Hang Ma is different from most of the other streets in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Among the thirty-six streets that make up the area and were originally named for the craftsmen that worked there, few remain true to their origins. The old trades have died out and been replaced with shops selling the latest European fashions and restaurants serving sandwiches and ice cream. But Hang Ma is still what it has always been: Paper Street.
The street's best-known products are the paper objects used in traditional religious ceremonies and ancestor worship. In keeping with a centuries-old tradition, people burn the paper money, or Hell Money, and objects as offerings to their ancestors. Of course, there are a few signs of change. In addition to the Hell Money, you can also buy paper versions of all the modern conveniences to send on to the next life. A miniature paper house complete with paper sofas, beds, chairs and electric fans costs about three dollars.
There are paper Honda motorcycles for fifty cents. Maybe a paper Mercedes Benz is what your relatives need to know you are thinking of them. One young couple was buying money, jewelry, shoes, suits, hats, VCRs, stereos and even a few gold bars--all made from paper. "We burn the paper on the anniversary of someone's death and also at Tet," they explained. The couple estimated that they spend thirty dollars a year on the paper objects. "We send them anything that they might have needed when they were alive."
Hang Ma attracts few tourists. The shopkeepers depend on their devoted local following for business. The street has added some new wares to keep up with the times and adapt to a changing society. Hang Ma is now a good place to shop for wrapping paper, greeting cards, tinsel, lanterns and incense. People come here for cake boxes at Tet and to buy banners used during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Some of the paper goods are produced in villages outside Hanoi while others are made on the spot by families that have been in the business for generations. As the Old Quarter struggles to maintain its identity, the continuing demand for Paper Street's unique trade may be what protects the street from too much progress.