Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, is a rapidly modernising and bustling city. In amongst all this change is one constant – the Old Quarter, or Old Town, the historic heart and soul of Hanoi. With a history dating back 1000 years, the Old Quarter is the meeting point of past, present and future.
Packed with charming, French colonial architecture and bustling streets, it is simply unmissable.
History Of The Old Quarter, Hanoi
The Old Quarter is a reflection of Vietnam’s storied past. Its history dates back to the 11th-century when, after independence from China, Emperor Ly Thai To decided to move the capital from Hoa Lu, Ninh Binh to Hanoi. Today, the imperial citadel of Thang Long and the O Quan Chuong gate, which are located nearby the Old Quarter, stand as remnants of this storied past.
Hanoi Old Quarter soon established itself as a centre of arts and crafts, and this attracted skilled craftspeople to live and work in the area. Migrants often came from the same village and operated in guilds, often settling in one street and specialising in one particular good or service. They also brought their religious beliefs with them, building temples and pagodas wherever they settled.
The Nguyen dynasty tax on the street frontage, which is maintained today, led people to build ‘tube houses’ – a narrow architectural style common across the Old Quarter and Vietnam. These traditional streets garnered the Old Quarter the nickname ‘36 Old Streets’, and many are still named after the product they specialised in, reflecting the craft traditions and history of the area.
Nowadays, you’ll also notice the 19th and 20th-century French influence, particularly in the yellow coloured exteriors of the old villas, houses, and buildings, as well as the wide tree-lined boulevards heading into the Old Quarter. All this history sits in and around the modern high-rises and buildings of a rapidly growing Hanoi, making the Old Quarter a fascinating travel destination.
Where Is The Old Quarter, Hanoi Located?
The Old Quarter is part of Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem district, which is situated west of the red river and Long Bien bridge and east of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Although the government has delineated the Old Quarter’s limits by the most historical parts, if you stray outside of the area, you’ll still find many streets worth visiting which were part of Hanoi’s historical urban centre.
If you are visiting Hanoi, the chances are you’ll be staying in one of the Old Quarter’s many hotels. If not, no worries! The best way to get there is using one of the local taxi apps – we recommend Grab or Gojek – where you can put in your exact address before travelling and have a fixed price.
- Recommended: Where to stay in Hanoi: Best areas and top hotels
Top Old Quarter Attractions And Best Things To Do
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is an absolute must-visit for any traveler in Vietnam. Its charming streets are bursting with attractions and activities, promising a fully immersive cultural experience for all visitors. There’s still something special that awaits you at every corner of this nostalgic area. To help make your trip even more unforgettable, here are some of top things you should never miss!
Discover Ancient Streets
With its endless stream of motorbikes and hole-in-the-wall market stalls and restaurants, the Old Quarter can be overwhelming for first-time visitors. Set off on a cyclo, once a popular form of transport for Hanoian elites, and you can sit back and let your driver navigate all the hustle and bustle at a comfortable pace. You’ll also have the perfect vantage point to explore and capture the chaotic streets, so have your camera ready!
If you want to explore by yourself, getting lost in the Old Quarter can be a real pleasure. You’ll find yourself discovering quaint alleys, houses, and restaurants, and the only thing stopping you will be the tantalising smell of Vietnamese coffee – or the sizzling sun.
Visit Hoan Kiem Lake
Located right in the centre of the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem is one of Vietnam’s most iconic lakes. Its calming waters and natural beauty surround Turtle Tower, which sits elegantly in the middle of the lake. Towards the side is Ngoc Son Temple, an 18th-century pagoda accessible by Huc bridge, a beautiful red and wooden footbridge. The temple is dedicated to military leader Tran Hung Dao, who fought off the mighty Mongol invaders in the 13th century.
Take a stroll around the lake and find yourself a cafe where you can sit and watch the lake’s beautiful colours and the street performances. This is best enjoyed on weekends from 7 pm Friday to 12 pm Sunday when vehicles are banned, leaving pedestrians with the rare opportunity to rule the streets.
Hoan Kiem lake, also known as ‘restored sword’ lake, is famed amongst Vietnamese people. Legend has it that a turtle gave Le Loi, an ancient warlord, a magical sword which he used to defeat the invading Chinese Ming dynasty, before returning it to its rightful owner, the dragon king.
- Being excited and curious about fanciful myths? Learn more about Vietnamese legends, mythology and folktales here!
Shopping is an absolute must when in the Hanoi Old Quarter.
Here is a mini-guide on which markets and streets specialise in what:
- Hang Bac street: here you’ll find all the precious stones, jewelry and jade you could wish for.
- Hang Gai (silk) street: from scarves to suits, this is the best place to find clothes and garments. The tailors here will have you measured up and suited and booted in 24 hours;
- Luong Van Can street: offers colourful souvenirs and toys for children;
- Hang Ma street: packed with toys, decorations and paper lanterns, this colourful street comes into its own during festivals like Tet and Christmas;
- Lan Ong: named after a famous Vietnamese doctor, this is the spot for all your traditional medicine needs;
If you’re looking for a market, look no further than Dong Xuan Market. This is Hanoi’s answer to the Ben Thanh market in Saigon, and it is the oldest traditional market in the capital.
Like most markets in Southeast Asia, the ground floor hosts a wet market selling mostly meat, fish and flowers. Upstairs is where you’ll find any number of products – from t-shirts and handbags to electronic goods and handicrafts – and you can get great value wholesale prices.
- Opening Hours: Daily 6 am – 7 pm
- Address: Dong Xuan Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
Visit The Weekend Night Market Hanoi
Every weekend the Old Quarter plays host to a night market, one of the busiest in the capital. Fortunately, motorbikes are also banned, so you can walk freely without fear of being mowed down.
Starting at Hang Dao street to the edge of Dong Xuan market, you’ll find yourself immersed in an electric atmosphere full of colourful lights and stalls, which sell everything from t-shirts and souvenirs to local street food and snacks. Remember to put your bargaining skills to the test!
This is also a great spot to check out the local street artists and singers, whose performances attract flocks of viewers. As you walk, you’ll likely see cultural shows featuring traditional performances, which will give you great insight into traditional Vietnamese culture.
After a stroll through the night market, you may feel charged up and ready for a beer! For the freshest and one of the most affordable prices on earth let alone the Old Quarter, get down to the Bia Hoi near Ta Hien street, where a glass costs only 5-6,000 VND. To learn more about Vietnam’s Bia Hoi drinking culture – and how it’s so cheap – check out our guide here.
- Opening hours: 7 pm – 11 pm Friday, Saturday & Sunday in the old town
Taste The Local Street Food
The Old Quarter is home to some of the best food in Vietnam. And whilst foreign tourists usually know Vietnamese food such as banh mi and pho – amazing dishes in their own right – there are a whole load more foods waiting for you to discover!
Here are 3 classic Hanoian dishes and 1 unique style of coffee worth trying:
- Bun Cha: Originating in Hanoi, this vermicelli noodle dish is topped with BBQ pork belly slices and meatballs in a delicious broth, served with fresh herbs.
- Bun Thang: Thin strips of chicken and pork accompany eggs, mushrooms, green onions, fried shallots, chilli, and coriander that sit on top of the delicious broth and noodles.
- Cha Ca La Vong: Grilled turmeric fish mixed with dill and scallions, roasted peanuts, dipping sauce and a side of noodles.
- Egg coffee (cà phê trứng): A meringue-like mixture, which is made from beaten egg yolk and condensed milk, mixed with a rich robusta coffee. It’s more similar to a dessert than a coffee. Not one to be missed!
- Recommended: The Best Local Food in Hanoi: 19 Must-Try Dishes in Vietnam’s Foodie Paradise
Visit Bach Ma Temple
Bach Ma temple, the oldest temple in Hanoi, is a Buddhist temple that dates back to the 9th century. It was built to honour Bach Ma, or white horse, which supposedly helped Emperor Ly Thai To – whose attempts to construct a new citadel had been failing – to trace the best area to build using his hooves.
As you enter, the charming and ancient wooden doors invite you into a red and gold decorated interior, filled with ancient Vietnamese characters and beautiful carvings and artwork. There are shrines to the white horse, Confucius, as well as an altar dedicated to the phoenix – one of the four holiest animals in Vietnamese culture.
Typically, worshippers burn incense and pray here quietly, giving it a solemn atmosphere. But if you come here during any big festival you’re likely to see a range of cultural celebrations and festivities, folk games, human chess and song competitions.
- Address: 76 Hang Buom, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội
- Opening hours: 9 am to 5:30 pm
Why Do Old Quarter Be Loved By Our Foreigner Friends?
Wherever you go in the Old Quarter, its charming but chaotic streets are sure to memorise you. Blessed with a unique blend of historical sites and architecture, shops, cafes, and food, it is unsurprisingly one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist destinations. And whether it’s your first trip or your 10th, the Old Quarter will always surprise you with something new.