It used to be that each street in Hanoi specialized in a certain product or type of merchandise, or hang. Silk was on Hang Gi. Bamboo rafts were on Hang Be. Flags and banners on Hang Quat. A few blocks east of my hotel were Hang Mam and Hang Bac, the places to go when you needed a tombstone.
If you can, pass by early in the morning as Tombstone street springs to life. Around dawn is a good time; the streets are still relatively quiet and largely traffic-free. Tombstone shop keepers will be setting up, arranging their stones so they’ll shine in the late morning sun, or bathe in the early afternoon shade. Sample stones featuring images of military officers in uniform were popular, usually occupying the front spots. But so too were those featuring pictures of teenagers and young adults, more plainly but properly dressed.
By 06:30 you’ll encounter young men, some in their mid or late teens, already chiseling away at the black and gray hunks of stone. They are meticulous but fairly quick. I watched one knock off a ten-character name in less than five minutes. To me, that’s fast.
It’s believed that craftsmen with similar trades and talents would gravitate to certain areas where cooperatives and guilds eventually formed. It does ease comparison shopping.
Tombstone carvers were late arrivals on the scene in this area, however, perhaps a product of the French colonial period. Hang Mam was originally home to those in the fish sauce trade —nuoc mam is fish sauce– and didn’t really evolve to include other spheres until the 1940s. Hang Bac meanwhile is one of Hanoi’s oldest streets, dating back to at least the 13th century. It originally attracted those in silver trade, and then later money changers. Business there was always was good.
Most of the stones are black or shades of gray, but some gold or brass hues can also be found among the samples. That was the color one enterprising merchant decided to use for a stone featuring a photo of a smiling Britney Spears. That too, was thought to be good for business.
I didn’t go seek that one out, but I did make a quick pilgrimage to the Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. But he wasn’t there.
A few more images below, all snapped in October 2010. And yes, it has taken me this long to catch up with stacks of photos from a trip six years ago. Maybe speeding up a process (which admittedly, couldn’t be much slower) should again make it to my list of resolutions for 2017.