The Hanoi Old Quarter is a picturesque maze of streets and back alleys patterned after the ancient hutong neighborhoods of Beijing in China. Although the Chinese hutongs are a few hundred years older, the Old Quarter in Hanoi dates at least as far back as the thirteenth century when trade guilds specializing in different crafts banded together to form their own specialized neighborhoods.
Old Quarter of Hanoi
Even today, these ancient neighborhoods of Old Town in Hanoi provide just about the best overall shopping in the country. The city’s largest market, Dong Xuan, is located here. It was developed primary for the new and growing tourist trade, and is visited by thousands of tourists each year. This is part of the nightlife of the city, with dozens of brightly lit food stalls where you can enjoy dining on traditional Vietnamese street food until the wee hours of the morning. There are also scores of crafts and souvenir shops spread over a huge two-block area, with wares that include traditional Dong Ho drawings and paintings, exquisite Bat Trang ceramics and pottery, hand embroidery and lace, sand paintings, and much more. Top on the list of things to do in Old Town Hanoi is to spend time in this bustling market.
Even if you don’t shop, simply walking through the Old Quarter in Hanoi is an exotic treat for the senses. The streets are full of pedestrians, many of which are vendors with shoulder poles suspending their loads of fruits, vegetables, fish, and aromatic herbs. These vendors never seem to stop hawking their wares as they walk the streets. Virtually every other form of ground transportation fights for space in the maze of streets. There are cyclos and trishaws, bicycles, and motorbikes—and all seem to be honking and ringing their bells incessantly. This experience of Old Town in Hanoi is not to be missed. One way to enjoy it in reasonable comfort is to book a cyclo or trishaw ride, and have yourself pedaled around. These rides are often included in vacation packages that visit the district.
The Old Quarter in Hanoi is, as its name suggests, the oldest part of the city. Its boundaries are one of the country’s famous lakes (Hoan Kiern Lake), the Red River, and the Hanoi Citadel, the once royal residence dating to the eleventh century. It is crisscrossed with canals that can help to orient you if you become lost, which is fairly easy to do if you’re not on organized tours.
Probably the most fascinating part of the Hanoi Old Quarter are the communal houses, each specific to a certain trade or guild. They boast lovely old gates that protect beautiful inner courtyards set up as temples that are often dedicated to Bach Ma (White Horse), the local god of the city. You’ll also be fascinated by the traditional “tube houses,” so called because they are very long and very narrow. The reason for this was that taxes were based on how much street frontage a house had. In addition to the temples found in communal and tube houses, Old Town in Hanoi boasts several actual Daoist and Buddhist temples, including the Bach Ma Temple. There are also several pagodas, and visitors are welcome to enter them and take photos.
The Hanoi Old Quarter has several good small hotels, guesthouses, and hostels that are directly in the district. Many of the city’s best luxury hotels are located within walking distance.