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.
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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