Hanoi’s Old Quarter is considered the heart and soul of the capital. It demonstrates a harmonious blend between an ancient culture that is proudly preserved and a city in constant diversification; and now it’s the oldest yet most bustling commercial district and one of the main attractions of the capital of Vietnam.
History of Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is located in the northeast of Hanoi, belonged to the Hoan Kiem district. The location of the Old Town was deliberately situated between the Imperial Citadel and the Red River, considered an advantageous area for commercial development.
The history of the Old Quarter dates back to the 11th century when King Ly Thai To moved the capital from Hoa Lu (Ninh Binh) to Thang Long (Hanoi). After this historic decision, many craftsmen gathered around the royal palace to sell their goods and organized themselves over time into craft cooperatives and guilds.
The locals from the same villages gathered and operated on the same street, giving the streets a homogeneous look. All the streets that developed here are called “Hang” (meaning merchandise or store), followed by the name of their particular product such as Hang Bac (silver product), Hang Ma (paper product), Hang Duong (sugar), Hang Muoi (Salt), etc. Nowadays, these street names still reflect the specializations although few of them remain exclusively in their original trade.
Things to do in Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a maze of narrow alleys where you can find everything from street food, restaurants, shops, bakeries, cafes to art galleries, bars… There’s an endless list of interesting activities in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, but here below are some awesome things not to be missed.
Explore the Old Quarter
While at first glance, it’s bustling, with numerous scooters, people, and narrow streets, it’s beautiful. Some travelers only see how beautiful it was at second glance, but yes: it’s definitely beautiful.
You probably won’t have enough time, eyes, and ears to completely see the Old Quarter. But you will make a lot of headway in a few days. By exploring the streets, shops, markets, bars, and street food, you will fall in love with the Old Quarter.
Take a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake (the Lake of the Returned Sword) and Ngoc Son Temple (Jade Mountain Temple) are classic elements of tourism in Hanoi. Located right next to the Old Quarter, the lake is one of the city’s main tourist sites and serves as a focal point for its public life.
After the exhausting walking tour of the district where you have to weave your way through the always heavy traffic flow of motorcycles and taxis, a short break by the lake with surrounding green scenery would be refreshing.
A visit to Ngoc Son Temple, located on a small islet in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake, is a must to learn more about Vietnamese worship culture. The temple was built in the 19th century and dedicated to Van Xuong De Quan – the star of literature, and Tran Hung Dao – a national hero. To get to the temple, you will cross the Huc Bridge (Bridge of the Morning Sunlight), a charming red-colored wooden bridge of classic Vietnamese design.
Watch the Water Puppet Show
Tourists can’t miss the opportunity to watch a traditional water puppet show – a unique form of Vietnamese art originating from the wet rice culture of Southeast Asia.
Supported by a large rod placed under the water and manipulated by experienced puppeteers hidden behind the screen, the wooden puppets seem to dance on the water and narrate folk tales.
Ideally located next to Hoan Kiem Lake and within walking distance from Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is a familiar place to enjoy this traditional art form. There are 4 daily shows at 4:10 PM, 5:20 PM, 6:30 PM, and 8:00 PM all year round.
Shopping at Dong Xuan Market
Dong Xuan Market is one of the oldest markets in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It has a history of over 200 years, under the Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam. It is now the largest market in Hanoi and offers a wide range of products, including clothing, home appliances, souvenirs, food, Hanoi specialties, etc.
You can easily find everything you need here at an affordable price, provided you have good negotiation skills. Dong Xuan Market is open every day from 6 AM to 6 PM.
Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, you have the chance to explore an open-air night market with numerous stalls, local food product sellers, locals, and tourists. It runs through the Old Quarter district starting from 7 PM, leaving from Hang Dao Street and heading north to the edge of Dong Xuan Market.
Taste the Street Food
Vietnamese cuisine is based on a delicate balance of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy flavors. It’s almost impossible to walk around Hanoi without noticing the smell of food from street vendors.
The food choices in general are good and dishes are offered at cheap to affordable prices, no matter where you prefer to dine. “Pho”, “Bun cha”, “Cha ca”, “Bun thang”, “Bun dau mam tom”… are among the top of the list, to try on your visit to Hanoi. You will be surprised by the delicious taste of simple dishes. If you have a sweet tooth, try the fried bananas, dessert soup or caramel pudding.
Tasting a new cuisine is not just a dish in itself, it is also a part of cultural heritage. There’s no better way to discover the delicious Vietnamese street food than with the help of a local!
Cyclo around Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a perfect stop for those who want to discover Hanoi with a real desire to understand the city’s culture or a curiosity to travel in time. With its narrow, old-fashioned streets, full of old brick houses, it seems to resist nostalgically the passage of time while actively trying to adapt to the dynamic atmosphere of the modern city.
By jumping on a cyclo, one of Hanoi’s most typical vehicles, a human-powered transport with a seat at the front for passengers and the driver at the back, you will have a perfect chance to take photos and do slow sightseeing through a bustling alley. streets and valleys of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It might be a bit crowded, but you will have losing contact with the locals and discover the chaotic and energetic life of Hanoians.
Drink a “Bia Hoi” in Hanoi’s Old Quarter
The ‘Bia hoi’, draft beer or fresh beer, is a very well-known drink in Hanoi. A visit to Hanoi will not end without a trial of a ‘bia hoi’. Most foreign visitors and guides recommend the ‘bia hoi’ at the corner of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen streets. That’s why this area is full of foreign visitors.
As an expatriate, I would like to take my friends and loved ones to try a ‘bia hoi’ on Phung Hung street. There are many good choices there and the menu is good and cheap.
It gets crowded starting from 4:30 PM when work hours end. It will be busy late into the night. People prefer to sit on plastic stools with a pint of ‘bia hoi’ in hand, nibbling on flower seeds or peanuts, and chatting with friends. Come here and do as the locals do, you will feel the noisiest and most vibrant atmosphere of Hanoi’s nightlife and live a truly local experience.