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A touch of time in Hanoi ancient houses
Jenna Duong 15:06, 2022/10/15
Ancient pieces of furniture are still much sought after for home decoration in Hanoi.

An exhibition, entitled “Traditional Customs”, at the Hanoi Museum shows the elegant lifestyle of Hanoians in the old time, from home decoration, to costumes and traditional rituals on holidays.

Traditional customs revived

Tradition is alive: A typical house of a well-off family in Hanoi in early 20th century. Photo: Jenna Duong

The exhibition introduces nearly 200 documents and artifacts to the public, showcasing the lives of fairly affluent urban families, which may help them better understand the Hanoian lives of the time, according to the organizer.

In the first half of the 20th century, the French built the seats of the colonial government agencies and urbanized Hanoi. At the same time, well-off families built their manors in the French quarter. With French architectural imprints, these manors are a harmonious east-west combination, creating a unique Hanoi cityscape.

The exhibition featuring artifacts donated by domestic and foreign collectors is divided into four thematic areas, including the Exterior of a French-style Villa, the Living room of an ancient house in Hanoi, the ancestor worshipping space, and the five-part dress of Hanoians.

Dang Van Bai, Former Director of the Cultural Heritage Department - Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said to The Hanoi Times that the exhibition is worth visiting since it “depicts the elegant lifestyle of the old Hanoians, worthy of the title of “pompous ancient kingdom” of Hanoi.

Agreed with Bai, Le Thi Minh Ly, Vice Chairwoman of Vietnam National Council of Cultural Heritage, stated that Hanoi boasts many valuable heritages passed down through generations.

“The objects on display not only help Hanoi viewers to identify more clearly the capital’s cultural values but also urge them to preserve the precious legacies inherited from their forefathers,” she stated.

A vivid urban life

An old tailor shop in Hanoi's Old Quarter Area.

The "Traditional Customs" exhibition shows the Hanoi people's urban life by depicting their vivid customs and habits and the way of interior decoration.

Visiting an old home in Hanoi, one might be amazed by the antique traits of the home décor.

Family life took place on the second floor in a two-storey French-style villa. The ground floor was for reception, worship and meals, and usually a bedroom for the elderly. The living room used refined furniture such as tables and chairs, cabinets, bookshelves, couplets, paintings, pedestals and plants.

French accessories such as fireplaces, wall lights, and fans modernized the space. The walls were decorated with photos, paintings, diplomas, and commendation papers of the family. The blue windows, with curtains that open to the garden, ventilate and illuminate the house.

This combination of styles between the traditional and the new and western has created a home décor trend for Hanoians of the time and remains contemporary today.

Ancestors worshipping

The photo of a well-off family in Hanoi in early 20th century 

According to Nguyen Viet Toan, 61, a resident of the old house number 20 on Thanh Nien Street in Tay Ho District, five generations of his family have already lived there.

"Traditionally, the family's oldest son will take the task of worshipping ancestors and the deceased. However, since I am the house heir, I will assume the duty instead of my eldest brother," he stated.

"Our family's ancestral altar is arranged in the order of 'upper Buddha, lower ancestor', which means the highest place of the altar is for worshipping Buddha, and the lower and less dignified place is for worshipping ancestors," he added.

Usually, the worship items in an ancestral altar feature five critical things, including one incense burner, two statues of cranes and two lampstands. The objects on the altar are arranged to ensure the principle of the five elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth.

According to the custom of venerating ancestors, at least three generations of descendants will annually organize anniversaries to pay tribute to the dearly missed members of their family on the day they passed away, according to the lunar calendar. The recently deceased may have their altar; after one to three years, they will be venerated at a common family altar.

Hanoians celebrate ancestors worshipping rituals on any momentous occasion of a family member. For example, a new baby is born, and someone is about to take an exam.

Usually, the ritual is practised on the first days, the 15th days of the lunar months, and other important occasions.

Centerpieces of every home

The typical livingroom of a Hanoi home in the old days


In the house of Hoa Mai, 68, a resident at 28 Hang Ga Street in Hoan Kiem District, the centerpieces of the house are not fanciful items but the ancestor altar and objects of worship.

Considered the most solemn place in the house, the owner usually takes excellent care of the altar and decorates it with traditional wooden elements which have a specific meaning.

According to Mai, a 200 - year - old sap gu or worshipping bed truly is a precious object of the family. The 2.2-meter length and 1.6-meter width items are made from original mahogany and feature three carved faces.

Hundreds of tiny apricot blossoms and over 30 pairs of rare birds, such as phoenixes, swallows, flamingos and pheasants, are expertly hand-crafted on the sides of the bed. At the center of each side is a sparking ivory-purple script of Nom writing or traditional Sino-Vietnamese script that illustrates the meaning of wealth and honor. 

“A sap gu isn’t used for sleeping, but rather for ancestral worshipping in the old time,” she told The Hanoi Times. “Only the oldest man in the family had right to sit on the sap gu on special occasions such as worshipping days, Lunar New Year festival, or family meetings.

In old Hanoian thinking on home decorations, the wooden furniture item that best matches a sap gu is a tu che or a mahogany tea chest. These are inseparable as opulent furnishings.

Similarly, the hoanh phi and cau doi usually go together and are essential pieces for any wealthy Hanoian family. These items were once considered the most valued worshipping furnishings for a family.

The Ao ngu than or Vietnamese traditional dress with five bodies- an old attire of Hanoians  

The parallel sentences or a cau doi are carved into vertical boards that state the family's motto or good behavior, such as "The forefathers brought prosperity to the descendants/It will be Spring in the family all year round."

Meanwhile, the hoanh phi is a horizontal wooden board to honor the ancestors, such as "the forefather's righteousness and generosity will forever be illuminating"; or "Loyal and Grateful Family".

The horizontal one is usually hung on the center wall of the living room, just above the altar, while the vertical one is nailed proportionately on the two sides of the horizontal one or sometimes on the two wooden pillars in the ancient-style Hanoian houses.

Other decorative items in a typical house of affluent Hanoians include ceramics, bronze antiques, peacock tail feathers, and little bonsais.

Hanoi today is very different from itself in the past, from the architecture, the streets, and even the people. Cultural values can change over time. Then, the ongoing exhibition at Hanoi Museum is a way for Hanoians to reminisce and contribute to preserving the precious cultural values of the capital city.

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