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Hanoi's traditional Old Quarter readies itself to undergo a modern makeover

HANOI, Vietnam -- Tourists, hawkers and motorcyclists rub shoulders every morning in the congested alleyways of Hanoi's low-rise Old Quarter, which seems generations away from the office towers and electronics megastores springing up in other parts of the capital. The quarter's street grid, laid out in the 15th century, is still dominated by dilapidated shops selling everything from brass gongs to bamboo scaffolding.

It is now among Asia's best-preserved urban hubs of traditional commerce — thanks largely to decades of inattention. The 82-hectare downtown area is crammed with Buddhist temples, pagodas and French colonial shophouses, whose original tiles and peeling yellow paint have become a draw for foreign visitors.

But with property values high, this neighborhood could change dramatically in the coming years as similar ones already have in Singapore, Shanghai and many other cities. Authorities want to begin gentrifying the Old Quarter by relocating 6,200 households between this year and 2020. New construction is likely a few years away, but some residents already have been relocated.

Some of them are nervous, though not necessarily over lost history. They worry about being exiled to the city's dusty margins, and of being forced to accept a bad deal from a Communist government that has generated public discontent across Vietnam by forcing people off their land with compensation far below market rates.

Pham Dinh Tranh, a retired jeweler in the Old Quarter, has watched many of the traditional jewelry workshops of Silver Street slowly morph into cafes and souvenir shops. The 82-year-old wouldn't mind a change of scene: The Silver Street home he shares with his extended family is cramped and the roof leaks. But he said Hanoi officials will need to make a convincing case for relocation.

“We're willing to go, but not if they take this property and resell it for profit,” Tranh said.

Vu Thi Hong, an official with the Hanoi government's Old Quarter Housing Relocation Project, said the main goal of the planned relocations is to reduce population density while preserving cultural heritage. With about 66,000 people, the quarter has a population density of 823 people per hectare — nearly eight times New York City's.

One Silver Street temple — formerly occupied by long-term squatters — has been refurbished and opened to the public, with assistance from architectural consultants from the French city of Toulouse.

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In this Feb. 14 photo, cars and motorcycles pass Hanoi's Old Quarter, a grouping of 36 streets that were laid out in the 15th century. (AP)

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