The gateway to West Lake, from a certain John McCain through to pagodasand street food, Thanh Nien and Truc Bach Lake next door have a fascinating past. Words by Edward Dalton. Photos by Julie Vola
Hanoi has 1,000 years of history and a hundred stories on every street. Despite not being named after a legendary hero or victorious battle, Thanh Nien is still one of the most interesting and important streets in Hanoi.
After Hanoi was founded in 1010 by Ly Thai To, many of today's most famous ancient sites sprung up in the following century, including Thanh Nien’s very own Quan Thanh Temple.
Thanh Nien has since developed into a perfect cross-section of Hanoi’s history. To help understand that history on a more personal level, we spoke to some people whose stories show why Thanh Nien is considered such an iconic street.
A prominent feature on Thanh Nien’s landscape is Tran Quoc Pagoda, which also happens to be the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi. Rising up from the Kim Ngu (Golden Fish) islet on West Lake, it has been attracting worshippers and visitors for nearly 1,500 years.
Cuong Le, a local business owner, comes here regularly to pray.
“Thanh Nien is developing so quickly,” Cuong says. “So it’s important to keep these ancient sites untouched, as peaceful places where people can express their spirituality.”
Cuong says he’s not particularly religious, but he believes Tran Quoc Pagoda is vital for the area, and for Hanoi. “Coming here always makes me feel calmer,” he says. “Everyone is too focused on making money, following trends or rushing around at work, but spending time here reminds me to appreciate what I already have.”
“I think more young people should come here and remember that too,” Cuong tells me, before apologising that he must rush back to work.
On the corner where Thanh Nien meets Quan Thanh, another 1,000-year-old temple continues to make its presence felt. Originally dedicated to Tran Vu, the Taoist God of the North, Quan Thanh Temple is said to protect the capital from northern malevolent spirits.
Although few Vietnamese would identify as purely Taoist, Quan Thanh still remains a hugely popular temple during special lunar holidays, when it is crowded with people praying for health, luck and happiness.
Parachuting into History
In October 1967, a failed American air raid on a power plant resulted in three planes being shot down by the Vietnamese Air Defence Command’s 61st Battalion. One of the pilots, future American presidential candidate John McCain, parachuted into Truc Bach Lake, on Thanh Nien’s western edge.
One of the first men to get to the wounded pilot was Le Tran Lua. Taking a lunch break from his job as a mechanic in a nearby paper factory, he grabbed a knife and dived into the lake, hoisting the wounded pilot onto a bamboo float.
“It was war,” says Lua. “I acted instinctively. I wasn’t a soldier, I just helped out in the Civilian Protection Force.”
“People said I was crazy to leave the shelter during an air raid,” he says. “But I thought the pilot might have other weapons, that’s why I took a knife and tried to get him out.” On the western edge of Thanh Nien, there is now a monument celebrating the capture of John McCain.
Lua says the monument is one of the best new features of Thanh Nien. “It’s important, it tells the story of the area,” he says. “It means people will always remember what happened here, it’s a part of Vietnam’s history.”
Despite recognising how much more famous Thanh Nien is today compared to when he was a young worker, Lua says it was always popular and peaceful.
“Even in the 1970s, it was a really popular place for young people to hang out,” he says. “It’s related to the name of the street. Thanh nien means ‘adolescents’. The street was built by young people, for young people.”
Many people have started businesses which take advantage of Thanh Nien’s lively atmosphere and picturesque location. Among them is Nguyen Bao Thu’s family, who own the swan boat business on Truc Bach Lake.
“Our family has done business here for 20 years,” Thu says proudly. “And I grew up just over there,” she adds, pointing towards Yen Hoa, one of Thanh Nien’s side streets.
“This area has the most beautiful streets in Vietnam,” she claims. “We used to rent Truc Bach Lake from the government; our business used to be fish farming.”
“But after the water became too dirty, we had to change to swan boat rental.” The causeway on which Thanh Nien is built was constructed in the 17th century, cutting off a section of West Lake to allow better fish farming.
“The road was built about 60 years ago,” says Thu. “But the pavements and trees were only added about 20 years ago.” Thu says all of the development has made Thanh Nien the perfect place to do business.
“We also own that big boat,” she says, nodding at the permanently moored boat between Thanh Nien and Tran Vu. “Highland Coffee asked to rent it from us, because even they see how popular this area is for hanging out.”
Thu tells me that the moored boats on the West Lake side of Thanh Nien are soon going to be moved further away, near Lac Long Quan.
“It’s great, it will reduce pollution around this area even more,” she says. “We need more people to help protect the environment, to keep Thanh Nien beautiful forever.”
Food with a View
No street in Hanoi could be considered truly iconic without offering a unique food experience, and Thanh Nien stands above many others in that regard.
Both sides of Thanh Nien are usually lined with mobile street vendors selling bo bia — a popular snack with young people. Shredded coconut, dried sugar cane and sesame is packed into a soft flour wrap, with a big one costing just VND10,000.
Originating from a village in Binh Xuyen, over the past few years increasing numbers of sellers have gravitated to Thanh Nien.
One of them, a young woman called Hong Dinh, says it has become a popular street for bo bia because of the cool factor; so many young people hang out along Thanh Nien to enjoy the lake views and eat at nearby Kem Ho Tay, or West Lake Ice Cream.
“My mum started selling bo bia here years ago; I took over just one year ago,” Hong says. “It’s the perfect snack, because it’s so cheap, but very light and sweet. Students love it.”
As the gateway to the trendy and rapidly developing West Lake area, Thanh Nien will always be central to the lives of locals and foreigners. As a standalone experience, however, Thanh Nien is a street almost without equal. Ancient history, unique food, lakeside sunsets and recreational activities make it arguably the most interesting kilometre of tarmac in Hanoi.