Hanoi is one the most vibrant cities on earth, and yet at times it also feels like a small town. One of the most fun things to do when visiting Vietnam’s capital city is simply to walk the streets and get lost.
Hanoi’s old quarter district, in particular, is a myriad of streets, stalls, and moving restaurants full street sellers, wandering tourists and full of character. Every street has its specific purpose, with every shop on the block selling the same thing. making shopping here one of the most fun experiences i’ve had to date. Take a walk down ‘underwear street. ‘book street’ or ‘household appliances street’. Stop off to buy a pineapple, a fresh bread roll or something a little more daring. Whatever it is that you do, a few hours in the old quarter is good for the soul.
Top tip: Wait until the evening to get lost… that’s when the old town really comes alive.
The old quarter
Hanoi’s old quarter occupies a small area, called the 36 streets, located between Hoan Kiem Lake, Long Bien Bridge, and the old city wall. Local lore holds that this patch of land began life as a swamp – filled with snakes and alligators, by all accounts – before becoming a cluster of stilt villages governed by the Chinese.
By the 13th century, a few small workshops had evolved into thriving craft cooperatives, and skilled artisans were migrating to the area to become part of the local guilds. People moving in from the countryside brought their local traditions to the city, building pagodas, temples, patron saints and communal living spaces, and transforming the old quarter into a flourishing centre for arts and crafts.
Though Hanoi’s old quarter is no longer home to guilds of craftsmen all living together under one roof, the modern visitor can still catch a glimpse of the area’s creative heritage. For instance, most streets in the old quarter are named after the guild they once housed: Hang Bac Street means ‘street of silver’ and once produced silver ingots, jewellery, and currency, while Hang Dao Street means ‘street of silk’ and (as you’d expect) was the centre for silk production, dyeing, and trading. Other streets include Hang Be (‘street of bamboo rafts’), Cau Go (‘street of the wooden bridge’), Hang Mam (‘street of fish sauce’), Ma May (‘street of rattan products and sacred joss’), Hang Thiec (‘street of tin’), Hang Thung (‘street of barrels’) and Dong Xuan (‘market street’).
As beguiling as these individual histories are, this isn’t what you’ll find in the old quarter today. Craft workshops and small industries have been replaced by restaurants, hotels, schools, shops and mobile phone repair stalls – and few relics hint at the area’s former life. The elaborate roof of a market stall, for instance, might indicate that it was once a guild temple – or a shop selling mirrors and sheet metal might reveal its roots on ‘tin street’.
The old quarter today
Things have changed, but that’s not to suggest that Hanoi’s old quarter has lost its charm – far from it. When I visited earlier this year, I was surprised and delighted by how much I liked it, and by how authentic it had remained despite development.
During the day, tall buildings tower above narrow, higgledy-piggledy alleyways, a tangle of electrical wires obscuring what little light filters down to the ground. Locals sit outside sipping Vietnamese coffee, vendors push their laden bikes between bustling cafés, and the streets are filled with delicious-smelling steam billowing from food carts selling rice bowls and spicy noodle soup. Birds twitter in ornamental cages strung between telegraph poles, conical hats bob amongst the crowds, and scooters nudge their way amongst food carts, rickshaws and pedestrians alike.