Hanoi Old Quarter: A Charming Historian of Trades

Hanoi Old Quarter (Vietnamese spelling: Khu phố cổ Hà Nội) used to be the residential, manufacturing, and commercial center of Thang Long Capital City predating Hanoi. It’s part of the Hoan Kiem District in central Hanoi and spans around 10 square kilometers.

The Old Quarter is a keeper of Vietnamese history through the stories that have been told along its streets, in its cafes, and traditional houses. Despite the rapidly changing face of Hanoi as a burgeoning capital, architectural charms and traditional ways can still be found around the quarter.

History of the Hanoi Old Quarter

History of the Hanoi Old Quarter
[ by Patrick McGregor from Unsplash ]

The Old Quarter started out in the early 11th century as an urban throng east of Thang Long Capital City reaching the Red River (sông Hồng). Throughout the Ly and Tran Dynasties (11th – 14th century), people flocked from around the river delta, making this area the most crowded in Thang Long.

In the 15th century during the Le Dynasty, Chinese merchants started arriving. The French colonial period (1884 – 1945) ushered in further developments attracting traders from India and France.

Hanoi 36 Streets of Trades

Hanoi 36 Streets of Trades
[ by Huy Phan on Pexels ]

A common misconception is that the ‘Hanoi 36 Streets of Trades’ (Hà Nội 36 phố phường) or craft guilds is another name for the Old Quarter. Actually, this term is used for a specific urban area within Hanoi Capital City that includes the Old Quarter.

Since its inception, the Old Quarter has attracted craftsmen from surrounding villages to its specialized streets. The name of each street has the word ‘hàng’, meaning ‘ware’, plus the name of the product e.g. ‘phố hàng tre’ means ‘bamboo ware street’.

Nowadays, only some streets remain true to their original wares like Cotton Ware Street (phố Hàng Bông), Copper Ware Street (phố Hàng Đồng), and Silver Ware Street (phố Hàng Bạc). Others now either sell all kinds of things or specialize in completely different products like shoes, motor parts, and even coffee shops.

Each street used to have a shrine worshipping the ancestor (tổ đình) of the trade, but most were buried in the flow of history. The ones to remain are typically moved to the upper floors of the same building while the lower floors still sell the wares.

Architecture of the Hanoi Old Quarter

Architecture of the Hanoi Old Quarter
[ by Raissa Lara Lütolf (-Fasel) from Unsplash ]

The iconic architecture of the Old Quarter is underpinned by elongated tube houses built wall-to-wall that function as storefronts. These houses were mostly built during the 18th and 19th centuries. During the First Indochina War (1946 – 1954), people made holes through the walls to move from one house to another thus avoiding the street level.

Unfortunately, a lot of the original houses were renovated and lost some of these features. However, one of them still remains on 87 Mã Mây Street and it’s open for visiting at only 10 000 VND per person.

Things to See and Do at the Hanoi Old Quarter

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Ta Hien Beer Street

Ta Hien Beer Street
[ by Frida Aguilar Estrada from Unsplash ]

Ta Hien Beer Street (phố bia Tạ Hiền) is a go-to for both locals and visitors wanting to down a good beer or two. You can sit on a street corner, in a busy pub, or relax in a  restaurant. If you need a local companion, Hanoi Street Food Tour can have you covered.

Dong Xuan Market

Dong Xuan Market
[ image from Facebook ]

Dong Xuan Market (chợ Đồng Xuân) is the largest enclosed market in the Hanoi Old Quarter. The building has three floors with everything from wholesale to retail. Store owners here are usually not up for bargaining, so shop around comparing prices before buying.

The Dong Xuan Day Market is where locals go to buy everyday necessities and businesses to stock up. The night market, however, is when people gather at food and souvenir stalls outside the building.

More about the Dong Xuan Market

Hanoi Night Market

Hanoi Night Market
[ by T.H. Chia from Unsplash ]

Hanoi Night Market (chợ đêm Hà Nội) is a 3 km pedestrian path from Dong Xuan Market to Hoan Kiem Lake. It opens from 6 PM to 11 PM every Friday to Sunday. It’s a nice chance to do some window shopping in the early evening and if you’re lucky, you may see some live traditional music performances.

Hoan Kiem Lake at the Center of Modern Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake
[ by Cuong Le from Pixabay ]

Hoan Kiem Lake (hồ Hoàn Kiếm), or Sword Lake (hồ Gươm), is the historical and cultural symbol of Hanoi. It’s in the city’s centre with many activities from hanging out at the Hoan Kiem Lake Walking Street (Phố đi bộ hồ Hoàn Kiếm) to visiting religious sites like the Ngoc Son Temple (đền Ngọc Sơn).

More about the Hoan Kiem Lake

Bach Ma Temple

Bach Ma Temple
[ by Foreign ForSure from Facebook ]

Bach Ma Temple (đền Bạch Mã) worships the East Guardian and patron god of Thang Long Capital City, Long Đỗ. It was built in 1010 by the first king of the Ly Dynasty Lý Thái Tổ. 

The name of the temple comes from the statue of the legendary white horse, a manifestation of god Long Đỗ. Only the main building remained after the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975), but the temple was reconstructed soon afterward.

Quan Chuong Auxiliary Gate

Quan Chuong Auxiliary Gate in 1999
Quan Chuong Auxiliary Gate in 1999
[ by upyernoz from Flickr ]

Quan Chuong Auxiliary Gate (Cửa ô Quan Chưởng) was built during the Later Le Dynasty in the 18th century. It used to be part of the Thang Long Capital City and is now part of the Hanoi Old Quarter after surviving the First Indochina War (1946 – 1954).

Grab a Vietnamese Coffee

Grab a Vietnamese Coffee
[ by Foody.vn from Facebook ]

Hanoi Old Quarter is a good place to grab a traditional Vietnamese coffee whether it’s on the go or taking it slow. Nguyễn Hữu Huân is a recently popular coffee street with all kinds of themed establishments.

Giảng Cafe is one of the best-known due to its typical Old Quarter design and delicious ca phe trung (cà phê trứng) or Vietnamese egg coffee. At Giảng Cafe, they whisk the egg yolk with sugar over boiling water to a desired texture then use it to top the ca phe den (cà phê đen) or Vietnamese black coffee.

In places in the North like Hanoi, the common name for ca phe sua (cà phê sữa) or Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk is nau (nâu) which means brown. At old roadside coffee shops, you can get ca phe phin (cà phê phin) or Vietnamese filter/ drip coffee served brewing hot.

More about Vietnamese coffee

Water Puppet Show at Thang Long Theatre

Unique Vietnamese Water Puppetry
[ by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay ]

Many tours around Hanoi Old Quarter may include the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre (Nhà hát Múa rối Thăng Long). It’s the Visitors’ Choice for the most entertaining show in the city on Tripadvisor.

Water puppet performances (múa rối nước) relate Vietnamese stories from history and popular literature. They have little to no dialogue while placing stress on sound and visuals so you don’t have to worry about language.

More about the water puppet show at Thang Long Theatre

How to get to the Hanoi Old Quarter

How to get to the Hanoi Old Quarter
[ by callme_gohann from Unsplash ]

The Old Quarter is an essential part of central Hanoi with every means of transportation available. Check out our article on ‘25 Best Things To Do in Hanoi’ for more about how to get to the Hanoi Old Quarter and nearby places.

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