The Old Quarter

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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.

Hanoi Old Quarter Street Names

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”.

Street name / Meaning / Modern speciality

  • Hang Trong / Drum skin / Bag menders, upholsterers
  • Hang Bo / Bamboo baskets / Haberdashers
  • Hang Buom / Sails / Imported foods and alcohol, confectionery
  • Hang Chieu / Sedge mats / Mats, ropes, bamboo blinds
  • Hang Dau / Oil / Shoes
  • Hang Dieu / Pipes / Cushions, mattresses
  • Hang Duong / Sugar / Clothes, general goods
  • Hang Gai / Hemp goods / Silks, tailors, souvenirs
  • Hang Hom / Wooden chests / Glue, paint, varnish
  • Hang Ma / Paper votive objects / Paper goods
  • Hang Quat / Ceremonial fans / Religious accessories
  • Hang Thiec / Tin goods / Tin goods, mirrors
  • Hang Vai / Fabrics / Bamboo ladders

Old quarter Hanoi night bars and restaurants © TKKurikawa/Shutterstock

Best Food In Hanoi Old Quarter

There are some great places to try authentic Vietnamese cuisine in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Here are four of the best places:

  1. Blue Butterfly

    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.

  2. EssenceHotel restaurants can sometimes be rather bland, but the one in Essence Hanoi offers some of the best gourmet food in Hanoi – both Vietnamese and Western – at reasonable prices. Go for the delicious beef in bamboo or the duck in coconut.
  3. Red BeanOn the ground floor of La Siesta Hotel, this place welcomes diners with plenty of comfortable seating. Dishes like grapefruit salad and beef in coconut are elegantly presented and well prepared, and the service is flawless.
  4. NolaThis is a rather difficult place to find, despite being almost next door to Heritage House – though it’s well worth the effort. Head down the twisting alley and up the stairs, and you’ll find a variety of cosy, high-ceilinged rooms with retro decor, cool music (Louis Armstrong, vintage Dylan), interesting snacks and cheap beers.

What 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.

Inside the Bach Ma Temple in Hanoi, Vietnam © Marek Poplawski/Shutterstock

Hanoi 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.

Hanoi Tube Houses

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.

Heritage House Hanoi

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.

Night Market Hanoi Old Quarter

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

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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