Mary Ann Issac
All you need to know about the Old Quarter, Hanoi
Updated: Aug 27, 2020
The Hoan Kiem District, or Old Quarter of Hanoi, is the most popular tourist destination in Hanoi. The streets are packed with people, street sellers, & motorcyclists, and gives the best snapshot of the capital!
History of the Old Quarter
The capital of Vietnam was shifted to Hanoi from Hoa Lu in Ninh Binh in the 11th century by King Ly Thai To. The 13th century saw the influx of craftsmen from around northern Vietnam into Hanoi, and over time, they formed craft cooperatives and guilds. They set up in the Old Quarter organising themselves into streets based on the villages they came from. This meant all those who made a similar craft would be on one or two adjoining streets, for example, all silverware craftsmen on one street, and all bamboo craftsmen on one!
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Why are the buildings of the Old Quarter so narrow?
The Old Quarter is known for narrow, yet long buildings. I was surprised to see how narrow each shophouse was, and how they were all cramped together barely leaving any space in between. Apparently the reason behind this type of architecture dates back to centuries go, when shop keepers were taxed for the width of their storefront. The business savvy shopkeepers, created narrow storefronts, and moved all the work, towards the back of the building- so if you see a tiny store front, don’t be fooled by its appearance, chances are that there is a lot of space at the back!
These tube houses typically are only 3m wide, but 60m long!
The French & Chinese influence in architecture, culture, and food can be seen around the Old Quarter, and the interesting mix gives Hanoi its distinct character that I fell in love with!
Now there aren’t many streets dedicated to just one craft, it is a mix of everything under the sun, from clothing, jewellery, food, tourist services, hostels, hotels, silverware, spas, ceramic ware, and entertainment!
Hang Gai, the street dedicated to silk/hemp, and Hang Bac, the street dedicated to silverware, are a couple of the few ancient craftsmen streets left intact.
The Old Quarter comes alive in the evenings and over the weekend, when the whole city, or maybe even the world is right there! There are so many street performers, and musicians, vendors walking around selling food, and toys/balloons- the atmosphere is electric!
Also, over the weekends in the evening, vehicular traffic is blocked off from the area, making it easy to just walk about aimlessly and enjoy the city at its best!
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Walk through the maze that is the Old Quarter
My favourite thing to do in Hanoi, was to just walk aimlessly through the streets of the Old Quarter. Most times I got lost, and ended up where I started, but it was fun all the same! I don’t think I saw even half of what the Old Quarter has to offer. The streets look the same to the first timer, so it is hard to make sense of the roads you are taking, but it is best to just go with the flow, and see what each street has to offer.
Tips to navigate the Old Quarter
-Hang Bac (street)- For silverware and jewellery
-Hang Duong (street)- for sugar, sweets, and sweetened dried fruits
-Hang Ma (street)- traditional votive papers, ( I was here during the mid autumn festival, and it was the most colourful, and bustling place to be!)
-Ta Hien (street)- sidewalk cafes, beer, and street food
-Hang Gai (street) -for silk material, and tailored clothing
Eat the food
The Old Quarter is the best place to try local street food, and sometimes, it’s not even from a stall or a hole in the wall. Here, there are so many street sellers walking about selling home made food from baskets that they carry on their shoulders. So get adventurous, and try everything!
Visit the cafes
When in Hanoi, drink as much coffee as you can- Vietnamese coffee, and egg coffee are the best things to have happened!
Vietnamese coffee is a strong espresso served with condensed milk, how good is that!
I’ve written in detail about my love for egg coffee, if you want to know more, check my blog on..
Egg coffee is whipped egg yolk and sugar/condensed milk, and in some recipes there is a little bit of cheese in it as well! This yummy egg mixture is served on top of espresso.
Visit the Long Bien Bridge
Built by the French, and to be more specific, the same architect who built the Eiffel Tower, Long Bien, is a landmark in Hanoi. It is a popular spot for tourists and photographers, as its rustic beauty is incredibly photogenic!
Go on a free walking tour
The tour provided by local students is the best way to get acquainted with the sights of the Old Quarter. It’s also a great opportunity to get all your questions answered by a local!
Shop at Dong Xuan Market
I didn’t spend much time here, but it is the oldest tradition market in Hanoi. There are vendors selling flowers, souvenirs, food, clothing, bags, cloth material, and so much more! Definitely check this place out if you are looking to get a taste of where the locals shop, and if you want to practice your haggling.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Located at the heart of the Old Quarter, this is the perfect place to unwind. I have written a detailed article on Hoan Kiem lake and what you can do there, so check it out!
Visit the Ancient House
This is a recreation of the traditional Hanoi home, and is interesting to note the architecture, and colour scheme used. The house is located on 87 Ma May road.
Check out the weekend night market
Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 6-11PM, the roads to the Old Quarter are cordoned off limiting access to motorised vehicles. Makeshift stalls come up in the middle of the roads and vendors selling clothes, jewellery, shoes, household appliances, & crafts.
Participate in the Bia Hoi culture of Hanoi
Located between Ta Hien & Luong Ngoc Quyen street, this is a beer haven that’s open all day, and late into the night. At night the street is packed with locals and tourists alike, and there is barely space to walk! People are seated on low stools on the street, enjoying a pint of freshly brewed Bia Hoi, a freshly brewed Vietnamese draft beer.
Bia Hoi is low in alcohol strength, only 4%, but only costs between VND5000-8000 (USD 0.21!!) It is a great way to be a part of local culture.