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. 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.
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.