With a history spanning over 2,000 years, Hanoi’s Old Quarter is an area that is as precious to locals as it is intriguing to visitors. Many businesses on these streets have been around for centuries and still thrive today as some of this capital’s main hubs for shopping, eating, and cultural traditions.
Since the Old Quarter is one of Hanoi’s oldest and most ever-changing sections of town, make sure to plan a trip to the area every time you visit the capital city.
Located in the heart of the “City of Lakes,” Hanoi’s Old Quarter attracts tourists to its bustling streets for a historic and unique shopping experience. Despite many newer buildings on its roads, the Old Quarter was formed around the year 1010 and continues to practice many of the traditional activities initiated centuries ago.
During the start of the Ly Dynasty, Emperor Ly Thai moved to Hanoi and was followed by a population of people who mastered various crafts. Over time, groups of craftsmen formed little guilds relevant to the items and services they provided, creating areas that specialized in one trade or another near the ruler’s citadel.
Going into the 13th century, streets began to form, creating a maze of winding craft shops by service. Ultimately, the type of street began to play a significant role in how it was identified, and even today, it’s not difficult to figure out what path offers what, as each road is named for its craft or service.
All street names begin with “Hang” in its name, which translates to “shop” in English, followed by what’s sold there. For example, “Hang Bac” means “Silver Shop” and is a popular place to purchase jewelry or silver goods. However, over time, some of these street names have changed as shops themes have evolved and certain items are no longer sold there.
Locals like to associate characteristics of the Old Quarter’s areas with the people who reside there. For example, ladies from Flower Street, Hang Dao, are stereotyped as beautiful, and people who live on Hang Bac, Silver Street, are thought of as wealthy and elegant.
The Old Quarter is often referred to as the “36 streets,” even though there are several more than 36 alleyways to shop and explore. It’s assumed that the area got its name because 36 is a multiple of 9 and the number 9 is often associated with abundance in Vietnamese culture.
While some roads have grown to be more modern, several have remained the same for decades and are favored by locals. Hanoian parents enjoy bringing their kids to shop for toys, and the older generation enjoys drinking tea or having a cigarette in the alleys. With such a rich heritage, it’s no wonder that the Old Quarter continues to attract visitors and cater to its loyal residents.
Activities & Attractions
There certainly isn’t a shortage of points of interest when it comes to things to do in the Old Quarter. There are several locations that are worth a stop, whether you’re into history or just along for the scenery. From landmarks and dining options to shopping and nightlife, there are plenty of activities to keep you busy throughout your trip.
Cyclo Trips Around Old Quarter
Tourists and locals alike will argue that there’s no better way to see and encounter the Old Quarter than by cyclo. Cyclos are low-speed, three-wheeled rickshaw-style vehicles that can truly make for a memorable and authentic experience of the area. This is a must-do activity for first-timers to Hanoi, and there are also routes along the Hoan Kiem Lake that are highly rated.
Hoan Kiem Lake & Ngoc Son Temple
A beautiful refuge from the busy city, Hoan Kiem Lake is a tranquil retreat that spreads over 30 acres within the Old Quarter. The stunning turquoise water is a rare find in Vietnam and is also home to many tortoises, which are considered to be sacred animals by locals. The lake area offers residents and visitors an ideal space for early morning walks, bike rides, and even yoga or qigong.
During mid-day, it’s not uncommon to see many tourists riding three-wheeled cyclos and taking photographs of the various landscapes and trees. In the evening, the lake is a popular spot to stroll and have a snack or dessert while taking in the peacefulness of the water and nighttime views.
Situated right within the lake on the little Jade Island is one of the city’s most frequented pagodas, Ngoc Son Temple, which was built in the 19th century. Accessed from land by a beautiful footbridge and open daily, tickets are required to enter the pagoda. It’s recommended that visitors spend 2-3 hours on Jade Island.
Bach Ma Temple
Thought to be the oldest temple in Hanoi, the Bach Ma Temple is suspected of being constructed sometime during the 9th century by Emperor Ly Thai To. The building was relocated to Hanoi’s Old Quarter sometime around the 18th century, where it still stands today.
There is no fee charged for entry, and once you get past the magnificent antiquated doors, you’ll find a red-lacquered palanquin and a statue of a white horse. The temple’s name “Bach Ma” literally translates to “white horse” in English. Legend has it that a white horse assisted in finding the perfect location for the temple to be built and helped with its construction.
Long Bien Bridge
Opened in 1903 after three years of development, the Long Bien Bridge is the oldest in Hanoi and attracts many tourists yearly for its historical significance and connection to French culture. The bridge’s designer is Gustave Eiffel, famous for his Eiffel Tower masterpiece in Paris.
Even though it suffered a lot of damage during wartime, it strongly resembles his style. Today it serves as a busy road and connector between Hanoi’s Long Bien and Hoan Kiem districts and is recommended by locals as an excellent spot for catching sunrise and sunset photographs.
87 Ma May Ancient House
87 Ma May Ancient House, also known as “Hanoi Ancient House,” is a preserved home from the 19th century that tourists can go inside to get a glimpse at local history and culture. The house is one of 14 traditional homes still in the Old Quarter and is set up to give visitors a chance to peek back in time as to what everyday life for a local looked like.
Unique architecture, decor, and elegant wood furniture are just a few of the highlights of this attraction. On weekends at 7 pm, musical shows and singing take place for those who are interested.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Located just 10 minutes away by foot from Hanoi’s Old Quarter is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the final resting place of the beloved former president Ho Chi Minh.
It’s open to the public and displays the embalmed body of the deceased leader, which honor guard soldiers protect. The outdoor areas around the mausoleum have over 200 varieties of plants and flowers for visitors to view and enjoy walking around, too.
Saint Joseph Cathedral
Visitors to Vietnam who have a thirst for unique and memorable architecture shouldn’t overlook the Saint Joseph Cathedral located right in the heart of the city by the old quarter. Built by the French in 1886, the cathedral is the oldest church in Hanoi and resembles the same Gothic style of the Paris Cathedral, even having similarities to the famous Notre Dame church.
This eye-catching building is in an area that attracts many; however, people are only allowed inside during ceremonial practices that revolve around the mass schedule.
Hoa Lo Prison
Initially used by the French colonists for political prisoners, Hoa Lo Prison holds a deep story that is certain to capture the attention of history buffs. Now a museum, visitors can tour the “Hanoi Hilton” grounds of what was also used during the Vietnam-American war to captivate US military POWs, including former Senator John McCain.
Since the building is within walking distance of the Old Quarter, it’s a trendy place for tourists to come and learn more about Vietnam’s war years.
Dining & Drinks
With numerous restaurants and street vendors, tasting all the flavors of Hanoi is a doable task. Some tourists claim that the city streets become more vibrant during the evening hours, but there are just as many eateries tucked into many alleyways that serve up some excellent snacks and meals.
Even though the type of food varies across the board, a lot of it is authentic cooking and comes at very affordable prices.
Sidewalk Cafes – Vietnam is famous for its coffee, and sipping a cup of java at one of the city’s sidewalk cafes is a great way to experience local culture. While these cafes don’t have all the bells and whistles, the beverages have amazing flavor and often offer a view of the lake. Hanoi, in particular, has a lot of these sidewalk cafes near water like the Hoan Kiem Lake.
Three of the best streets for sidewalk cafes are Trieu Viet Vuong street, Nha Tho street, and Nguyen Du street. These are compact roads with many cafes, but many have great views or shade from trees, making them especially appealing on warm days.
Egg Coffee at Giang Cafe – Egg coffee is a unique and delicious beverage in Vietnam, especially in the Hanoi area. During a milk shortage in the 1940s, people were looking for an alternative to dress up their coffee, and this is how “egg coffee” was born. Giang Cafe is famous for its egg coffee, and no trip to the country’s capital is complete without giving it a try.
If you’re envisioning an omelet aftertaste from your morning beverage, you couldn’t be further from reality, as it’s said to resemble more of a sweet vanilla flavor. However, the choices don’t stop there- there are so many variances of egg coffee at this cafe, with everything ranging from chocolate to cinnamon java drinks.
Beer on Ta Hien Street – Ta Hien Street is famous for its food, but it’s also a popular place to get a cold beer for very cheap, especially in the summer months. The street itself is only 200 m (660 ft) long but is consistently one of the most crowded areas in the Old Quarter, making it a beehive of activity that’s fun for locals and tourists to frequent.
Beer and snacks are served right on the street and enjoyed using small plastic stools as tables, making it a busy area with many opportunities to socialize.
Shopping in the Old Quarter is a fun way to see the area and experience local culture. Whether you’re a day or night shopper, there are options for everyone.
Dong Xuan Market – Located on the west end of the Old Quarter, Dong Xuan Market is an establishment that locals frequent. The 6,500 square meter property is home to everything that you can think of to buy, including food, clothing, home goods, and souvenirs.
Inside the market, there are three floors and over 2,100 vendors to peruse, along with places to grab a bite and socialize in. It’s located within walking distance of Hoan Kiem Lake and has a reputation for being non-touristy, so it’s a great option to experience authentic local shopping.
Hang Gai Street – Hang Gai Street, also known as “Silk Street,” is the place to go if you’re looking for a custom outfit in Hanoi. The lively street is known for its plethora of silk stores and tailors who would be happy to create a one-of-a-kind piece for your closet.
After choosing a material, most outfits or dresses are usually made with a 48-hour turnaround period. In addition to apparel, locally made bags and embroidered items are sold here too.
Hang Da Market – Once known as a “leather store” area, Hang Da Market is a fun area to look for gifts and other home goods. During the afternoon hours, fresh produce is still sold, however, this three-story building has a wide variety of other stalls too. Even though this marketplace is smaller than Dong Xuan, it’s still a great place to window shop and pick up a few souvenirs.
When the sun goes down, parts of Hanoi’s Old Quarter light up. Check out these venues for some twilight fun during your stay in the city. Bars are everywhere in the Old Quarter and offer a lot of alternatives for places to enjoy a happy hour. Since alcohol is relatively cheap in Vietnam, you won’t have to worry about breaking your bank during a couple of hours of pub hopping.
Hanoi Weekend Night Market – The Hanoi Weekend Night Market operates every Friday – Sunday from 7 pm until about 11 pm or midnight. Running through the Old Quarter district, it’s an attractive area for tourists, traveling photographers, and locals to come for shopping, dining, and evening entertainment.
The pedestrian streets are filled with decorative lights and vendors selling everything from t-shirts to handcrafts and shoes. Those looking for traditional Vietnamese food will find some authentic eateries selling popular items such as bun thang (vermicelli soup), banh mi (sandwiches), pho (noodle soup), and bun cha (rice noodles with meat).
Dong Xuan Night Market – During the weekend nights, Fridays through Sundays, the Dong Xuan market is open as a night market and is another option for some evening shopping. Items like clothing, shoes and inexpensive souvenirs are found here, similar to what you’d find at the other night markets.
Bia Hoi Junction – Bia Hoi Junction is another hotspot for visitors that love to stay out late, go to clubs, or just gather with friends for a few drinks. The area is famous for its inexpensive beer, crowds, and socializing and is recommended to see at least once if you fancy these types of activities.
While accommodations in the city vary in price and style, there are plenty of places to stay within the Old Quarter. Within Hanoi, you can choose from incredibly budget-friendly hotels, hostels, and homestays to top-rated accommodations and five-star hotels.
When you know that you’ll be in town for a more extended period of time, consider staying at a short-term rental property. Airbnb and VRBO are still gaining traction in Vietnam, but there are plenty of places that you can rent for multiple days at reasonable prices.
With each trip to Hanoi’s Old Quarter, you’re sure to discover something new. Whether it’s a new food vendor, sidewalk cafe, or historical treasure, there’s enough in this town to keep you busy on several trips to come.
Address: Hang Ngang, Hang Dao, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, VN