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Discover The Allure Of Hanoi's Old Quarter: Endless Activities Await!

While Ho Chi Minh city is known to be the economic prowess of Vietnam, it is Hanoi where all the cultural aspects throughout the thousand years of history accumulate. The result of which is the 36 streets of Hanoi, also known as Hanoi’s old quarter. So come along with us on a journey to discover things to see in old quarter Hanoi.

1. Discovering the 36 streets.

Life in Hanoi's old quarter.
The 36 streets, by themselves, carry a significant history and uphold the traditional heritage of northern Vietnam. Each street's name corresponds to the specific products it offers for sale. These streets began taking shape just outside the Thang Long imperial citadel in the 13th century, during the Ly-Tran dynasties. The 36 street Hanoi served as a bustling marketplace where people from all corners of Dai Viet gathered to trade their signature goods. Encircled by protective walls and gates on all sides, this area provided a secure environment for merchants to conduct their business. Under the French ruling, the Indians and the French got a chance to open their business here. Along with the changing time, the look of the old quarter also changed.
Nowaday, we can still see the mixture of French’s architecture and the traditional aspects of Vietnam within the houses that still remain. From woodworking to forging, most of what you want, you can find here right in the old quarter. As of now, only some of the streets still sell and produce the traditional goods, which you can come to visit or buy something home as an original souvenir.

2. Visiting Hoan Kiem lake and the walking streets.

Turtle tower in middle of Hoan Kiem lake.
The highline of Hanoi’s old quarter where every tourist must come and visit is the Hoan Kiem lake. Being the signature of Hanoi and its thousand years of history, the lake is known to be a living legend of Vietnam through folklore, stories and literature for centuries. Before known as Hoan Kiem ever since the 15 century by the legend in which king Le Loi returned the magic sword to the turtle, the lake was also known by many other names such as Luc Thuy or Ta Vong. The lake is a break from the crowned streets and bustling merchant shops, opening up a space for people to gather and commute. In the colonized period, while many lakes nearby were filled to make space for housing, Hoan Kiem luckily stayed untouch through time.
As you get to the lake, you can see many historical ruins and buildings dotted around. With 30.000 VND or 1.22 USD for adults, you can get on and visit Ngoc Son temple and The Huc bridge. Here worship all three beliefs and philosophies of Confucius, Buddhism and Taoism. It is also here we have replicas of the turtles said to be descendants of the one from legend. This species of turtle, since there are no predators in the lake, grow to be massive. And since there is no need to protect themselves, their shells turn soft instead of hard. So far this species only exists in Hoan Kiem lake and is on the verge of extinction. The government is doing everything they can to preserve this living legend from its gloomy fate.
In the middle of the lake is the turtle tower, constructed in the early 18th century on the dirt mound in the middle of Hoan Kiem lake. In the old days, this is where the kings usually came to fish. The tower is a harmonic mixture of the French's gothic architecture and the Vietnamese culture aspects. Under the range of the French, there was a copy of the Statue of Liberty at about 2m on top of the tower. But after the liberation of 1945, it was pulled down and melted back into copper. The lake has been the witness of Hanoi for thousands of years, through its worst and now at its best. Hoan Kiem lake is the symbol of the Vietnamese: eternal and unbeatable.
Traditional caligraphy on Hoan Kiem walking street.
On every weekend, the street around the lake turns into a bustling walking street. Opened ever since 2016, the walking street became the place of gathering for every activity of everyone. From dancing to drawing, the streets turn into a lively spot for the youth of Hanoi. Visit here, you will be surprised by the sheer number of people and the atmosphere beyond active. So don't be afraid to pay it a visit on the weekend!

3. Checking out St. Joseph Cathedral.

The "Notre Dame de Hanoi".
Resembling the iconic look of the Notre Dame of Paris, St. Joseph Cathedral is called by the Vietnamese as the Notre Dame of Hanoi. Its history is very much connected to the French invasion. From 1884 to 1888, the cathedral was officially constructed on the base of Bao Thien pagoda, which by the time of construction was already in ruins. The only remark left of the pagoda now is a well in the campus of the cathedral. Costing about 200.000 franc, the cathedral officially became the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hanoi and has been an important center for Catholicism in Northern Vietnam for over a century. The cathedral was also furnished with a clock face that can tell the time and connected with four small and one big bell on its two towers.
By the time the cathedral finished its construction, it became one of the most impressive buildings of Hanoi, with a completely different architecture style from anything the Vietnamese had ever since. A completely gothic style makes it stand out from the bustling streets, yet it gives out a sense of peace and tranquility, as if the world has somewhat forgotten about its existence. The cathedral nowaday is a place for all the Christian to gather in the big holidays such as Chrismast or Easter. The cathedral nowaday is a popular tourist destination, drawing both Catholics attending services and visitors interested in its architecture and history.
Hanoi Cathedral is not only a religious institution but also a symbol of the enduring presence of Catholicism in Vietnam. It stands as a testament to the country's rich history and the diverse architectural heritage influenced by French colonialism.

4. Roaming through Dong Xuan Market.

Early morning at Dong Xuan market.
Having the same historical origin as St. Joseph Cathedral, Dong Xuan market used to be one of the most significant buildings of the french and luckily still standing to this day. In 1889, the French moved all the shops and stores into an abandoned land, which then created the Dong Xuan open market. It was not until 1890 that the French government started its construction. With five arches and five bridges, each with a length of 52 meters and a height of 19 meters, it is a showcase of remarkable architectural craftsmanship along with the cathedral of Hanoi. Reflecting French architectural style, featuring five triangular sections with perforations resembling honeycombs, all topped with corrugated iron roofs. In 1990, it was reconstructed, adding two more floors but the outside was mostly kept the same. In 1994, the market went up in flame which lasted for five days, making it the longest and biggest fire of Hanoi
A shoes shop inside Dong Xuan market.
Dong Xuan is a wholesale market, where you can find almost everything you need. On the ground floor, as soon as you enter, you'll find shops offering a variety of products, including clothing, sunglasses, shoes, suitcases, and electronics like phones, charging cables, rechargeable batteries, super bright flashlights, speakers, and radios, which are primarily sourced from China. On the second floor, you can find a wholesale and retail space dedicated to clothing for adults and a wide selection of fabrics, including brocade and silk. On the third floor, the focus shifts to products primarily catering to babies.
Here offers you a glimpse into the life of the locals: chaotic, vibrant, and lively with the sound of haggling and chatting of the merchants along with the smell of spices and fresh food down the street. Dong Xuan Market remains a key landmark in the city's bustling street life and commercial activity.

5. Taking on a food tour.

A food vendor on 36 streets of Hanoi.
With a motto: “ To eat is to heal”, Vietnamese food is slowly being recognized by the world for its uniqueness, freshness and high quality. From dishes as simple as Bia Hoi and dried squid to something as delicate as Pho, the food here can surely satisfy your hunger. Even to the critics from Sir Anthonie Bourdain to Gordon Ramsey, no matter who on this planet earth, the taste of Vietnam can conquer all.
Freshly cooked food on the street of Hanoi old quarter.
Being the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is the rendezvous of all Vietnam cuisine, from fine dining to street food. If there is any dish you wish to try, Hanoi got it all. As tourists often stay in the old quarter, many restaurants and food vendors open for you to have a taste. Bun Cha, Banh Cuon, Banh Xeo,... while every kind of food can be found here, keep in mind that food here is not a perfect representation but merely an inferior replication of its origin. However, by no means is it terrible, only imperfect. Food such as Pho or Bun Bo Hue, whose cores are not from Hanoi, can not be called fully authentic.
Since food is such a big aspect of Vietnamese culture, it is recommended that you accompany a local guide for the best experience. If you prefer to plunge into the abyss by yourself however, make sure to build up your tolerance before having a full day of eating. While notorious for being fresh, green and very much healthy, Vietnamese cuisine uses a lot of unusual herbs and spices that may put you in a difficult time afterward. So remember to pack some pills for your stomach and pray for luck.

6. Figuring out the hidden coffee shops.

The interior of a hidden cafe.
Vietnam being the second largest export of coffee in the world. Thus it is only normal that you can find a coffee shop just about everywhere, and the old quarter is no exception. Sure you can enjoy a cup of Starbuck, just don't make it your only experience of coffee in Vietnam. Cong cafe or Note cafe where you can leave a note for other people are the popular choice. However, dare I say those are not the gems of old quarter’s coffee. Within the tiny and long alleyways are coffee shops, traces of which you can find nowhere on the internet. As they are in many ways, a secret of Hanoi, I advise you to do the same and keep it hidden, as their value goes beyond just fame and money. They are the peaceful invisible corner, a treasure for many people who had the luck to stumble across it. What it offers you, other than just a good and unique choice of coffee, is the artistic, aesthetic and authentic experience. So, take out your luck and give it a chance to shine. Hopefully you can find a secret to keep as your own.
Here is some tips for you to have an easier time finding one:
  • Looking up: The rooftop cafe is quite famous in the old quarter, offering you a view of the whole streets and the people activity below.

  • Keep an eye out for bookstores: Some bookstores in Hanoi old town can be a perfect place to hide a cafe. A perfect combination of aesthetic and tradition.

  • Ask the local: If your luck is insufficient, then this is your best chance of finding one. It is advisable that you use google translate to talk to the old people. They know things the younglings simply don't.

7. Viewing a water puppet show at Thang Long Theater.

A water pupper show at Thang Long theater.
Situated right by Hoan Kiem lake, Thang Long theater is notorious for its water puppet show, an entertainment form originating in the delta of the Red river that dated back over ten centuries and in some myths and legends, it can even be dated back to the 200 B.C. Accompanied by live music, singing, and traditional instruments, the shows create a vibrant, colorful spectacle that offers an authentic and immersive window into Vietnam's cultural heritage.
The first written evidence of water puppetry in Vietnam is found on the Sung Thien Dien Linh stele, erected in the year 1121. The inscription describes, "Releasing a golden turtle that glides between three mountain peaks, riding the turbulent surface of the waves. Exposing the four legs underneath the undulating river, it gazes toward the shore, bows to the vast sky. Looking up at the ascending rocks, a rhythmic tune plays softly. The cave's entrance opens, revealing divine beings. All possess celestial grace, as if from the heavenly realm, not of the mortal world. Reaching out with a hand, they offered the Melody of the Returning Wind, and with a raised eyebrow, they praised the favorable omen. Noble birds sing in, and benevolent animals parade merrily."
Far different from normal puppertier, the “stage” here is the water surface, surrounded by decoration resembling that of the traditional altar in each and every Vietnamese household. The show is a way of storytelling, mainly about the everyday life of the people and the traditional myths of Vietnam. The show offers you an interesting insight into the history, the heritage and shows you the myths and legends passed down from generation to generation. The show not only serves as preservation of a tradition, but also can hopefully leave a piece of Vietnam in you.

8. Visiting Ma May ancient house.

Ancient atmosphiere at Ma May house.
Nestled in the heart of Hanoi's old town, visiting Ma May Ancient House is like taking a peek into the city's rich history and culture. Dating back to the late 19th, this beautifully preserved house offers a century glimpse into the daily life of Hanoians during that era.
As of now, the house is a great remaining example of traditional Hanoian and northern Vietnamese architecture. With wooden beams, intricately carved details, and charming interior courtyard, it transports visitors back in time to an era when traditional craftsmanship and design were dominant. Stepping into this house feels like taking a journey through time. lie within the rooms and throughout the space are artifacts and utensils, recreate how life was 200 years ago. The house is a living museum that tells a story of bygone days. Beyond its architectural and historical significance, the Ma May Ancient House is a near perfect representation as if it were pulled straight out of hundred years of literature.
Visiting the Ma May Ancient House is like taking a step back in time while still being in the heart of a bustling city. Don't miss this cultural gem on your visit to the Old Quarter.

9. Drinking and clubbing at Ta Hien street.

Ta Hien - street of alcohol.
Being one of the highest beer consumption in the world, you can be sure that the Vietnamese know how to party. With beer as dirt cheap as water and good food at any corners, the 36 streets is the place to go if drinking is your game. About 500m from Hoan Kiem lake, you can find Ta Hien Street. Crowded beyond your expectation, with plastic tables and stools all down the street, Ta Hien is the perfect place for you to have a drink and have fun.

Known for a light and cheap craft beer (bia hơi), this street offers you an opportunity to have a drink without fear of getting drunk. Going for about 7.000 VND or about 0,28 USD a cup, it is the perfect opening for your night. After which, you can head into the clubs nearby to party to your heart’s content. However, do be careful since, just like everywhere else in the world, areas like this often house quite a high number of thieves. So be careful and have a memorable night with your friend and the young of Vietnam.

10. Strolling down the bustling night market.

Night market of Hanoi old quarter.
If the loud music and alcohol isn’t something you enjoy then head down to the night market right by the walking street. Hanoi old quarter night market is a perfect place where tourists can find merchandise and electronics for a fraction of the price. But whether it is an authentic product or not is always up for questioning. It is bustling every weekend, stuffed with people old and young. If you want to find some clothes or a few classical souvenirs, this is the place to go. Night food stall is open until 2am so snacks are always ready for you to have a try. Though the market only opens on the weekend along with the walking street, it is still a sight to be seen.
Whether you're seeking delicious street food, unique souvenirs, or simply the lively ambiance of Hanoi at night, the night market in the old quarter is a must-visit destination. Here you can indulge in local culture, create lasting memories, and get a taste of the city's vibrant spirit after dark.

11. Photographing the streets.

A photographer on the street of Hanoi's old quarter
The 36 streets of Hanoi are something completely different from anywhere else in the world. Chaotic, loud, dangerous and loaded with bikes. Though not much is different in the old quarter, with narrow streets and greenery, the old quarter can still give you the sense of peace and tranquility, yet at the same time, bustling with the sound of everyday life of the locals. If you are fascinated by it and interested in photography at the same time then the old quarter is the perfect place for you.
The beauty of the 36 streets.
Life in Hanoi old town starts as early as 5 am, when the shops and restaurants start to prepare the food for the coming breakfast. The sound and the smell of cooking along with the red hue of the fire stove is a signal for the morning to come. At 6 am, parents would start taking their kids to breakfast or straight to school with a Banh Mi in hand, while the workers gather around drinking tea and smoking Thuoc Lao on the sidewalk, right by the tiny tea shop run by an old man. The best time to go shooting is at 3 to 5 pm. That is before the sunset, when people are working at their highest capacity and when the sunlight is at its most beautiful. If you want to go shooting at night, then wait for the weekend when the walking street opens. The old quarter is at its highest capacity in this time frame. Singing, dancing, skating, … here gather all kinds of activities, thus becoming a gold mine for street photographers.
So, as you venture into the heart of the old quarter, let your artistic spirit soar and capture masterpieces that not only etch into your memory but also grace your walls as enduring testaments to this unique realm.

12. Shopping for unique souvenirs.

Tradition souvenir sell on the street of Hanoi old quarter.
Shopping for unique souvenirs in Hanoi's old quarter Vietnam can be a delightful experience, as this area is known for its rich cultural heritage and diverse offerings. Here are some ideas for unique souvenirs you can find in the old quarter of Hanoi:
  • Water Puppets: Water puppetry is a traditional Vietnamese art form, and you can find miniature water puppets as souvenirs. Look for them in specialized shops or at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater.

  • Silk Products: Vietnam is famous for its silk, and you can purchase beautifully crafted silk clothing, scarves, and accessories.

  • Hand-Embroidered Items: Hand-embroidered textiles, such as tablecloths, wall hangings, and clothing, are unique and intricate souvenirs.

  • Lacquerware: Lacquerware items, including plates, bowls, and artwork, are popular and can be personalized with intricate designs.

  • Traditional Artwork: Look for traditional Vietnamese art like silk paintings, woodblock prints, and calligraphy.

  • Dong Ho Paintings: These are traditional Vietnamese woodblock prints that often depict scenes from daily life, myths, or legends.

  • Antiques and Collectibles: While shopping, you might come across antique shops in the Old Quarter that offer unique collectibles and vintage items.

  • Local Crafts: Shop for handmade crafts, such as bamboo products, conical hats (non la), and traditional musical instruments like the đàn bầu.

  • Ceramics and Pottery: Ha noi old town has shops selling beautifully glazed ceramics and pottery.

  • Coffee and Tea: Vietnam is famous for its coffee and tea, so consider buying locally sourced coffee beans or traditional Vietnamese coffee filters (phin) as souvenirs.

  • Traditional Clothing: The Old Quarter is a great place to find traditional Vietnamese clothing, including ao dai and conical hats.

  • Hand-Crafted Jewelry: You can find unique, handcrafted jewelry made from silver or semi-precious stones in the Old Quarter.

  • Local Food: While not a traditional souvenir, consider taking home some local snacks, sauces, or spices to bring the flavors of Vietnam back with you.

When shopping for souvenirs in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, remember to haggle for prices in local markets and small shops, but be respectful and enjoy the bargaining process. This will help you secure unique and memorable items to commemorate your visit to this historic part of the city.

13. Some tips for your expiration of 36 streets of Hanoi:

Visiting Hanoi's Old Quarter can be a fascinating and enriching experience. Here are some tips to make the most of your trip to this historic district:

  • Wear Comfortable Footwear: The Old Quarter is best explored on foot, so wear comfortable shoes for walking. You'll be navigating narrow streets and uneven pavements.

  • Be Mindful of Traffic: Hanoi's traffic can be chaotic. When crossing the streets, walk at a consistent pace to let motorbikes and cars predict your movements. Avoid sudden stops or erratic movements.

  • Haggle at Markets: Bargaining is common at the markets in the Old Quarter. Be prepared to negotiate prices, but do so with a friendly and respectful attitude.

  • Stay Hydrated: Hanoi's weather can be hot and humid, so carry a water bottle with you to stay hydrated while exploring.

  • Use Local Currency: Ensure you have Vietnamese Dong (VND) with you, as many small businesses may not accept other currencies or credit cards.

  • Watch Out for Scams: Like any tourist destination, be cautious of scams. Stick to reputable businesses for tours and services, and be aware of common scams to avoid them.

  • Learn Basic Vietnamese Phrases: Knowing a few basic Vietnamese phrases can go a long way in terms of communication and showing respect to the local culture.

  • Respect Local Customs: Be mindful of local customs and traditions, especially when visiting temples and pagodas. Dress modestly and remove your shoes when required.

  • Plan for Street Markets: If you want to experience the Night Market or other street markets, plan your visit during the evenings when they are in full swing.

Following these tips will ensure you a hassle free voyage and give you as much fun as possible knowing what to do in Hanoi old quarter.

Hopefully the information we provide above is helpful for your voyage to discover the mystical old quarter of Hanoi. We eagerly anticipate that your voyage to this breathtaking destination will unfold as a truly memorable and enchanting experience.
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