Hanoi Vietnam: Visiting the Old Quarter, Dining with Locals
By Kathleen Broadhurst
Hanoi, the thousand-year-old heart of North Vietnam and the modern capital of the resurgent communist government.
Bustling with activity and crammed with motorbikes, the Old Quarter is the center of the action. With history around every turn, temples hidden in alleys and hip bars rocking into the early hours you won’t find yourself bored for a minute.
For history lovers, whether ancient or modern this is a city to be seen. With its traditional architecture intact Hanoi is unlike many other Asian capitals, laying low in the Red River Valley it has preserved its past instead of throwing it away. For visitors, Hanoi is a unique treat with treasures hidden in plain sight.
Rebirth of the Nation
Americans who once came in camo, now are returning in backpacks, and a whole new generation of Vietnamese are opening their doors, if not yet their hearts, to those who once came as invaders.
“I wasn’t born during the wartime,” Ms. Hang, a staff member at the Hanoi Guesthouse, tells me, “Most young people like me don’t have any hate or negative emotion towards Americans. We hope in the future we can have better cooperation and economic exchange between our two people.”
There are still some memories that are hard to forget, “My father and uncles were in the war. At the moment on the TV and radio every day we hear about the effects of Agent Orange. Whole families are affected by this chemical. We ask that the American Government give money to the victims and their families.”
For the most part, people in Hanoi seem happy to be on the tourist map and are glad for the visitors. Teeming with life and buzzing with motorbikes, crossing the streets of Hanoi can at times seem like a battle.
Sensory overload may accompany any venture out of the hotel but the experience of Hanoi during the day is nothing compared to the night when young Hanoians come out in droves to party like its not 1973.
The Old Quarter
The Old Quarter is a labyrinth of streets millennia old. Once each street plied a different trade and was reserved for the artisans and merchants of particular goods. Hence one street would sell silk, another herbal medicine, others gold statues.
The wares may have changed but the principle is the same, now key-makers and plastic Buddha’s, toy sellers and underwear vendors cram in beside antique instruments and fashionable silk designers.
Women with poles and baskets selling fruit vie for space alongside Apple products and street side noodle shops are filled with moped riding customers.
Hoan Kiem Lake is the center of Hanoi and the Old Quarter is built up around it. With its strangely green waters, it makes for a nice break for locals who enjoy the park around its banks. For this reason, the Ngoc SonTemple at Hoan Kiem Lake is a good place to start.
Legend has it that the hero Le Loi came here after defeating the Chinese with a magical sword. When he arrived at the lake a giant tortoise appeared and took the sword back to the enchanted realms for Le Loi. It is said that the tortoise’s descendants still inhabit the lake and there are sightings from time to time.
You can visit the temple, on a small island, and see a model ‘lake tortoise’ and decide for yourself if the rumor is true.
Spending time pursuing oddities in the Old Quarter is an activity in its own right but its fun to go from lane to lane searching for the five Heritage Houses. These antique buildings are beautifully preserved and give a glimpse of how Hanoi may have looked centuries ago.
At the Dinh Kim Ngan Jewelry Communal House, you can hear tradition Ca Tru music performed every Sunday from 8-9pm. The staff is very eager to share their traditions with visitors, “I love my country’s traditional culture” Thuy Nguyen a museum guide says, “I want people to come and see the beauty that is Vietnamese history.”
Wandering the streets of the Old Quarter scents fill the air, intoxicating incense, fresh fruit, and frying oil. If all of the walking has made you hungry there are many delicious options to keep even picky eaters satisfied.
Bringing together French and Vietnamese culinary traditions baguettes, Pho soup, and fruit shakes dominate the menus. Grab a quick bite on the run or wind down with a three-course gourmet dinner.
Hang Be, Bat Su and Hang Buom streets all have good eating options, the street food is reliably mediocre in the backpacking ghetto but Vietnamese sandwiches make great on the go lunches.
Highway 4 is famous for a reason, with delectable dishes ranging from spicy buffalo satay to roasted duck and water-cress spring rolls this is one not to be missed. With several locations in Hanoi, it’s easy to find one.
Let your taste buds step back into Hanoi’s colonial past in the French bakery Bahn Ngot on Hang Bo street. With its combination of classic French offerings, croissants, and pain au chocolat, and Vietnamese pastries, moon cakes so intricately molded you’ll hate to take a bite, Bahn Ngot is better than the “breakfast” you’ll find at most hotels and restaurants, for a third of the price.
Dessert in most of the city consists of fresh fruit(which is delicious), but if you are craving something cold, head to Fanny’s. This cute little ice-cream parlor serves up delicious gelato, sorbet and ice cream in fanciful arrangements, like ice- cream sushi.
The pink lights and J-pop will make you feel like you’ve stepped into an alternate reality.
Bite the city with a Local on your side!
One way to really get to know Hanoi is taking an inexpensive local street food tour, to get all of this explained a little more clearly by someone that actually knows about the local food culture and venues.
Withlocals has a Hanoi street food tasting tour that really satisfies all the conditions: it is private so that you can have that intimate atmosphere that will allow you to connect both with the local guiding you, and with the place; it provides ten different delicious things to taste/drink and it is carried out by local foodies.
You can even personalize the tour to eat just what you like and/or exploring a specific area. Highly recommended, it costs 19.50 euros per person.
As captivating as the Old Quarter is, it’s worth the money to grab a cab out to visit the Museum of Ethnography. There you can spend a few hours keeping cool as you wander through the fascinating exhibits of minority and ethnic culture. From the H’mong to the Viet the museum portrays fascinating glimpses of traditional life.
Make sure you head out back where you can walk through replicas of ethnic homes from a variety of tribes. This is a great place to orient yourself to the diverse cultures in Vietnam whether or not you plan on heading to Sapa to do some trekking.
For those interested in history the Temple of Literature is a beautiful and peaceful spot with which to connect to Vietnam’s roots. The temple is clearly influenced by Chinese architectural style and is dedicated to Confucius.
Near the Temple of Literature is the One Pillar Pagoda, the iconic temple of Hanoi. Surprisingly small the pagoda is a modern replica of one build by Le Loi in the 11th century in thanks for the birth of his first son. It sits over a small pond near the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Min. If you plan on visiting the rather grim Mausoleum make sure to dress the part, no tank tops or shorts are allowed inside.
If there is any must-do for tourists it is hands down the water puppet show. An ancient fold tradition water puppet plays were once (and sometimes still are) performed in flooded rice paddies.
The puppets are carved from water-resistant wood, like fig, and painted in colorful lacquer. They are then secured onto floating bases and manipulated with long sticks below the water. The tradition was once a deeply held secret passed on between fathers and sons.
Today you can buy a ticket for the show the day of or the day before at the Water Puppet Theater located almost directly across from the Ngoc Son Temple at Hoan Kiem Lake.
The show is fascinating and beautiful and a good chance to hear some traditional Vietnamese music, as the puppet’s performance is accompanied by both instruments and traditional song.
Relaxation and Nightlife in Old Hanoi
Walking around all day is hard work. Whether you are looking to have your shoulders rubbed, to sip down a drink with friends or to enjoy languishing with a hookah the Old Quarter has something for everyone.
If you’re feeling the effects of the heat consider stopping for a massage. Ask your hotel to recommend one as they can sometimes be a little less than respectable. SF Spa is serene and proper. Their Aromatherapy massage will bring you back to life.
At night The Old Quarter gets filled to the brim with Hanoians out to party. If you happen to be here on a weekend watch out the scooters are not pedestrian friendly and they take up every spare inch of sidewalk.
There are many places to get drinks in the Old Quarter, but Ma May Street and Hang Buom have the most variety. Hanoians seem to associate loud music with a good time so don’t expect to have a good conversation anywhere after 9 pm.
Highway 4, also a great restaurant, is in the micro-rice wine brewing business. They have given a shot in the arm to the dying art of small batch rice wine production and have several vintages to try. Couple them with tropical fruit cordials for an unforgettable drinking experience.
Hanoi Backpackers Hostel offers DJ beats but its mostly standing room only, though they have a very reasonable happy hour. It’s a great place to meet other backpackers, but if you are looking for sophistication or local culture look elsewhere.
For a sure bet head to Dragonfly on Hang Buom, frequented by locals as much as, or more than, by tourists, the downstairs is part bar part disco and upstairs is a hookah lounge. The shisha flavors are limited but the atmosphere is great, this is where it’s happening. Get there early though because by 9:30 you won’t be able to find a table.
Where to Stay in the Old Quarter
The Old Quarter is crammed with places to stay, from budget dorms to spanking new boutique hotels, any budget can be accommodated.
Hanoi Backpackers Hostel is a bit of an institution. It offers dorm rooms as well as few privates for cheap and is a great place to meet other backpackers. They have a bar downstairs and can arrange just about any tour service for you. You may end up wanting for a little more cultural interaction, as it’s easy to stay in the backpacker bubble here.
For those looking for a little more privacy but still are on a budget, the Hanoi Guesthouse is an oasis of quiet in the middle of the Old Quarter.
The rooms won’t win any awards for decor but what they lack the staff makes up for with their helpfulness and smiles. Ms. Hang and Dragon are especially good company. Hanoi Guesthouse can also arrange tours to Ha Long Bay and Sapa as well as getting bus and train tickets.
The beautiful Calypso Hotel is charming and suave. It’s sparklingly clean and the staff is full of energy. The views are better than almost any other place as the building is several stories higher than most of the Old Quarter bathrooms are fantastic and every room has its own computer.
If You Go:
Hanoi is often the first or last stop for travelers doing the North-South or South-North circuit. The capital also works as a springboard to Sapa and the less traveled highlands.
To really see the city you’ll need three days though most of the sights are concentrated in and around the Old Quarter the heat and traffic makes getting to all of them in a short time unreasonable. This is the type of city you want to take slow.
Where to Eat:
25 Bat Su, Hoan Kiem Hanoi
Fanny 48 Le Thai To, Hoan Kiem Hanoi
Dragonfly 15 Hang Buom, Hoan Kiem Hanoi
Bhan Ngot French Bakery
20 Hang Bo, Hoan Hiem Hanoi
Where to Sleep:
Do be aware that upon arriving in Hanoi it is wise to have a taxi arranged by your accommodations as unmetered and illegal taxis often hassle tourists into staying at accommodations that are not the ones they had reserved. The police are aware of this problem but it’s still pretty common.
Hanoi Guesthouse 14 Bat Su, Hoan Kiem +84.4.3824.5732
27A Cua Dong Str., Hoan Kiem +84.4.3923.4073
Hanoi Backpackers Hostel
Ma May, Hoan Kiem
Kathleen is a writer and photographer based in Boston. She focuses her lens around the globe on issues of sustainability, tourism, and the environment. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @kat_abroad