No trip to Vietnam’s capital would be complete without a stroll through Hanoi’s Hoàn Kin district (also known as the Old District). The district’s street food, markets and historical sites make it a suitable base camp and provide easy access to other attractions in Hanoi.
Make no mistake: the word “old” in this district’s name in no way means forgotten or even slowed down. Exploring the older parts of Hanoi, like much of the city, requires you to be on your toes and quick feet. When crossing the street? See both sides of the road and then move forward confidently, steadily, and at an even pace as hordes of motorcycles, bikes, and cars whiz by you, often without needing to tap the rest area. However, that sense of urgency is also part of the excitement. When you come to the old neighborhood, you are thrust into the daily hustle and bustle of the locals.
The commercial history here dates back to the 13th century, when artisans and craftsmen began to live and work in trade based clusters around the 11th century palace of the King of Rithai. Later, the streets were named after the merchandise (hang) sold in each area, from silk to silver to paper. Although many of the original offerings have been changed, it’s still a commercial hub, as evidenced by the French Colonial-style shops, cafes and restaurants built a hundred years ago (although Hanoi itself is over 1,000 years old!) . Merchants did their business in storefronts, while families lived in back rooms and yards.
The 36 old streets (which doubled in number despite being an ordinary old street) are great to walk on, once you learn to walk the streets with confidence. The streets are still lined with a mix of old and new businesses, funky and historic, with no shortage of places to crowd while enjoying a strong, sweet Vietnamese coffee or a “fresh” straight beer.
As in the earliest days of the neighborhood, Lake Juanquim remains a central gathering place. A path wraps around the tranquil lake and is a peaceful place to walk or rest on a bench in the shade of a tree. While this is a popular gathering spot throughout the day, if you can, lace up your sneakers before and after sunrise and kick off the day here surrounded by lake walkers and joggers. Or, you can choose to join one of the many groups that practice tai chi for a more contemplative start.
Not to be missed is the small temple located on a small, tree-lined island in Hubei. To visit Yushan Temple, walk across the scarlet bridge known as the “Yinghui Bridge”, which is quite charming. While students are here before exams praying for academic success, another attraction is the giant turtle on display, both for its size (551 pounds) and for its association with local lore. Legend has it that King Leiling defeated the Mongols with a sword given to him by the Golden Turtle God who lived in the lake. After returning the sword at the call of the gods, the king renamed the lake “Golden Turtle Lake”, meaning “Returning the Sword Lake”.
This legend is one of the many performances at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, located across the lake near Ngoc Son Temple. Water puppetry in Vietnam dates back to the 11th century, when water puppeteers cleverly used rice paddies to turn rising water into a stage. In keeping with tradition, the theater’s stage is a rectangular pool of water in which colorful puppets are skillfully manipulated by puppeteers hidden behind a screen. Accompanied by a live orchestra and costumed singers, the puppets splash and leap across the water, performing folk tales, often with humor. Although the show runs five hours a day, tickets sell out quickly. Please book early to secure a good seat.
The Hoa Lo Prison Memorial outside the old town, also known as the Hanoi Hilton Hotel, where former U.S. Senator and Navy pilot John McCain and other prisoners of war were held during the American (or Vietnamese) war. A section of the Prison-Turned-Museum tells the story of the war and displays artifacts from the lives of internees, while a larger section honors Vietnamese patriots who were imprisoned here during the French occupation. Friends traveling with young people should take note. What is most chilling about Vietnam’s struggle for independence are the statues of shackled prisoners and the primitive, lifelike guillotines.
The Essence Hotel & Spa offers a tranquil haven amidst the bustle of the old town. The rooms at this boutique hotel are very spacious, whether they are deluxe double rooms or group suites. Before heading out the door, you can add a complimentary breakfast buffet and a Vietnamese coffee to your list. End the day with a traditional meal at the hotel’s in-house restaurant, Gia Ngu, or head to the spa for a fabulous massage or an evening snack at the bar. Need a guide? Check out their tours that offer insider knowledge, from local history and landmarks to street food.
It’s not hard for backpackers to find a hostel in the old district, but the Little Charm Hanoi Hostel (44 Hàng B?) is different. Balancing affordability with hotel comfort, Little Charm Inn offers convenient amenities such as Wi-Fi, laundry service, airport transfer and breakfast. The rooms in the hostel are clean and comfortable, with four, six and eight beds, and are available for mixed or women only. Each bed has two lockers for private storage. The bar and restaurant at the hostel make it easy to mingle with other guests. What’s more, the hostel also has an indoor swimming pool for a cool soothing after a day of exploring in the heat. If you want to travel outside of Hanoi, Little Charm Hostel also offers a variety of multi-day packages.
There’s no shortage of good food in the Old Quarter, whether you’re eating spring rolls at a street food stand, pulling up a plastic chair and relaxing in a cafe, or chilling out in a trendy restaurant. What’s even better is that here, you can enjoy a combination of these experiences while the nightlife fills the air with the echoes of music and chatter.
The streets are lined with cafes and dining spots, from little curbside stands with simple plastic tables and chairs, to grand views from the rooftops. To find the latter, you can go to Cafe Ph C?. It can be a hassle to find this cafe, which only adds to the fun. Walk through the silk shop on the first floor and down the alley to find this characterful cafe. After ordering, head upstairs to the rooftop, where you can sip your coffee and egg coffee with a view of the lake during the day and the glittering city lights at night.
Speaking of egg coffee, the cafe at Café Ging 39 , also located in a narrow alleyway, has a sign that reads “Egg Coffee Lane” and the original recipe is still made here. Although the location has changed since the original owner, Nguyen Giang, started cooking his unique coffee in 1946, you can still taste his sweet blend of Vietnamese coffee powder, sweet condensed milk, egg yolk, butter and cheese. Don’t overthink the ingredients. Just purse your lips and smile…….. Be sure to lick off the frothy whiskers on your upper lip!
Whether fresh or fried, spring rolls are a must eat in Vietnam. At Vietnamese spring rolls, you can choose from traditional summer spring rolls filled with shrimp, pork, vegetables and herbs, or deep-fried ones, each with the necessary fish sauce. Other specialties include Bún mm (turtle soup), a spicy and refreshing soup made from fermented fish, squid, pork, fish balls and noodles, as well as a variety of soups, rice and noodles.
For lunch or dinner, head to Mr. Bay Mien Tay (79 Hang Dieu Street), where the chefs at the door are frying fresh bánh xèo nam b, arguably the best in town. Crispy yellow pancakes filled with vegetables, pork, shrimp, beef, seafood or chicken, topped with fresh vegetables and herbs, rolled up in rice paper and dipped in tangy fish sauce. Other delicacies include dragon egg pancakes, fresh or fried spring rolls, salads and rice noodles.
Sticky rice is a popular delicacy all the time. Head to Xi Bà Tho and sit elbow to elbow with the locals for this comfort food, topped with your choice of savory condiments, from crabmeat and soy sauce to eggs, scrambled onions, mushrooms or lard. What’s the secret behind the seductive, rich flavor of this dish? Drizzle with a drizzle of chicken oil.
As night falls, people are enjoying fresh beers, eating snacks and relaxing at small tables in bars and restaurants on the street. The host will flash the menu and smile in an attempt to lure you into your seat.
For a break from the hustle and bustle, grab a pint of craft beer or cider at The Hill Station (2T T Hi?n). Check out what drinks are on the blackboard, which will likely include an award-winning entry from Pasteur Street Brewing. Also, their creative rice wine cocktails are tempting, such as the spicy “Frozen Flower”. Here, you can also complement your wine selection with a delicious tapas-crostinis, paninis or cheese board.
The Old Quarter is known for its street food. While there are plenty of stalls and roadside vendors, it can be intimidating trying to figure out what to order and how to order it. For the bold, one can follow one’s nose, point to something that looks good, and mimic ordering. For those who like a little more guidance, there are many food tour companies out there, each with its own hidden treasures.
A street food tour run by the highly rated Hanoi Street Food Tour (74 Hàng B?c Street), it contains sightseeing and curious market tours, as well as six to eight stops at street food spots you might otherwise regret missing. During the three-hour trip, you can walk two to three kilometers where you can enjoy local beer, rice wine, egg coffee and desserts.
For artisanal fried spring rolls, have the heroine’s hand at a makeshift booth between 21-23 Hàng Bè. Don’t hang around too long. She likes to leave her area to customers, but can also watch her work from across the street, and if you’re lucky, there may be another vendor selling lemongrass kebabs that are just as mouthwatering. If so, be sure to strike out with both fists when you go looking for other takeaways.
A simple takeout option and the star of traditional Vietnamese cuisine is bánh mì, which simply translates as “bread” but has come to be known as a savory, stuffed sandwich served on baguettes. In a small alley near the 19th-century St. Joseph’s Cathedral, there is a small stall called Bahn Mi Mama. Choose the thp cm version, meaning “mixed,” to get all the ingredients – pork, eggs, pies, sausages, vegetables and herbs. Or break it down into your favorite ingredients. Vegetarian? Mom will help you out. Drizzled with honey and butter, it’s the perfect combination of crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and hard on the inside.
For another play on meat with fresh fruits and vegetables, try Nmbòkh at 10 Pohe Street. Mixed with sliced papaya and beef and served with fresh herbs, roasted peanuts and a vinaigrette, this traditional salad has just the right mix of salty, sour and sweet flavors.
To shop like the locals and have a meal while you’re at it, head to the indoor and outdoor markets during the day and night.
If you want to experience an indoor market, head to the Dong Xuan Market (Hui Xu’an Street, open 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.), which is a perfect place to hide when rain or hot weather forces you indoors. Since its opening in 1889, this four-storey market on the north side of the old town has been bustling with activity and is the largest market in Hanoi. On the first floor of the wetland market, you can buy fresh meat, seafood and vegetables with the locals, where you can also see fragrant flowers. Here, you can buy inexpensive souvenirs, clothing, handicrafts and home appliances, as well as get a feel for the fast-paced daily hustle and bustle of Vietnam. Of course, the hawker stalls also keep the shoppers fed. The specialty snack here is búnch?, grilled fatty pork, served with rice noodles, broth, fresh herbs and sauces. If you want to be a little bolder? Look around the entrance and you’ll find a large stall serving snail noodles, a favorite for its broth and the soft, chewy texture of the small rustic animals.
Hàng Bè Market is a smaller outdoor stall in the heart of the old town, just a few minutes’ walk from Hoan Kiem Lake. Locals shop for everyday food and socialize in a healthy way here. Stroll down the aisles, past brightly colored fruits and vegetables and fresh seafood and meat. Buy some fresh fruit for a snack before heading to the water puppet show or a leisurely stroll around the lake.
If your time is right, you can relax and eat with the locals at the famous weekend night market in the old district, which is open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (8:00 to 11:00 pm). There’s a line of stalls selling clothes, shoes, accessories and trinkets, and the highlight is the abundance of street food. Here you can enjoy a variety of standard dishes such as ph?, bánh mì, bún chkebabs, seafood and vegetables, as well as exotic fresh fruits and juices. Eat slowly if you can, or share: there are thousands of stalls in the three-kilometre long market, all vying for the attention of your taste buds. There’s also a literary show to see along the way, or relax at a plastic table and watch the hordes of mopeds and people weaving through the night.