Hanoi’s Old Quarter is the core of downtown Hanoi, its most historic district and also a major tourist area. It’s busy and noisy, with a constant symphony of motorcycles and motorscooters zooming by (like Taiwan, but noisier and more numerous), and honking going on. The district is also quite old, being like it’s rather unchanged from decades ago, and the buildings are a few stories high, have stores at the ground floors, and have a faded appearance, which does give the area some charm. You can see old ladies in conical hats walking by and people carrying things in bundles balanced on poles slung over their shoulders. And then there’re the overhead electric wires, which you see everywhere and intersect in thick clumps at certain points, where electrical boxes (sorry, I don’t know what the proper name is) are perilously close to the streets and buildings, if not on the buildings themselves. There are shops and restaurants everywhere, though very few chain stores such as KFC or Starbucks, which is not a bad thing.
In Hanoi, I stayed in the middle of the quarter and it was a nice experience, though it took me a little time to get used. Unfortunately, by the time I was very used to it, I had to leave for Hue. My mistake was I only allocated two and a half days in Hanoi, with my Ha Long Bay trip in between. In contrast, I spent three and a half days in Ho Chi Minh and four days in Bangkok.
My first impression when I arrived in my hotel was that the street seemed cramped, though kind of pleasant with trees lining the sidewalks, the buildings looked old, and the area seemed like what you’d expect for a developing country that lags behind several of its neighbors like China, Thailand, and Malaysia, which aren’t exactly first world themselves. On my first night in Hanoi, I walked to Hoan Kiem Lake, which is about 15 minutes south, expecting to find a restaurant for dinner on the way. I first walked up to the Dong Xuan market building, Hanoi’s largest indoor day market, but there were only a few street vendors and I didn’t know what exactly they were selling or how to order, nor was I too keen on buying food from them. I kept on walking down a street, for over 10 minutes and I didn’t see a single restaurant, convenience store or any store that looked like it sold drinks or food. Instead a lot of the stores sold clothes, wallets and souvenirs. When I reached the lake, the landscape changed from busy, narrow streets with small stores, to large multilevel buildings with rooftop cafes and neon signs and even a KFC. I eventually went to Thai restaurant and had Thai food for my first meal in Vietnam (I didn’t eat in the day since I had lunch on my flight). I found the lake and the nighttime activity around its shores to be quite nice, but I was a little underwhelmed at the Old Quarter. “Are there any restaurants near here? Is there a convenience store or supermarket near here?” I asked my hotel reception when I returned.
The reason I couldn’t find a restaurant in the quarter that first night was because I’d made another mistake. The quarter is a collection of about 36 streets, some of which only specialize in selling one type of good, such as shoes or jewelry. I was just unlucky that the street I’d gone down was one such street.
Two nights later, having gone to Ha Long Bay and come back, I walked down to Hoan Kiem Lake again. This time, I went right instead of left when I left my hotel, and what a difference this made. I turned south and there were restaurants, cafes, and food places galore. I was still in the Old Quarter but it was like another world. There were also a lot of hotels and the souvenir stores on this side of the quarter seemed more spruced up than the others I’d seen the first night. Several restaurants had their specials written in English on chalkboards or on menus at the door. Not feeling so hungry, I went on to the lake and bought some street food.
Since it was a Friday, there was a large night market right on the street in the quarter. Ironically, it was on the very street that I’d walked down and up the previous night, the one that only had clothes stores. For the night market, this street was blocked off to motor traffic (a very good idea), and the market flowed for several blocks up to the Dong Xuan market building. The market was mainly made up of vendors selling under a line of tents pitched in the center of the street. On both sides, vendors were also there and stores were selling their stuff, making for a very lively scene. It was better and busier than I expected, because I’d thought it would be very touristy. Of course there were tourists like me walking around, and there were the usual amount of stalls selling souvenirs, postcards, and t-shirts with altered Starbucks signs featuring Vietnamese woman with a conical hat, and Vietnamese beer brands. But the majority of people were locals, many of whom were shopping as well, and it reminded me of the night markets in Taiwan, which many locals also like to frequent.
On my last day Saturday, I went out for the day, then came back to my hotel at 5 and checked out. As my train was leaving at 11 that night, I had a few hours to while away so naturally, I went back to Hoan Kiem and to the night market, which runs on Fridays, Saturdays, and maybe Sundays. The market seemed busier than the previous night, with more people and stalls. At Dong Xuan, there was a stage set up at one end with people gathered around, but there was no performance yet. I walked back down the street along the market and returned about half an hour to the stage. I was able to catch a concert, featuring solo performances by a middle-aged lady and a younger lady, an attractive female trio, and three guys dressed up as women, though singing in male voices. It was all in Vietnamese but it was a nice performance, using Vietnamese instruments and with the performers dressed in what seemed like rural or tribal garb.
In short, the Old Quarter is a great place to walk around, sightsee, eat, buy things, and take pictures. You should dedicate at least an hour during the day or evening, and be sure not to miss the weekend night market.
Pretty female singer at the night market concert (she also performed in the trio in the top photo). Notice the instrument players behind her and their Vietnamese instruments; I don’t know what they are but it was all very nice.
So many people, many of whom are locals. It reminded me of Taiwan’s night markets though it’s more spacious and seems to have more families and 20-something people, as opposed to mostly teens.
This busy roundabout features restaurants, cafes, a KFC, and a fountain. It’s on the northwestern edge of the lake, and the entrance to the street market is on the right (below the blue Tiger and HAFASCO signs).