Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital lies in the North of the country and is one of the country’s top tourist hot spots. It offers French-colonial architecture, a rich food culture and a long history (the city celebrated its millennium in 2010.) The most well known and important districts in Hanoi are Ba Dinh District (aka the French Quarter) where the government offices are located and Hoan Kiem District (aka the Old Quarter) which is considered the city’s business hub and main tourist destination.
One of Hanoi’s most common sights is that of streets packed with scooters, bicycles and cars swarming around pedestrians like a school of fish. Then there are the many sidewalk vendors and people simply out for a stroll and the popular Old Quarter is no exception so walking around this district is distinct from a leisurely stroll in the park. Visitors have no choice but to face the traffic in the local style but the experience of exploring the historical area is a must-do and truly well worth it.
Packed with charming colonial architecture, Buddhist temples and pagodas, the Old Quarter, located near Hoan Kiem Lake in Hoan Kiem District, is Hanoi’s major commercial district. Its heart and soul is exposed in the ancient commercial streets which are named after their original businesses dating back about 1,000 years. Though most of the specialties (cotton, jewellery, herbs, and silk) have changed over time and have been replaced with a variety of modern-day commodities and services, visitors can still appreciate some of the original goods as well as get a feel of rich old Vietnamese customs.
The preserved shop-houses that lie along these roads were built a little over a century ago and were constructed in their long and narrow style to avoid being hit by high taxes. Each has a street-facing façade and multiple courtyards inside. The front part of the buildings is where trading takes place while the family occupies the rest. Though one shop-house was meant to be for one family (with many generations in it), nowadays it is more common to see quite a few families jammed in under one roof. Expect to find plenty of hip café, bars, a variety of restaurants, bakeries, boutique shops and art galleries in this historical area.
Old Quarter Attractions
Many of Hanoi’s major attractions are within or nearby the Old Quarter, including Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi Opera House, National Museum of Vietnamese History, Ba Dinh Square, a former Governor-General of French Indochina’s mansion, the One Pillar Pagoda, Bach Ma Temple, Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre and Dong Xuan, Hanoi’s largest market.
Old Quarter Dining
In Vietnam, French baguettes and coffee have something very much in common with pho rice noodles as the locals consume them in massive amounts daily, so they’re sold everywhere. Food choices in general are good and dishes come at cheap to affordable prices no matter where you prefer to dine. When in the mood for the real deal (cha ca, banh goi and pho are among the top of the list) try out one of the many street stalls around the Old Quarter. You will be surprised by how delicious simple dishes taste.
Old Quarter Nightlife
Other parts of Hanoi might quiet down at night but the Old Quarter is where night owls head to. Live music, discos, clubs and bars as well as decent karaoke joints are the norm here.
Though the numbers might be limited compared to other large Asian cities, what’s on offer here is well enough to keep people from all walks of life happy and university students, office staff and expats are among the friendly crowds.
Old Quarter Shopping
The Old Quarter is a shopper’s delight and houses artistic products from around the country, fashioned by many top artists and craftsmen. Popular items that make fine souvenirs include lacquer ware, silk products, embroidered fabrics and bags, conical hats, coffee beans and paintings.
Remember to negotiate with a smile when shopping in Vietnam (though goods here are already quoted at cheap to affordable prices) as shops and salespeople expect bargaining by customers. Don’t be shy.
Old Quarter Activities
Must-do number one in the Old Quarter is to have a look around this, the oldest neighborhood in the city. With a history dating back to about the 13th century, the vibe and energy here is definitely unique. Must-do number two is to stop by at any local tea and coffee café that provides chairs to sit outdoors (many times ‘outdoors’ here means sitting right on the sidewalk.) This is considered the best place to observe the world go by in the Old Quarter.
For those who love cooking and Vietnamese food, combine them together and learn from the professionals at one of the many culinary classes around.