Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, is a diverse and bustling city with much to offer to eager tourists and settled locals alike. Walk north from Hoan Kiem Lake, across Cau Go, and suddenly you’re in the tumultuous streets of the Old Quarter, a congested square kilometre that was closed behind massive ramparts and heavy wooden gates until well into the nineteenth century. As one of the city’s hot-spots, Hanoi’s Old Quarter is considered the main business hub as well as the best tourist spot in the city. This charming part of the city offers an impressive insight into the complex and long history of Hanoi, whilst alongside rife modernisation.
Old Quarter, Hanoi © Elena Ermako / Shutterstock
Everything spills out onto pavements which double as workshops for stone-carvers, furniture-makers and tinsmiths, and as display space for merchandise ranging from pungent therapeutic herbs and fluttering prayer flags to ranks of Remy Martin and shiny-wrapped chocolates. With so much to attract your attention at ground level, it’s easy to miss the architecture, which reveals fascinating glimpses of the quarter’s history, starting with the fifteenth-century merchants’ houses otherwise found only in Hoi An. As you explore the quarter you’ll come across a great many sacred sites – temples, pagodas, dinh and venerable banyan trees – hidden among the houses.
Street Names in the Old Quarter
The Old Quarter’s street names date back five centuries to when the area was divided among 36 artisans’ guilds, each gathered around a temple or a dinh (communal house) dedicated to the guild’s patron spirit. Even today many streets specialize to some degree, and a few are still dedicated to the original craft or its modern equivalent. The most colourful examples are Hang Quat, full of bright-red banners and lacquerware for funerals and festivals, and Hang Ma, where paper products have been made for at least five hundred years. Nowadays gaudy tinsel dances in the breeze above brightly coloured votive objects, which include model TVs, dollars and cars to be offered to the ancestors.
Locals selling fruits and vegetables in the Old Quarter © Vietnam Stock Images / Shutterstock
Tube Houses in Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Hanoi’s aptly named tube-houses evolved from market stalls into narrow single-storey shops, windows no higher than a passing royal palanquin, under gently curving, red-tiled roofs. Some are just two metres wide, the result of taxes levied on street frontages and of subdivision for inheritance, while behind stretches a succession of storerooms and living quarters up to 60m in length, interspersed with open courtyards to give them light and air.
Things To Do In Hanoi’s Old Quarter
A dynamic and ancient area full of cafes, food stalls, restaurants and various vendors there is always something interesting to find in the Old Quarter. Apart from one gate, at the east end of Hang Chieu, the walls have been dismantled, and there are few individual sights in the quarter; the best approach is simply to dive into the back lanes and explore. Alternatively, you might like to see it first from the seat of a cyclo or one of the new electric cars that zig-zag through its streets to help you pinpoint places you’d like to come back to.
From around 7 pm every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the streets running north from Hang Dao, almost as far as Dong Xuan Market, are closed to traffic and vendors set up stalls selling all kinds of trinkets at the Weekend Night Market. Though it’s a fun place to touch the pulse of modern Hanoi, there’s not much on sale that would interest most Western visitors. Indeed, most shoppers are Vietnamese youngsters snapping up fashion accessories like mobile phone covers. It can get very crowded at times but winds down after 11 pm.
Bach Ma Temple
The Bach Ma Temple, built during the reign of Emperor Ly Thai To in the 11th Century, is the oldest of its kind and an important structure to Vietnamese religion. Visiting the temple is possible, appropriate clothing is required to offer respect to the monks residing in the temple.
Bach Ma Temple © Marek Poplawski / Shutterstock
Featured Image, Hanoi Old Quarter at Night © TK Kurikawa / Shutterstock