Under the boiling heat of the Hanoi summer, a group of students gather and reveal what books they have successfully hunted-down after spending hours scanning every bookstore on Dinh Le street, the best place to buy used books in the city. Despite lying in the bustling heart of the capital, Dinh Le has always been a get-away from the hustle of urban life for book lovers throughout Hanoi. Whilst many foreign residents here opt for visiting the Bookworm Hanoi, they just might find a day wandering through Dinh Le street throws up something a little different and unexpected.
Starting from the late 20th century, with only a few small book stores, Dinh Le street gradually evolved to attract more local booksellers. Though only stretching 200 meters or so, a full-day browsing through the bookstores takes hours, especially for bibliophiles keen not to miss out on a potential bargain. The area is nicknamed “Hanoi’s great library,” as it stacks thousands of book titles, including those that are very rare and old. It’s also known for being cheap, with prices starting from as little as 5,000 VND per title.
One of the most joyful aspects of wandering along the street is the way a bookstore will magically appear in the oddest nook or cranny. Following a narrow alley, number 5, off the main drag, and after passing several more obvious bookstores you might just find yourself chancing across a place run by Le Nguyet Linh on the second floor of a community house. Books are neatly piled up to the ceiling, leaving only a small corner for walking and browsing.
“I have a wide range of selection catering for diverse groups, though our customers are mostly at the age of 18 to 45. I always try to update the book titles every day to catch up with the readers’ needs and preferences,” says Nguyet, the owner of the bookstore. “The business has been around for over 20 years now. Unlike those down on the street coming from different regions and paying rent, I live here and run the bookstore at the same time. Although the location is a little hard to find, having such a long history means that the truest book lovers and buyers understanding book markets will always know of my name and keep coming back to this bookstore.”
Nguyet Linh and her friend also run a vintage-themed coffee shop called Chuyen right beside the bookstore, a great place for bookworms to build a community and keep reading hard-copy books at a time when digital reading keeps encroaching. Besides book discussions and workshops, the venue also organizes meaningful projects to help elevate child education and Vietnamese culture.
“I work near Hoan Kiem lake so I often pay a visit here. My favorite book genre is self-improvement, and what always brings me back to Dinh Le is that I can always find the books I want from the same top authors.”
The most well-known storefront on Dinh Le street is probably Mao bookstore, which was opened in 1970 by a then-young couple, Le Luy and Pham Thi Mao. The store looks modest at the outset, but once you step inside, one is left amazed at quite how many books are packed into the space. Immersed in the distinctive smell of well-worn books and shelves stacked with rare hard-to-find editions, the store is reminiscent of the spectacular library the Beast gave Bella in “Beauty and the Beast.”
According to the temporary manager of Mao bookstore, Le Luy and Pham Thi Mao used to travel around the world to collect valuable books, which they would then go on to translate and publish themselves. They did over 400 books in the end. The couple dedicated their life to this cause not purely for profit, but rather to build a reading community and bring important knowledge to their people.
Even during the peak of the summer heat, large numbers of people traipse around Le Dinh, hoping to find that perfect book or simply to enjoy the breeze off Hoan Kiem lake, a stone’s throw away. As Chào wanders the area, we speak with Tran Thi Hanh, a 26 year-old who often comes for a walk around the street. “I work near Hoan Kiem lake so I often pay a visit here. My favorite book genre is self-improvement, and what always brings me back to Dinh Le is that I can always find the books I want from the same top authors.”
Thirty-three-year-old-accountant Thuy Duong is in a hurry picking up books with her son and tells Chào: “I live about seven kilometers from Dinh Le street, but I always come here whenever I have the chance. My kid, like many other children, has spent much of his time on technological devices. So now I cut down playing time to around one hour per day, and find suitable materials for his age to encourage a reading habit [of real books].”
Hidden amidst the busy city, with a wide range of both Vietnamese and English titles, Dinh Le street has much to offer. It is a place where you feel lifted by the spirit of reading, of real books made from actual paper, a feeling that to many is so much more satisfying than reading from a digital device. It is a place where you can splurge on any number of books without making much of a dent in your pocket. And it is a place where you can simply stand back and savor a cup of coffee or talk with street vendors under the shade of the many trees: a place of tranquility and peace.