Among the 12 Eastern zodiac signs used in Viet Nam, the Rooster is the least fierce of them all. Despite this, the rooster remains the only one to have one of Ha Noi’s 36 old-quarter streets named after it. That street is Hang Ga (chicken vendors) and other than a small alley called Lo Lon (Pig Slaughterhouse), no other zodiac animal has made its permanent mark.
Hang Ga Street is 230m long and connects Hang Cot Street and Hang Dieu Street, which previously belonged to the ancient wards of Tan Lap and Tan Khai. In the past, perhaps a few hundred years back, people used to bring their poultry to around that place to sell them, hence the name Hang Ga. During French rule, foreign rulers renamed the street Rue Tiantsin to commemorate the signing of the Tiantsin Agreement between France and the Qing court of China in 1885. It was only after the August 1945 Revolution that it was able to recover its former name.
Around the same time, Thang Long (Ha Noi’s former name) had another street called Hang Ga Slope, located near Hom Market on Hue Street. In the early 20th century, Hom Market evolved into a full day marketplace and locals called the area Hang Ga-Hom Market to differentiate it from Hang Ga-Cua Dong (or present day Hang Ga Street).
In his book Memoirs and Notes of Ha Noi, writer Nguyen Cong Hoan writes: “I lived on Hang Ga Slope and used to wander the vicinity and often saw hang ken (trumpet vendors)… Every afternoon from Hang Ga Slope we could hear the cracked voice of the trumpets and it chilled our spines. The people believed that the trumpets’ blast warded off evil spirits…
“In 1916, I rented a place on Hang Ga Slope at number 22. The road led to the Hop Thien cemetery (now Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street) and as such, I saw funeral processions everyday. The road also led to an STD clinic (the last building on Pho Hue). Every Friday morning, the brothels of Ha Noi had to bring their workers there for a check-up. Many of the women would arrive in rickshaws, using the edge of their dresses to cover their faces.”
On Hang Ga Street today there remains a pagoda and a temple, remnants of the ancient Tan Khai ward, and sharing the name of Thai Cam. In the temple there is a stone stele called Ban Tu Chau Luc Bi Ky (The Record of the Locality), carved in 1845 (the year of At Ti, the Rat) under the rule of King Thieu Tri of the Nguyen Dynasty. The stele clearly states that “The temple of Tan Khai was built in the third year of the Minh Mang rule, which was the Canh Ngo year (Year of the Horse), 1820. At the same time, the ward of Tan Khai was established based on the territory of an old area to the East of the old citadel under the previous Le Dynasty.” Thanks to its excellent location, the temple was considered the guardian of the Eastern direction of the capital. The Bach Ma temple (Temple of the White Horse) on Hang Buom Street, the To Lich Deity Temple and Thiet Lam (The West Lake Deity) temple were for the other directions.
The temple has gone through various renovations and was classified by the Ministry of Culture and Information as a cultural and historical monument in 1990. The Thai Cam temple is smaller in size and honours the Tran Saint (General Tran Hung Dao of the Tran Dynasty in the 13th century). The pagoda has its own front hall and rear altar.
Hang Ga Street has been able to preserve many elements of its past. First and most important is its name. Formerly, the street was home to the famous piano repair shop Vinh Tuong owned by Do Van Quy. The old man learned his trade in bits and pieces from a French piano trader whose shop was on Trang Thi Street (now the headquarters of the Fatherland Front of Viet Nam). In a trade fair in Hue, old Quy was awarded a golden medal carved with the words “A talented craftsman of France.” Singer Ngoc Bao and famous pianists like Hoang My, Minh Thu and Thai Thi Sam have all used his pianos. In the same period, there were two competing hairdressers famous on the street named Tu Dan and Loi Ky whose name plates can still be found. In the middle of the street, the family of Nguyen Ba Lan, now 95 years old, continues the man’s 80-year craft in lock repair. From the time of the French, Japanese and Chinese occupation of the city to the time of the liberation of Ha Noi, he was always the first craftsman selected for a job. The Ly Sang pho noodle shop on Hang Ga has always been a hot spot in town and it is still hard to secure a seat there if you are not quick. The shop opened in the 1930s and is now managed by the Hoan Kiem District Services Company. The only thing that has disappeared forever is the street’s former tram line that ran south from Yen Phu through Hang Cot, Hang Ga, Bat Dan all the way to Ha Dong.
Just like many other streets in Ha Noi’s ancient quarter, Hang Ga has greatly changed with the introduction of modern services and shops. Still, the area for residents remains the same. In this, the New Year of the Rooster, we recall the writings of a European reporter from two years ago called A Day on Hang Ga Street.
“You wake up with the crowing of the cocks right in the middle of Ha Noi. The sounds echo from the balcony of the neighbours. It is just 5 o’clock in the morning. The street is deep in sleep. Then 5:30 arrives. There are faint sounds of people moving on the ground floor, the creaking sound of bicycles and the whispers of people… At this moment, the traffic starts to ease onto the streets. The cyclos do not occupy so much space, the bicycles can move parallel in rows of three and the steps look empty… Finally, Hang Ga returns to pedestrians. They are either people who have gone out of their homes for a walk or are searching for a late night supper before the end of the day.” Hang Ga has become an antique in this fast and ever-changing city, however, the street’s spirit remains the same.