For more than two decades I've admired the old house at 86 Hang Bac, which now bears a historic plaque commemorating the capital Regiment, which fought many heated battles nearby in the winter of 1946. As well as being historically significant, this house is a fine ex-ample of the homes occupied by Hanoi's bourgeois families in the early decades of the 20th century.
At the turn of the 20th century, the house was owned by the upper middle-class family of Pham Chan Hung, who was born in 1890. As a child, I thought its three stories were imposing. Today, No.86 is surrounded by new houses of similar stature, the street crowded with gold and silk shops.
Outside, Mrs. Am has sold sweetened porridge and glutinous rice at the same spot for the past two decades. These she sits, wearing a loose-fitting white blouse made from Laotian cloth and waving a violet paper fan. Now in her seventies, over the years, her hair was grown whiter. She welcomes me with a saleswoman's smile. She does not recognize me, the adolescent boy she knew long since grown up to be a journal-its. ' You look a bit like the son of a neighbor who had lots of kids and moved away 10 years ago,' she says, when I press her to remember.
I pass through a heavy wooden gate carved in the French Renaissance style. The black ironwood has been covered in green paint. A wooden staircase leads directly up to the fourth-floor landing. Made of ironwood, the handrail is inlaid with mother-of-pearl in a daisy pattern, the stair-case smelling of wood and dust. The light is hazy, just as I remember.
I cross a 30-square-meter terrace, its brick tiles now covered with moss. At the far end of the terrace lies the Pham family's worship house, dedicated to the ancestors of Chan hung. In the old days, when Chan hung's children were still alive, the worship house was carefully swept, its doors often opened and lanterns lit to cast warm yellow light onto the altar. The curved roof and solemn altar reminded me of a pagoda, inspiring respect, awe and dread in the neighborhood kids.
I meet Mrs. Le Hong Cam, the second daughter of Mrs. Pham Thi Y Chinh, who was the sixth daughter out of Chan Hung's eight children. According to Ms. Le Cam, Chan Hung was one of the first jewelers to move from Hung Yen to Hanoi and set up shop on Hang Bac (Silver) street. He collected a lot of gold for the Government during the Golden Week after the August Revolution in 1945. A great traveler, Chan Hung was greatly influenced by Western Philosophy. The house at 86 hang Bac was designed by a Vietnamese architect who had studied in France
Chan Hung's eight children were good students who grew up to be successful. The first-born child, Pham Huy Thong (1916-1988), was a poet, professor, and social scientist. The fifth child, Pham Huy Thai, was a writer and the seventh child, Pham Huy Dung, a professor. The family upheld values of decency, respect and refinement.
Despite the changes wrought by time, the worship house on the fourth floor has been preserved. During the Lunar New Year, on anniversaries and on festival days, the family's descendants still gather here. Mrs. Cam points out the horizontal lacquered boards, the parallel sentences trimmed with gold, the carved bronze censer and the eight ironwood weapons that stand over the altar.
'In the old days, during the new Year, our descendants came here to wish longevity to their grandparents and to burn incense for their forefathers. Now they are all dead, 'says Mrs. Cam. ' I remember how the horizontal lacquered board and parallel sentences were presented by Chan Hung's friend on important family occasions... Many years ago, my parents did not wish to upgrade the worship house, or even to paint or clean it. They wanted to preserve the values left by our ancestors. Elderly people live with memories. Now they too have followed our forefathers.'
The Pham's worship house has retained its original design and deco-rations, right down to the hexagonal floor tiles, which measure 10cm across and are decorated with turquoise, brown, and white glaze. These ordinary details seem to embody the spirit of Hanoi's Old Quarter.
The mid-afternoon sunlight filters through a half-closed bamboo screen. A cluster of white orchids hangs in front of the door, swaying slightly in the wind. Each year, 365 days of sun and rain cause more moss to cover the roof and the courtyard. What remains at number 86 is the spirit of this old street.