Travel Report: Hanoi Old Quarter, Vietnam.
Hanoi Old Quarter, Vietnam.
I remember feeling so chilled when I hopped off the airport bus and took in my first deep breath of Hanoi. Sometimes life can be so sweet. And in all honesty my adult life has rarely been sweeter than in the spring of 2018. I’d just finished a one year teaching contract in China. I had savings in the bank, an end of contract bonus in my wallet and a month’s vacation before settling down for another year at the same school.
I’d had my heart set on Vietnam from the very beginning. Indeed I’ve always been fascinated by Vietnam War history and the zillion blog posts I’d read over the years. Moreover, my travel accomplice Wonderboy had spent some time exploring the country and raved about the people and the landscapes.
Thus it was with great anticipation that I flew into Hanoi from the Chinese city of Guangzhou. Free from the bus, I proceeded to saunter through the city streets towards Camel City Hotel, my lodgings for the next five nights.
The hotel has a wonderful location, deep in The Old Quarter. The guys at reception proved both friendly and efficient and when I entered my room I was surprised to see they’d given me a twin, just for kicks. Interestingly, I see Camel City Hotel has undergone quite a facelift since my stay and definitely looks a lot fancier.
Hanoi Old Quarter.
As content as I was with my home from home, I certainly didn’t waste any time in the hotel. In fact, I barely even bothered to unpack. Rather, I headed straight out for a mid afternoon stroll.
Hanoi Old Quarter is the city’s most historic district, with an incredible history that spans two thousand years. At the height of its development, in the 16th and 17th centuries, locals called the area The 36 Streets. Each street had dozens of workshops specialising in a specific field of manufacturing and trade.
Today there are over 70 streets and for the most part they stand as one giant jumble of hotels, cafes, restaurants, bars, markets, massage parlours and independent stores. On my maiden Hanoi stroll I mapped out a route through a labyrinth of alleys towards Ta Hien Street.
Although only 200 metres in length, Ta Hien Street is one of Hanoi Old Quarter’s most popular spots. Dubbed Beer Street by many, tourists and locals alike flock here to eat and drink at one of the many establishments packed together like sardines.
At night the street was insane, with hundreds of people streaming through and not even a glimpse of a free table. Not my scene at all, hence I made sure to keep my wanderings to the daytime when things were more manageable.
Ta Hien Street.
In truth, Ta Hien Street isn’t the best area for food and drink. Dishes are mostly average and overpriced, while you also have to deal with pushy touts and vendors trying to sell you stuff while you’re eating.
However, it’s a wonderful spot for people watching and photography. Bored store owners lunch on noodles and play games on their phones. Every now and then a scooter whizzes by stacked with a beer delivery for one of the restaurants.
Every third building is home to an independent fruit and veg shop. Local families live right out of these storefronts. You can see grandmas hanging up laundry and teens watching TV in back rooms. In the afternoon, during the quiet period, these families clear some space and come together for lunch in full view of anyone who happens to be walking by.
One of my favourite spots was Cafe 39, a no-nonsense Vietnamese coffee joint. Despite channeling a loose backpacker theme, the place mainly drew in a steady crowd of trendy young Hanoians.
I sat here once for a Vietnamese coffee, which I desperately wanted to like. Unfortunately, I was appalled by the overwhelmingly bitter taste. For me it was like drinking a cup of mud, a sensation that no amount of sweetened condensed milk could fix. Nevertheless, I swung by many times to grab discreet shots of the locals hanging out looking cool.
Hanoi Old Quarter.
That first walk around Hanoi Old Quarter whetted my appetite for the city’s distinctive charms. In between my various expeditions, I’d come back just to walk aimlessly and see where my nose led me. Here and there, I took in the district’s gorgeous French colonial architecture.
I also passed under Hanoi’s only surviving city gate, Ô Quan Chưởng. There used to be 21 of these gates peppered around the city. It takes its name from an army chief who, along with thousands of Nguyen soldiers, died fighting against the French invasion of 1873. The whole thing remains impressively intact, including its handsome balconied watchtower.
Photo courtesy of Alexis Lê-Quôc.
On some nameless street scooters weaved perilously between the foot traffic. An old lady, oblivious to my existence, pulled up right in front of me to buy herbs at a market stall. Elsewhere, sizeable groups of chattering schoolchildren drifted by as a bread vendor across the road napped upright in her chair.
No matter where I went, there was usually a grizzled old man sittin’ doin’ nothin’. Sometimes in a chair, gazing out across the street, glassy-eyed. One time from the seat of a motorbike, a suspicious look on his face as he suddenly realised what I was up to. Oops.
When in Hanoi Old Quarter, all roads eventually lead to Dong Xuan Market. Built by the French in 1899, this is the city’s largest covered market with hundreds of stalls. It was one of the administration’s principal buildings of the time and has lived through some of Hanoi’s most turbulent periods.
Dong Xuan Market.
When the First Indochina War broke out, for example, the market area was the scene of aggressive fighting between the French and Viet Minh forces. In the 1990s the building underwent a huge renovation, resulting in the spruced up complex we see today.
I remember feeling surprised by how quiet the market was. And pleased by how laid back the stall owners were, with little of the aggression I’d experienced in the grand markets of Thailand and India. This was especially true in the seafood section, where I seemed to be the only visitor and the vendors looked bored out of their skulls.
With little interest in exploring all of Dong Xuan Market’s three levels, I headed straight for the first floor’s clothing section, set around a handsome stone fountain. There, I browsed the cheap and cheerful T-shirt stalls while a row of curious locals watched my every move with great interest.
Finally, I came away with half a dozen T-shirts, including a “Gooooooood mooooooorning Vietnaaaam” piece in honour of Robin Williams. The quality, as you can imagine, was not great. But the price was right ($4 a piece) and they served me well for the duration of my cross country adventures.
Outside the market I got my first taste of Banh Mi, Vietnam’s signature sandwich. Typically, you’re looking at a crusty bread roll covered in pate and mayonnaise with a variety of delicious fillings. Operating out of a rusty old cart, that first vendor sold the most basic kind of Banh Mi.
Hanoi Old Quarter.
It was mainly filled with pate, in addition to a thin layer of chopped onions, pickles, cucumber and cilantro leaves. She also offered me some hot chilli sauce, but I politely declined. According to my trusty notes, I paid 10.000 VND, which works out at around (£0.32/€0.36/$0.44).
The street cart Banh Mi was alright, but I was much more impressed by the sandwich I had at Don Bread, one of Hanoi’s most popular Banh Mi chain outlets.
This time I went for a roll bursting with grilled pork and lemongrass. It was fantastic, and not much more expensive than the street sandwich. Easily among my Top 10 Hanoi eats.
On my last day in the Vietnamese capital, I was soaking up The Old Quarter one last time when I came across a street barber working his magic on a German kid. The barber was a lovely local man, exceptionally friendly and clearly conscientious about his work.
He seemed super busy, with a short queue forming on the pavement. Still, I managed to get a word in his ear and schedule a cut early the next morning before check out. “I wish to see London one day” he grinned upon hearing where I was from. “But I think for me that is too many haircut”.
For more on Vietnam’s amazing capital, have a look at my other pieces from around Hanoi.
Like these? Then why not have a leaf through my articles from across Vietnam.
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I loved Old Hanoi and you’ve captured the atmosphere so well here! we didn’t have long enough in the city and it’s high on my ‘go back one day’ list 🙂
Thanks for reading Sarah. There’s something about Hanoi eh? Maybe it’s because it was my first point of call in Vietnam. Or maybe down to the charms of The Old Quarter itself, but I think I Hanoi has the edge over Ho Chi Minh. Just something about the overall atmosphere.
I certainly liked it much more than HCMC – it had more atmosphere to me and felt more walkable too 🙂 Maybe that’s because mad as the driving was (as everywhere in Vietnam!) I didn’t actually encounter motorbikes being ridden along the pavements 😆
I haven’t been to Hanoi but the content brought fascination towards exploring Vietnam.
Thank you Vansh for reading and for your positive feedback. This is the beginning of a new series from Hanoi, I hope there is plenty more to capture your attention over the coming weeks.
Ohh, WOW. While searching for a place I have seen Vietnam on the maps. I will be close to Vietnam than I was ever in the next month. Haha! All the best for the Vietnam series.
I would seriously love to visit Hanoi, especially the old Quarter it looks beautiful. Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about Banh Mi. I had the most amazing one in a little Vietnamese-owned bakery in Carnarvon, Western Australia and it was incredible! I think I’d live off them when I eventually visit. Great post!
Hey thanks a lot. How cool that you are able to get some authentic Banh Mi in your neck of the woods. I don’t think I’ve even seen a Banh Mi place outside of Vietnam.
I know and it’s a cracking little bakery too!
Yeah! Vietnam at last. That indoor market is huge. I would be in heaven exploring the old French architecture. And that Don Bread sandwich made me hungry. I should eat breakfast before reading your posts. Looking forward to more posts on the city.
Thanks Memo, I can feel your enthusiasm jumping off the page. Hope the series doesn’t disappoint!
Looks like a beautiful kind of chaos. It is so funny when the people watchers become the watched. I think tourists and locals are alike. They just like to watch the people. A good banh mi is worth waiting for. We just had one of our favourites when we stopped in Vancouver recently. And yes, the price was definitely low. Thanks for sharing Leighton. Allan
Thanks Allan, agree with you about the people watching. We may be a bit more discreet in the west, but we are just as guilty and addicted. Glad to hear you too know about the wonders of Banh Mi.
what beautiful pictures you captured of the market and of the people there. People watching is definitely one of my favorite things to do anywhere I go.
Hey Meg, thanks a lot. Glad you liked the start of my Hanoi series, plenty more to come over the next few weeks. Hope all is well in sunny Tennessee!
so excited to follow on your new series! hope all is well with you too 🙂
Can’t wait to get back to Asia Leighton and to make my first visit to Vietnam. You were very brave getting your hair cut there but I suppose having lived in China for at least a year you would be reasonably confident in it being to your liking. Your pork and lemongrass snack sounded mouthwatering too.
Thanks Marion, I’m sure you’ll love Vietnam. I was fortunate to have a month in the country, but of course I came away wishing I’d had longer.
What a lovely recap of your time in Hanoi. This was my favourite city in Vietnam. I miss the banh mi and the Vietnamese coffee too – it’s too bad that didn’t suit your palate. 😉
Hey Jess, glad to hear you’re a big fan of Hanoi too. Yeah I just couldn’t stomach the traditional coffee, but loved the egg coffee! More on that in a later post.
Ah this post brings back such mixed memories and emotions. Hanoi was where our world trip started to come off the rails due to COVID and consequently our memories aren’t all great. We met quite a bit of hostility (COVID was by then rampant in the UK and we were treated a bit like lepers- thrown out of shops, denied boarding buses etc). But in all that I loved knocking back glasses of Bia Hoi in the street in your photo – I think that’s my chair! When and if travel is normal again, we intend to pick up where we left off on our Asia trip, starting in Hanoi, and hopefully finding what everyone loves, and what I think we missed out on.
Aw Phil, what an awful shame things unfolded as they did. I’m sure that when you return to Hanoi it will make up for the COVID experience and leave you with much better lasting memories.. Thanks for reading!
What a better way to know a city than walking aimlessly through the myriad of the streets. I like your way of observing the daily life of the locals, thank you for sharing it 🙂 How was your teaching experience in China?
Hey Christie, thanks for the kind words. I could probably write a book about my teaching experiences in China ha ha. The short version would be “amazing” and “infuriating”. For more info check out my short story collection ‘Challenged in China’ which covers my first year (2009-2010). Chapters 9-15 focus on the teaching. I did two more years in the south (2017-2019) but they remain unpublished. Any specific questions feel free to drop me an email! https://leightontravels.com/challenged-in-china/
I will check them out, there are quite few stories there🙂 I have a friend who did some teaching in China too, I think the short version of his experience was the same😁
Ha ha it’s like a love-hate relationship. Thanks again.
Get me a chair and put me somewhere in a busy street to keep an eye on the locals … that sounds pretty good to me! You’ve captured a wonderful atmosphere in the streets! Oh yes, and I’m sure that was not just one beer crate on that scooter 😬.
Hey thanks for joining me at the start of my Vietnam adventures! I’m sure, if they’d really tried, they could have squeezed one more crate onto that moto.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is so…authentic and interesting. I just hate those little plastic stools. 😄
Ha ha! I’m not a big fan of the plastic stools either. Thanks for reading!
Vietnam is one destination that I hope to hit up after the pandemic ends and travel restrictions lift. My parents had gone a few years ago, and they had a wonderful time. Hanoi looks to be a busy city, but from what you described, also surprisingly chill and laid-back. I hope to head over someday to try the food, especially!
Hey Rebecca, hope that my Hanoi reports feed your wanderlust further. The food is top notch and the history is great, albeit not always a comfortable ride.
Such a great post! I have seen Hanoi from some Youtube videos I watch (the channel Kara and Nate), but loved your perspective! I want to try all of the street foods, but I’m not very adventurous.
I think Vietnamese food isn’t too “crazy” in the grand scheme of adventurous Asian dishes. And if the local recipes don’t quite do it for you, the Vietnamese are excellent at interpreting international cuisine. Hanoi is a very cosmopolitan city in that sense. Thanks for reading!
Vietnam looks like a place for an extended stay. Great post and pix
Would be a very comfortable long term base I imagine. Thanks for reading!
[…] Travel Report: Hanoi Old Quarter, Vietnam. […]
The beer scooter. Lol
Crazy eh? Wherever you go there are at least a handful of wobbly scooters carrying a towering, health-hazard-load of something or other.
Lol I think my eyes would fall out of my head. 😆