turtle navigate its way around the koi-filled pond.
Follow ngo 158 Ngoc Ha until you reach ngo 55 Hoang Hoa Tham, and there is a real tourism treasure lurking around the corner. Huu Tiep Lake was renamed B52 Lake, in honour of the visible wreckage of the bomber shot down in 1972.
Back out on the main road, and you can find the entrance for two of the most-famous tourist attractions in the city; the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum.
Opposite the entrance to these two attractions is a diverse stretch of shops home to more than just steamed rice paper rolls. Around 170 Ngoc Ha, there are a handful of barber shops — but good luck telling them apart. If you forgot to buy a birthday cake, pick one up from the bakery at #166 on the way home; it’s open late.
Get your watch fixed at the Seiko outlet at #182, restock your painkillers from the pharmacy at #162, pick up some new board markers from the stationer at #114D or find more specialist, artsy stuff at #110.
There’s a plethora of photocopy shops, a few minimarts, a bookstore, a sports equipment shop at #52, a hipster’s heaven Fairtrade shop at #90C, and of course, no street can escape the writhing tentacles of the Vingroup Monster — find your local Vinmart at 104C Ngoc Ha.
With so much crammed into just 550m of road and a few alleyways beyond, Ngoc Ha is one of the most underrated streets around; it almost feels like a self-contained town within a city; a real jack of all trades.
Photos by Sasha Arefieva