When I ask myself about my favorite things in the city I’m living and working at, the over-1000-year-old capital of Vietnam, the first thing that came up in my mind was “Phố Cổ” – Hanoi old quarter. Not many places in Vietnam you can see such rapid, globalized development growth on a rich, conservative cultural background. And certainly, there are not many places in Vietnam that have people who come to find modern entertainment, to simply have a blast, and people who come to enjoy the peacefulness and reminisce about old memories. Hanoi Old Quarter can be so different at different times. Yet there is one thing for sure – the quarter has many things to offer, to everyone.
So if you are seeking a unique and thorough experience in Hanoi in general and in the old quarter in particular, this article might be a window for you to understand Hanoi life a little better.
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Hanoi Old Quarter is located in the northeast of Hanoi, and belonged to Hoan Kiem district. The location of the old town was purposely in between the imperial citadel and the red river which is considered an advantageous area for trading development.
Old Quarter’s history was dated back to the 11th century when King Ly Thai To decided to move the capital from Hoa Lu (Ninh Binh) to Hanoi. From the 13thcentury, the place began to attract craftsmen from all over the neighboring areas, and through time organized themselves into craft cooperatives and guilds. Inhabitants from the same villages flocked together and operated on the same street, making the streets have a homogenous look.
In the 15th century, there were at least 36 crafts guilds in the quarter which doesn’t equal 36 streets but double that number – 76 streets. Streets that belonged to a craft guild will be named “Hang” (wares) followed by the name of the product the guild specialized in. For example, Hang Tre street indicated the street where bamboo (tre) wares were being sold.
Storekeepers back in the time were taxed according to the width of their storefront, so the storage and living space moved to the rear of the buildings. Consequently, the long and narrow buildings called tube houses became a familiar image in the Old Quarter. A typical measurement for such houses is 3m wide by 60m long.
In the 19th century, the area had been developed into a market network system. On the east was the busy residence together with the markets and crafts guilds. The business was constantly blooming ever since. On the north and the west sides lay the crafts villages and agricultural villages.
With the French influence in the 50s, western-styled architecture prevailed against the traditional Vietnamese and Chinese architecture styles. Fusion blends between East and West not only in architecture but also in culture became trending.
Nowadays there isn’t a prominent style in Hanoi Old Quarter but the French architecture can still be seen in many landmarks of which the famous one must be mentioned is Hanoi Opera House. Due to globalization, the crafts guilds and cooperatives are mostly gone, except for some streets like Hang Gai (Street of Hemp/Silk) and Hang Bac (Silver Wares street)… where original crafts products still exist.
On the other hand, come to Hanoi Old Quarter today, you can find a whole range of new products which have originality from all over the world. The old town has had its reputation as the busiest and most developed travel hub for travelers to Hanoi where you can enjoy attractions, foods, tourist services, and entertainment.
I’ve always been surprised at the fact that I never ran out of things to do at Hanoi Old Quarter even if I did not plan in advance. Hanoi Old Quarter is a maze of small alleys where you can find all the things that you never knew that you need. From all kinds of street foods, restaurants, and sidewalk cafés to scared pagodas, grandeur opera houses and rustic Long Bien Bridge. You’ll walk through dozens and dozens amazed.
Vietnamese coffee has made a name for itself for its strong tastes and fragrant smells. Come to the old quarter of Hanoi, you can find the famous Vietnamese coffee in the most amazing places – with just a plastic tool on the humble sidewalk, you can enjoy your very own Vietnamese coffee culture. Sidewalk cafes don’t have that kind of fancy design of a café house such as Starbucks, but it has something else – a sense of being a part of the everyday life of Hanoi.
A sidewalk coffee can be found almost everywhere in Hanoi Old Quarter. Just take a short walk from Hoan Kiem Lake, you can find one in no time. Make enjoying sidewalk cafés a part of your nightlife tour around Hanoi and you won’t be disappointed.
What to order: (iced) black coffee, (iced) brown coffee (black coffee + condensed milk), egg coffee.
Long Bien Bridge is another heritage left from the days of French Colonialism. The architect that built this bridge was the very one who had constructed the symbolic Eiffel Tower. And just like Eiffel Tower, Long Bien Bridge also become a symbol that represents a specific period of the city’s history. Its rustic, vintage beauty has made Long Bien a wonderful place for photographers.
You can access the bridge from Long Bien Railway Station located on Tran Nhat Duat street.
Starting from the fountain on Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square, go deep into the network of alleys and streets, and you’ll be a part of a hectic kind of traffic only to be found in the city of Hanoi. Here and there, you might catch a glimpse of the old-styled houses – the evidence of the glorious days of the busiest, most prosperous trading area of Vietnam. Streets that are worth visiting:
Street foods are available in both daytime and nighttime. During weekends, motorbikes and four-wheeled vehicles are prohibited in the old quarter, you can enjoy street performances quite leisurely.
Dong Xuan Market is a place worth visiting yet at the same time it can be a challenge for tourists for Dong Xuan market is the oldest traditional local market in Hanoi. It can be said as a paradise for shopping where you can find all the things you can imagine there. However, shopping at Dong Xuan market is only cheap for those who know how to bargain. Even if you’re not confident with your bargaining skill, Dong Xuan market is still the best place to buy food, clothing, and souvenirs.
Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of Jade Mountain) are the classic bits of Hanoi tourism. Located just next to the Old Quarter, the lake brings a fresh breath to the busy and crowded streets. Indeed, after the exhausting walking tour to the quarter where you have to weave through the ever-busy traffic flow of motorbikes and taxis, taking a short rest on the bank of the lake would be refreshing.
Ngoc Son Temple should be one of the best places in Hanoi to learn more about Vietnam worshipping culture. Ngoc Son Temple is dedicated to Van Xuong De Quan – the star of literature, and Tran Hung Dao – a national hero. The red The Huc Bridge is a site you should not miss when coming to Old Quarter.
The walking streets around Hoan Kiem Lake on weekends are also safe, educational and exciting playgrounds for children and adults alike with traditional games and entertainments like O An Quan Game, Vietnam-style jumping rope game, a game of Jenga, chess games, etc. These streets host a significant number of street artists, and traditional art performances like Cheo singing. For those who love to explore the local culture, visiting Hoan Kiem on weekends is a must-do thing.
Hanoi Old Quarter Night Market is open from 18 to 23h every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. This is one of the busiest trading places with a number of booths up to 4000. The trading products here are varied from clothes to shoes, household appliances, crafts, souvenirs and so on, at affordable prices (In case you know how to bargain).
Every Saturday evening, at the two ends of the street, there are some performances such are traditional folk art and cultural exchanges such as ” Cheo”, Quan Ho, Ca Tru. This is unique to the Hanoi Old Quarter night market that attracts many visitors, especially foreign tourists.