Welcome to the vibrant and historic Hanoi Old Quarter, also known as the “36 Streets.” With a captivating history spanning over 2,000 years, this iconic area has been the residential, manufacturing, and commercial center of Hanoi. Its origins can be traced back to the 11th century when King Ly Thai To built his palace in the area. Over time, the small workshop villages around the palace walls evolved into craft cooperatives, creating a unique cooperative system for trade. Today, the Old Quarter stands as a testament to Hanoi’s rich cultural heritage and is a must-visit destination for anyone exploring the city.
Where is Hanoi Old Quarter? How to get there?
The Old Quarter is located in Hoan Kiem district right in the center of Hanoi, nestled between the scenic Hoan Kiem Lake and the bustling commercial area. The small winding streets here are not accessible by car, making the Old Quarter a walker’s paradise. Map of Hanoi Old Quarter:
The area can be easily reached by taxi or local bus from Noi Bai International Airport, which is 45km away. You can also take the metro or a local bus if you are coming from other districts in Hanoi.
Once in the Old Quarter, the best way to explore is on foot or by bicycle. Be sure to bring a map to navigate the myriad of streets spreading out from the heart of the district.
History of Hanoi Old Quarter
The Old Quarter’s roots can be traced back to the 11th century under the reign of King Ly Thai To. He chose this area to build his palace, which attracted skilled craftsmen from surrounding villages to settle nearby. The small workshop villages eventually formed craft cooperatives or guilds, which became the backbone of the Quarter’s economic structure.
The Homogeneous Look of the Streets
One fascinating aspect of the Old Quarter is the unique and homogeneous look of its streets. Each street in the Quarter was inhabited by people from the same village, creating a sense of close-knit communities within the larger city. As a result, the houses and buildings in each street developed a similar architectural style.
The buildings, commonly called “tube houses,” earned their nickname due to their long and narrow structure. These buildings were typically three meters wide but stretched up to 60 meters in length. The narrowness of the houses was partly influenced by a tax system based on the width of the storefront. Consequently, the houses became elongated to minimize the tax burden on the residents.
Religious Heritage in the Old Quarter
Apart from its economic significance, the Old Quarter also holds a rich religious heritage. When craftsmen and traders migrated to the area, they brought with them their temples, pagodas, and communal houses. Each guild had its own religious structures, dedicated to honoring its patron saint or founder.
While many of the old temples have been transformed into shops and living quarters, they still retain the architectural features that showcase their religious roots. The traditional roofs, intricate carvings, and ornate decorations on these structures serve as a reminder of the vibrant cultural and religious history of the Old Quarter.
The Official Recognition of the Old Quarter
In 1995, the Vietnamese Ministry of Construction officially recognized the extent of the Hanoi Old Quarter. This recognition solidified the Quarter’s status as a historical and cultural gem within the city. The area is distinguished by its distinct architecture, narrow streets, and bustling markets, making it a vibrant and lively part of Hanoi.
Things to do in Hanoi Old Quarter
The heart of Hanoi, Vietnam lies within its charming Old Quarter – a historic district bustling with culture, cuisine and sights. This guide will highlight the top attractions in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and provide tips to help you make the most of your visit to this enchanting part of Vietnam’s capital.
1. Walk around Hoan Kiem Lake
No visit to Hanoi is complete without a stroll around scenic Hoan Kiem Lake. Walk along the shores, crossing the iconic Huc Bridge and admire views of Ngoc Son Temple on Jade Islet. Early risers can join locals doing tai chi and aerobics on the shore. At night, the lights from the temple reflect mystically on the water.
- Taking Instagram shots along the lake shore
- People watching locals go about their morning fitness routines
- Finding small cafes and street food stalls around the lake perimeter
- Go early morning or late afternoon to avoid the heat
- Temple opens at 07:00 and closes at 17:00
- There are often cultural performances at weekends
2. Unique Hang Ma Street
Dedicated wholly to printing and paper products, Hang Ma street is overflowing with paper crafted into every form imaginable – from colorful fans and lanterns to intricate paper flowers. Pop into the small craft stores and workshops producing reams of traditional Vietnamese dó paper and inspired works of art.
- Brightly colored paper fans in all sizes make affordable souvenirs
- Intricate and creative paper votive sculptures demonstrate high craftsmanship
- Giant paper mache animals like elephants, horses and buffaloes decorate store fronts
- The street becomes even more vibrant during festivals like Tet and Mid-Autumn
- Shops typically open from 08:00-18:00
- Remember to bargain – opening prices tend to be inflated for tourists
3. Silk Street in Hang Gai
Lose yourself in the finer textiles along Hang Gai street, commonly known as Silk Street. Peruse through mounds of silk in vibrant colors and intricate designs. Have tailored ao dai, Vietnam’s elegant national dress, made within 24 hours in your choice of style and color.
- Racks and racks of silk sold by the meter
- Tailors occupying almost every shop front for custom made clothing
- Intricately embroidered tapestries depicting Vietnamese scenery
- Go early in the morning for the best selections
- Bargain to get fair prices – prices tend to be higher for tourists
- Shops typically open 08:00-21:00
4. Visit Hoa Lo Prison
Once a detention center housing Vietnamese revolutionaries during French colonial rule, Hoa Lo Prison now serves as a museum providing context into Vietnam’s struggle for independence. Most of the complex has been demolished, but remnants of the thought-provoking site remain.
- Prison cells preserved to demonstrate living conditions
- Exhibition halls with historical photos andartifacts
- Stories of resilience and sacrifice from notable prisoners
- Combine a visit with nearby Hanoi People’s Court and Museum of Vietnamese Women
- Open daily from 08:00-17:00
- Ticket cost: 30,000 VND per person
5. St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi
With towering spires visible from afar, the Gothic-style St. Joseph’s Cathedral stands in stunning contrast to traditional Vietnamese architecture. The Roman Catholic church was built in 1886 with materials imported from France, featuring intricate interior details and stained glass not commonly found elsewhere in Hanoi.
- Intricate sculptures and stunning stain glass
- Prayer services provide insight into Catholicism in Vietnam
- Historical architecture from the French colonial period
- Schedule visits outside mass times from 05:00-18:30 to avoid crowds
- Dress respectfully – knees and shoulders should be covered
- Photography generally allowed, except during prayers
6. Explore Ngoc Son Temple
Escape the bustling Old Quarter streets with a visit to sacred Ngoc Son Temple, located on a little island in scenic Hoan Kiem Lake. The Buddhist temple boasts lovely views of the Jade Isle as well as numerous religious relics, artwork and architecture to admire.
- Photo ops galore with the iconic Huc Bridge and temple vistas
- Intricately carved artwork, sculptures and lacquered pillars
- Small altars dedicated to Vietnamese heroes like La To and and the Trần Hưng Đạo
- Temple opens 07:00-17:00
- There is an entrance fee of 30,000 VND per person
- Dress appropriately – cover bare shoulders and knees
7. Hanoi Old Quarter Night Market
When the sun goes down, the Old Quarter transforms into a lively street bazaar centered around Hang Dao, Dong Xuan and Hang Ngang streets. Vendors hawk everything from souvenirs to snacks to clothing. Test your bargaining skills while taking in the electric atmosphere.
- Bustling crowd and vibrant energy
- Inexpensive Vietnamese handicrafts and keepsakes
- Street eats galore – try local delicacies for just a few thousand VND
- Peak hours are 18:00-22:00
- Watch your personal belongings in the crowds
- Check food stalls for proper hygiene
8. Shopping at Dong Xuan Market
The massive Dong Xuan Market has been a trading hub for centuries, now housing mainly wholesalers on the upper floors and retailers on the lower floors. It’s the perfect place to source Vietnamese handicrafts, textiles, homewares and souvenirs at local prices.
- Three expansive floors carrying an extensive array of goods
- Floor one has mainly clothes and souvenirs at decent prices
- Floor two sells knock-off apparel and accessories
- Ask for local prices by saying “gia bao nhieu”
- Weekday mornings are the least crowded
- Keep close watch over belongings due to pickpockets
9. Drink Bia Hoi on Ta Hien Street
When night falls, Ta Hien comes alive as the place to see and be seen while sipping on bia hoi (fresh beer) that’s cheaper than water. Grab a stool at one of the low plastic tables spilling out from the countless bars and make new friends while taking in the boisterous atmosphere.
- Liveliness and laughter overflow in Hanoi’s unofficial nightlife quarter
- Bia hoi for only VND10,000 to 15,000 per glass
- Makeshift BBQ grills cook up snacks to accompany your beer
- Go after 17:00 when businesses really liven up
- Food quality can be questionable – check for proper hygiene
- Pace alcohol intake until you gauge tolerance
10. Enjoy street food
Ask any local for recommendations on the tastiest street food in Hanoi Old Quarter and your mouth will certainly be filled with delicious options. From aromatic pho noodle soup to Vietnamese style baguette sandwiches called banh mi, the streets here are crammed with stalls and stores selling fast bites.
- Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su – tiny joint serving rich bone broth noodles for 60+ years
- Banh Mi 25 Hang Ca – crispy baguettes with meat, veggies & sauces
- Egg coffee at Cafe Giang – sweet, creamy caffeinated drink
- Peak eating time is 11:00-13:30 – arrive early to beat crowds
- Check food for freshness and proper handling
- Have small bills for payment – vendors rarely can break big notes
11. Drink coffee and see Hanoi’s old town
See a more tranquil side of the Old Quarter with a visit to Nguyen Huu Huan street, lined with charming Vietnamese shophouses now occupied by hip cafes, tea shops and art spaces. Pop into a cafe balcony for views overlooking the street below while sipping ca phe trung (egg coffee) or Vietnamese iced tea.
- Characteristic old town architecture along Nguyen Huu Huan
- Lofty cafes perfect for people watching
- Cultural performances at Nha San Collective courtyard on weekends
- Visit in morning or late afternoon to avoid midday heat
- Cafes open daily 7am-10pm
- Lots of photo ops thanks to old-world charm
12. Eat Trang Tien ice cream
No foodie tour of Hanoi is complete without tasting iconic Trang Tien ice cream, sold from a tiny storefront along Trang Tien street. With specialties like coconut and durian ice cream, as well as unique options like tomato and chocolate chili, one serving is never enough!
- Ultra creamy soft serve texture
- Intense and natural flavors
- Historic shop selling ice cream for over 60 years
- Go mid-afternoon when shop is less crowded
- Cash only payments – prepare small bills
- Sizes range 12,000 VND – 70,000 VND
13. Watch puppet shows at Thang Long theater
For a taste of traditional Vietnamese entertainment, catch a contemporary or traditional water puppet show at acclaimed Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. Marvel at the skillful puppeteers manipulating intricate wooden puppets in a waist-deep pool to bring Vietnamese folk stories and legends to life.
- Talented puppeteers manipulating intricate puppets
- Live Vietnamese traditional musical accompaniment
- Vibrant legends and stories from Vietnam’s history
- Shows daily at 15:30, 17:00 and 20:00
- Ticket prices from 100,000 to 200,000 VND
- Arrive 30 minutes early for best seats
Where to eat: Best restaurants in Hanoi Old Quarter
Here are the Top Hanoi restaurants, spots for delicious and authentic Vietnamese cuisine in Hanoi’s Old Quarter:
High end picks
- Ly Club – Trendy restaurant fusing traditional and modern dishes
- Duong’s Restaurant – Operated by Topchef Vietnam – Chef Hoang Duong
- The Gourmet Corner – Fine French-Vietnamese fusion fare
- Bun Cha Huong Lien – Where former President Obama tried iconic grilled pork noodles
- Highway 4 – Celebrity decorated eatery serving Vietnamese comfort fare
- New Day Restaurant – Homestyle Vietnamese menu with cooking classes
- Cafe Pho Co – Rooftop cafe with panoramas over Hoan Kiem Lake
- Cafe Dinh – Cozy multi-level cafe focused on coffee, pastries and views
- Cong Ca Phe – Quirky communist themed chain serving good coffee & snacks
Where to stay in Hanoi Old Quarter
Hanoi Old Quarter has accommodation options aplenty. Stay right in the thick of things or just on the fringe for easier access to attractions.
- Friendly Jade Backpackers Hostel – Social atmosphere popular with young travelers
- Hanoi Golden Art Hotel 2 – Neat, compact rooms in the heart of the Old Quarter
- Hanoi Old Quarter Hostel – Party vibe with nightly activities and fun commune area
- Authentic Hanoi Boutique Hotel – Chic rooms blending modern and colonial styles
- Imperial Hotel Hanoi – Smart contemporary rooms and good dining options
- Owls Toulouse Homestay – French inspired property with Insta-worthy decor
- Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi – Iconic colonial luxury with gourmet dining and a storied history
- Apricot Hotel – Sleek styling, spa services and perfect Old Quarter location
- Hotel de l’Opera Hanoi – MGallery – Plush suites overlooking the historic opera house
The history of Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a captivating tale that takes us back over 1,000 years. From its humble origins as small workshop villages surrounding the palace walls, it has evolved into a vibrant and bustling center of culture, commerce, and craftsmanship. With its unique architecture, narrow streets, and bustling markets, the Old Quarter offers a glimpse into Hanoi’s rich cultural heritage.
Boasting historical landmarks, vibrant commerce, mouthwatering food and enchanting sights, Hanoi’s atmospheric Old Quarter charms visitors with its heady mix of past and present. Follow this guide to uncover the best attractions in this historic heart of Vietnam’s capital. With endless highlights housed in the winding 36 ancient streets, prepare to lose yourself to the magic of the Old Quarter.