Hanoi’s Old Quarter 36 Streets
Travel Period: 21 Sep – 28 Sep 2014
The Old Quarter of Hanoi is a must-see for anyone visiting Vietnam. It is located at the northern end of Hoan Kiem Lake and is where many economical hotels, tourist shops and cafes in Hanoi are concentrated at.
As its name implies, the Old Quarter is really old and has existed for more than 2,000 years! Fast forward to today, this place does not simply exist as another ‘modernized tourist attraction’, but continues to be a vibrant center of life for many locals in Hanoi. That is why we chose to stay here during our Hanoi trip to experience first-hand how the daily lives of Vietnamese are like.
Interestingly, Old Quarter is also known as the ’36 Streets’ because of the famous streets that make up the place, all named for the type of goods or service they were originally known for. There are streets which are named for selling silk, shoes, jewelries etc. Some of these streets still retain their original purpose so don’t be surprised when you come across streets with most or all stores selling similar stuff or service.
Despite the buildings, streets and traffic appearing old and chaotic, the streets of Old Quarter are generally clean. As of smell, we can’t really tell if any undesirable smell exists because it is always masked with the unique smell that resembles Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, linguine-shaped rice noodles, a few herbs and meat. ^^
Busy traffic on the streets is always expected, so just keep the general guidelines in mind and you will be able to enjoy walking along the streets safely while browsing through the wares of the shops and appreciating the surroundings.
From outside, it seems that each of the houses lining the streets are not wide and only the storefront is visible. However, the houses actually extend far beyond inwards, thus there are also known as ‘tunnel homes’. This is mainly due to the ancient tax system which is based on the width of the storefront.
So it is behind the storefront where the families live and are not visible to the public. We did notice these narrow alleys when we were walking along the streets but felt it could be dangerous for non-locals, so we gave those a miss. We did however have a chance to explore the courtyard of one of the buildings, where we patronised Cafe Nola for one of our dinners.
Everywhere we look in this old part of Hanoi, we will find ordinary Vietnamese folks going about their daily routines. It is interesting to see young and old alike exercising or engaged in activities using whichever empty spaces they could find. Life could indeed be just so simple and it’s no wonder we see many happy faces throughout our trip, despite many of them earning lower wages compared to other countries.
So how else do the local youngsters pass their free times?
Shopping malls are a rarity there so what many youngsters do as a favourite pastime is to drive around in their scooters and motorcycles, sitting on small stools outside food stalls in Old Quarter enjoying their food and chit-chatting. What a simple and economical way to enjoy their weekends!
All around Hanoi, you will spot street vendors going about their business or inviting you to patronise their stalls as you walk by. It’s a wonder they could set up a stall with just some plastic stools and their food ingredients.
Though there were occasions that we were enticed by the ‘mini’ food stalls, we stopped short of patronising them due to the worry that our stomachs are unable to get used to the street food. Food hygiene is a concern to us, especially with a child.
Markets At Night
Although we did not need to shop for groceries or fresh meat in Hanoi, sights as below are commonplace where locals arrive with their motorbikes and get their daily necessities from vendors scattered all over the streets.
A majority of the street names of the ’36 Streets’ in the Old Quarter start with the word Hang, since it means merchandise or shop in Vietnamese.
Here are some of our experiences at some of the streets:
1. Hang Bac
Bac means silver and till today, the street is still lined with silver shops, although some have expanded their wares to include jade bangles and other jewelleries. Although this is a street that is located near our hotel and we walked on it several times, we hardly patronise the jewellery shops here since we were not intending to buy any jewellery in Hanoi.
Besides jewelleries, the shops are also known as a good ‘unofficial’ place for money exchange. However, with recent crackdowns, this might be less easy nowadays. Hotels and travel agencies have become the ‘legal’ money exchangers now instead.
2. Hang Gai
Han Gai Street offers silk products, such as ready-made and tailored silk clothing, embroidery and silver products. We witnessed exquisite silk clothing and scarves when walking along the street, stopped to admire their beauty but stopped short of buying them. The street would be a favourite for silk lovers looking for great value.
We bought some souvenirs here. The painting was bought at 150K VND, after we got tired of searching after a few shops. We also tried about 4 shops before we found three nicely painted boxes with no defects and in very good condition. Vin bought two for his mum and sis and one for me. (Total: 270K VND)
3. Cau Go
Cau Go Street is a commercial street specializing in women’s accessories, and is situated just beside the huge eatery building that houses Thai Express, City View Cafe and Highlands Coffee, just to name a few.
4. Hang Dau
Hang Dau Street, located just behind the Water Puppet Theatre, is famous for the shoes and footwear shops along both sides of the street. In fact, the number of footwear for each shop is often so much that their wares spill out beyond the storefront. Coupled with mini food stalls and locals sitting by the roadsides, it made walking a little trickier while making sure not to trip or step onto them.
5. Hang Dao
This street is one of Vietnam’s oldest streets. It serves as a main axis running from north to south, cutting the Old Quarter in half. Besides specializing in ready-made clothing, it is also the starting point of the weekend market, when the roads will be closed to traffic (though some locals still insisted in riding their motorcycles on the already congested pathways -_-|).
6. Dong Xuan or Market Street
Walking northwards along Hang Dao Street will lead you to Dong Xuan Street, also known as the Market Street due to a wet market located there. When we went there on a weekend evening, the place was flooded with many stalls selling mainly toys and mobile phone accessories. Nothing really caught our eyes but it was a good experience.
7. Ma May
We went along Ma May Street several times, first to visit the Yin & Yang Restaurant and subsequently to have our dinner at Cafe Nola there.
We were also advised by the locals that there is a ‘hidden’ Money Exchange which offers good exchange rates. The shop appears to open only during daytime.