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.
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 specialise 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. A selection of the more interesting streets with an element of specialisation is listed below. Note that hang means “merchandise”, not “street”.
There are some great places to try authentic Vietnamese cuisine in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Here are four of the best places:
This place has everything – classic tube-house architecture, super-friendly and helpful staff, excellent Vietnamese cuisine, traditional musicians and cooking classes. Try the steamed fish in banana leaf and fried morning glory.
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.
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.
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.
To get a better idea of the layout of tube-houses, pop into the beautifully restored Heritage House (sometimes called “Memorial House”). There’s usually a volunteer on hand to show you through the various rooms and courtyards, who will point out the elegant carvings on the doors and balustrades, as well as examples of traditional fine arts and handicrafts such as ceramics and silk paintings on display. You might also see a calligrapher practising his art in a corner or a seamstress working on an embroidered painting. Some items are on sale, and might make a distinctive souvenir.
From around 7pm every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Hang Dao and its northerly continuation as far as Dong Xuan Market is 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 experience modern Hanoi, there’s not much on sale that would interest Western visitors – most shoppers are Vietnamese youngsters snapping up fashion accessories like mobile phone covers. It can get very crowded at times (so watch out for pickpockets), but winds down after 11pm. Sections of Ha Tien, Hang Buom and Ma May are also technically closed to traffic on weekend evenings, though many motorbikes ignore this.
Top image: Old quarter Hanoi night bars and restaurants © TKKurikawa/Shutterstock