There’s an old Vietnamese saying, “Hanoi has thirty-six streets and guilds – Jam Street, Sugar Street, Salt Street…”. Inside a modern and dynamic city, there appears an antique quarter, the Hanoi’s Old Quarter – the represented eternal soul of the city. These days, most Vietnamese and Westerners are familiar with the phrase “Hà Nội – Ba mươi sáu phố phường” (translated as “Ha Noi – 36 districts” or “Hanoi – 36 Old Streets”), or “Phố cổ Hà Nội” (translated as “Hanoi’s Old Quarter”), the top special historical vestige and sight-seeing of the capital, luring international visitors thanks to their mostly original state.
Are There 36 Old Streets or More?
Although the old section of Hanoi is often called the “36 Old Streets,” there are more than 36 actual streets. Some researchers believe that the number 36 came from the 15th century when there might have been 36 guild locations, which were workshop areas, not streets. When streets were later developed, the guild names were applied to the streets. Others attribute the 36 to a more abstract concept. The number nine in Asia represents the concept of “plenty.” Nine times the four directions makes 36, which simply means “many”. In fact, there are now more than 70 streets in the area.
Although many of the streets no longer sell the products after which they were named, some still do. Today, the Old Quarter has become the unique classical feature of Hanoi, and the inspiration of numerous writers, poets, and painters, and one of the desired tourist destinations in Hanoi.
To fully explore the Old Quarter in Hanoi, prepare your feet for a day of walking street to street and taking in the locals’ daily life, the old-style narrow streets and houses, the colorful souvenir shops, and of course trying some of the most tasty traditional foods of Hanoians. Many agree that joining a Hanoi walking tour or food tour offered by travel agencies will give foreign visitors a full experience of Hanoi Old Quarter, including the daily lifestyle, the history lesson and the feast for their tummies. Furthermore, if you want to explore more Hanoi culture and local life of Hanoians, a wide range of Hanoi tours full day and half-day are offered to meet your demands.
Where is Hanoi Old Quarter Located?
Located between Hoan Kiem Lake the Lake of the Restored Sword), the Long Bien Bridge, a former city rampart, and a citadel wall, the Old Quarter (consisting of 36 old streets inside) started as a snake and alligator-infested swamp. It later evolved into a cluster of villages made up of houses on stilts, and was unified by Chinese administrators who built ramparts around their headquarters. The area was named “Dominated Annam” or “Protected South” by the Chinese.
It would be a big surprise should you know that Hanoi’s Old Quarter came into being at the time King Ly Thai To selected Thang Long as the country’s capital in 1010, that is, the streets have a nearly 1,000-year old history and became crowded & lively in 15th century. What makes them unique is that many of them remain in their very ancient architecture of the 15th century. Up to now, it has been the oldest continuously developed area of Vietnam.
What are Their Names’ Origins?
Due to their long-lasting age, they are called “Old Quarter” or “36 Old Streets” (as consisting of 36 member streets). Similarly to the Guilded age of Europe, “Ha Noi’s 36 districts” is Vietnam’s version of the guild concept. In the past, as artisans moved to the capital city to do business, they gathered together in this area to share the resources. As a result, many of the streets were named after the crafts sold at that individual street. Pho Hang Bun (Vermicelli), Pho Hang Ma (Paper Product), Pho Hang Bac (Silver), etc. are examples of the streets carrying the name of the products sold there.
The phrase “36 pho phuong” often causes much confusion for most people; “Phố” means a street or a place for merchants to gather to do business, while “Phường”, a district or a guild of artisans specializing in a particular trade (phuong cheo, phuong tho, etc.). Yet, in any case, both are right to some extent.
Most tourists are eager for exploring the old streets well-known for each one’s specialized industry.
Hang Gai Street offers silk clothing ready-made and tailored, embroidery, and silver products. Hang Quat, the street that formerly sold silk and feather fans, now stuns the visitor by its brilliantly colored funeral and festival flags and religious objects and clothing. To Tich Street connects the above two and is still the wood turner’s street. Hang Ma glimmers with shiny paper products, such as gift wrappings, wedding decorations and miniature paper objects to burn for the dead. Lan Ong Street is a sensual delight of textures and smells emanating from the sacks of herbal medicinal products: leaves, roots, barks, and powders, etc. Coming here, you may feel as if you were in a classical-styled area in terms of both architecture and product types!
Best Food In Hanoi Old Quarter
There are some great places to try authentic Vietnamese cuisine in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Here are four of the best places:
- Blue Butterfly
This place has everything – classic tube-house architecture, super-friendly and helpful staff, excellent Vietnamese cuisine, traditional musicians and cooking classes. Try the steamed fish in banana leaf and fried morning glory.
Hotel restaurants can sometimes be rather bland, but the one in Essence Hanoi offers some of the best gourmet food in Hanoi – both Vietnamese and Western – at reasonable prices. Go for the delicious beef in bamboo or the duck in coconut.
- Red Bean
On the ground floor of La Siesta Hotel, this place welcomes diners with plenty of comfortable seating. Dishes like grapefruit salad and beef in coconut are elegantly presented and well prepared, and the service is flawless.
This is a rather difficult place to find, despite being almost next door to Heritage House – though it’s well worth the effort. Head down the twisting alley and up the stairs, and you’ll find a variety of cosy, high-ceilinged rooms with retro decor, cool music (Louis Armstrong, vintage Dylan), interesting snacks and cheap beers.
What To Do In Hanoi’s Old Quarter?
A dynamic and ancient area full of cafes, food stalls, restaurants and various vendors there is always something interesting to find in the Old Quarter. Apart from one gate, at the east end of Hang Chieu, the walls have been dismantled, and there are few individual sights in the quarter; the best approach is simply to dive into the back lanes and explore. Alternatively, you might like to see it first from the seat of a cyclo or one of the new electric cars that zig-zag through its streets to help you pinpoint places you’d like to come back to.
Hanoi Bach Ma Temple
The Bach Ma Temple, built during the reign of Emperor Ly Thai To in the 11th Century, is the oldest of its kind and an important structure to Vietnamese religion. Visiting the temple is possible, appropriate clothing is required to offer respect to the monks residing in the temple.
Hanoi Tube Houses
Hanoi’s aptly named tube-houses evolved from market stalls into narrow single-storey shops, windows no higher than a passing royal palanquin, under gently curving, red-tiled roofs. Some are just two metres wide, the result of taxes levied on street frontages and of subdivision for inheritance, while behind stretches a succession of storerooms and living quarters up to 60m in length, interspersed with open courtyards to give them light and air.
See More article: Best places to exchange money in Hanoi.
Heritage House Hanoi
To get a better idea of the layout of tube-houses, pop into the beautifully restored Heritage House (sometimes called “Memorial House”). There’s usually a volunteer on hand to show you through the various rooms and courtyards, who will point out the elegant carvings on the doors and balustrades, as well as examples of traditional fine arts and handicrafts such as ceramics and silk paintings on display. You might also see a calligrapher practising his art in a corner or a seamstress working on an embroidered painting. Some items are on sale, and might make a distinctive souvenir.
Night Market Hanoi Old Quarter
From around 7pm every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Hang Dao and its northerly continuation as far as Dong Xuan Market is closed to traffic, and vendors set up stalls selling all kinds of trinkets at the Weekend Night Market.
Though it’s a fun place to experience modern Hanoi, there’s not much on sale that would interest Western visitors – most shoppers are Vietnamese youngsters snapping up fashion accessories like mobile phone covers. It can get very crowded at times (so watch out for pickpockets), but winds down after 11pm. Sections of Ha Tien, Hang Buom and Ma May are also technically closed to traffic on weekend evenings, though many motorbikes ignore this.
Read more: 20+ Top Things To Do In Hanoi Vietnam.
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