From many guide books/blogs, I always read about the 36 Streets of Hanoi, which make up the Old Quarter. Every day, for eight days, we walked the Old Quarter, from east to west, north to south, and we almost did not walk on the same street ever. I was counting up to 36 streets, and I was ready to conclude that the guide books are lying. There are no 36 streets. The Old Quarter is a maze and there are a hundred streets!
Originally, when Hanoi was established as a city in 1010, there were 36 streets in the Old Quarter. The 36 streets were inhabited by guilds of different trades, and the names of the streets were named after what the guilds produce (e.g. Silver Street). Nowadays, there are more than 36 streets in the Old Quarter but the practice of merchants grouping themselves together has remained. As an example, you will find in a certain street stores selling paper and plastic packaging, one street selling snacks and biscuits, one street selling aluminum baking ware, one street selling lights and lightbulbs.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is probably unique in the world because of this. It is like a city within a city. There are many hotels — from budget to luxury, cafes and eateries — from the dirtiest to the poshest. There are all sorts of traders and artisans. There are dilapidated traditional tube houses, renovated tube houses such as the house at 87 Ma May Street, modern apartments. There are Vietnamese boutiques selling rip-off American brands, there are Korean wastelands (e.g. Yoyoso). There are clean shady lanes, there are dirty and wet lanes. There are foreigners, but mostly there are locals because there are still people who live within the Old Quarters. All throughout the day, but most especially from 7AM to 9AM when tour buses pick up tourists in their hotels for out-of-town activities, the small roads in the Old Quarter are chaotic and the traffic is heart-stopping.
Our favorite thing to do at the Old Quarter was walk and take photographs, lots of it. There are so many interesting photography subjects that we found ourselves snapping one photo with every breath you took. The architecture itself in the Old Quarter will tell you how long and stories Hanoi’s history is (1,008 to be exact). And the locals and their daily activities make you want to just sit at a corner cafe and sip coffee all day long. (OK, scratch that. Maybe you can alternate tea with coffee because sipping Vietnamese coffee all day long might give you a heart attack.). Aside from taking photographs, we also shopped (read my rough guide to shopping in Hanoi); ate street food (because literally our tables and chairs were on the street); drank coffee, of course, (special mention: is Giang Cafe for its uniquely Hanoian egg coffee); and traffic watch at Cong Ca Phe.
After eight days, I still felt I have not explored all of the Old Quarter. I found this part of Hanoi exciting and intoxicating. Only in Hanoi!
Where to Stay in Hanoi
We stayed outside of the Old Quarter. But not just outside the Old Quarter. It was at a narrow lane called Nguyen Tu Gian in Phuc Tan, outside of the Old Quarter on the side of the old East Gate. We booked the room through AirBnB and if you have not signed up yet, you can use my link to get $30 in travel credit.
The house is a five-story house called The Cartoon House that I think used to be a kindergarten school. The AirBnB listing says it is in the Old Quarter, which is the reason why I booked it but it wasn’t. I initially thought that was a bummer but this located proved to be better than at the Old Quarter This was where we experienced a taste of Hanoian life — with a street market just in front of the apartment and lots of small shops that sell everything you need for daily living. We especially loved the street market because we were able to cook and the small bakery selling banh mi (just the bread) for 10,000VND for 3 pieces.
The location was also great for commuting because outside of the gate that encloses the residential area was a bus station, so we used the bus to get to many destinations in Hanoi, like the Vietnamese National Museum of History at the French Quarter and the Temple of Literature. Our residential area and the Old Quarter was also connected by a foot bridge, making it easy and safe for us.
Best of all, there were people around us. And, I have mentioned this at my post about our trip to Ha Long Bay, that Vietnamese people are like no other. We enjoyed interacting with our neighbors even if all we can muster is a smile and xin chiao, and we enjoyed watching our neighbors interact with each other. We were living like a local in Hanoi. It was true Hanoian life!
Photos by Joel Lopez.