78. Exploring Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Vietnam’s earliest urban neighborhood reveals some of its secrets to those willing to search … and ask questions.

University students enjoy a late-night dinner of snails and other shellfish near Dong Xuan market. (JGA photo)

For a long time, I was puzzled by the Vietnamese inclination to cluster shops of the same type on a single street. One city block, for instance, can be home to nothing but stores dealing in bamboo furniture. Or stuffed toys. Or shoes, or carpets, or wedding dresses.

It makes little sense to me. Why would you intentionally face off against the competition when you can set up shop in a separate neighborhood with unique cachet? Wouldn’t you want to be the only hardware purveyor on the block?

It took a visit to the Old Quarter of Hanoi before I understood the historical precedent. As long ago as the 1400s, this tightly populated district was the urban core of the royal capital city, then known as Dong Kinh (Tonkin). A medieval center of commerce and manufacturing, its matrix of streets was surrounded by a staunch stone wall with few points of entry.

A shopkeeper checks her display on Pho Dinh Liet, a street lined with toy stores. (JGA photo)

Craftspeople from surrounding villages would come here to sell their wares. They gathered with others of their specialized trades — copper and tin smiths, tailors, sail makers, wood carvers — and organized guilds to promote their skills. Each street (tradition holds there were originally 36) took the name of its trade guild.

Near the Red River, on Phõ Hàng Tre (“Bamboo Products Street”), raft makers worked closely with tradesmen from adjacent Phõ Hàng Buôm (“Sail Makers Street”). Over on Phõ Hàng Mam (“Fish Sauce Street), the most popular ingredient in Vietnamese cooking was stored in containers from Phõ Hàng Thung (“Barrel Makers Street”).

Optical stores stand side by side by side on Pho Luong Van Can. (JGA photo)

The tin crafts guild on Hàng Thiec produced candle sticks, opium boxes and binding tips for conical nón la, traditional hats manufacturered on Hàng Nón. Tradespeople of Hàng Dao, its name (dao) a reference to apricot blossoms used in dying textiles, worked closely with the merchants of Hàng Gai, where silk clothing is still custom produced. Hàng May sold rattan basketry, Hàng Đông copper wares, Lan Ong medicinal herbs. The tradesmen of Hàng Ma specialized in funeral joss, replica money and furniture to make the afterlife more comfortable for the deceased.

Today, while many of the streets’ original devotions are ancient history, their attraction to shopkeepers of similar interests remain. You might, for instance, find a jewelry street. A plumbing fixtures street. A musical instrument street. A religious art street. I even discovered one lane with a half-dozen adjacent shops selling only wire and rope products.

Bread vendors sell banh mi — Vietnamese baguette rolls — in the chilly hours of a winter morning. (JGA photo

Ancient streets

Hanoi (or Hà Nội) is Vietnam’s national capital, its hub of administration and defense services, and its traditional educational and cultural center. It is a much older city than Ho Chi Minh City (Sái Gòn), its southern counterpart; and although the two river cities are similar in size (both claim more than 8 million residents), they are as different as sisters can be.

HCMC is a steamy subtropical metropolis, a bustling and frequently frantic center for business and industry hard by the Mekong Delta. Hanoi is more stately and sedate, reminiscent of historical Europe in a four-seasons climate, its center accented by picturesque lakes and memorable museums.

But the Old Quarter has none of the French flavor seen elsewhere in Hanoi. Its network of ancient streets still crisscross in much the same pattern as they did centuries in the past, and some of the ancient architecture persists — although new buildings are gradually phasing out the old. Many historic homes now have shops or cafes on their ground floors, with laundry hanging from wrought-iron railings outside the landings of residences above.

A legendary white horse is the focus of reverence at the Bach Ma Temple. (JGA photo)

Out and about in this warren of busy streets and alleys, there are plenty of attractions to divert a visitor’s attention for the better part of a day. In an earlier time, each guild had a communal temple dedicated to the legendary founder of its craft. Without showing favor, these often combined elements of Taoist myth and Confucian deference with worship of the historical Buddha.

Few remain today, but I found the Hương Tượng temple on Phõ Mã Mây to be especially worth a visit. It is said to have been built to honor the patron saint of the original city of Thăng Long (“rising dragon”) when it was founded by King Lý Thái Tổ in 1010, and is a Vietnam national heritage site. Reconstruction in the 18th and 19th centuries restored much of its original six-section design, including a sanctuary, incense chamber and ceremonial hall.

Lesser but far more colorful temples and pagodas may be found down small alleys in the same vicinity.

Pedestrians pause to offer prayers outside the Bach Ma Temple. (JGA photo)

But the most popular spot for casual prayers is the Bạch Mã temple, also credited to Lý Thái Tổ, clearly a man who knew how to express his gratitude. At its heart is a statue of a white horse fabled to have directed the monarch to this very spot, around which he erected his original city walls. Today, even when the massive, red wooden doors are closed, supplicants gather on Hàng Buôm to offer devotion.

Getting medieval

Only one of the original city portals — the Quan Chưởng, or east gate — remains standing today. It is a decidedly medieval-looking structure, suitable for a feudal castle, its arched entry framed by grey stone and discolored brick. But the motorbikes that endlessly zoom through the portal, and the colorful apartment houses that rise high above it, make clear that this is the 21st century, not the 15th.

The Quan Chưởng, or east gate, is the only portal still standing of the ancient city wall. (JGA photo)

The gate isn’t far from the Đồng Xuân Market, the largest market under one roof in the north of Vietnam. Its three stories are divided into stalls selling everything from household goods and clothing to fresh farm produce, fish and just-butchered meats. The market was originally built by the French in 1889, combining two earlier neighborhood markets, and has been frequently renovated, notably in 1994 after a disastrous fire.

Inside and outside the market, and along streets leading in all directions, street food vendors set up shop from morning to late night. Seafood — notably, a bewildering range of snails (ốc) and shellfish — is especially popular, served grilled, steamed or simmered in rich noodle soups.

Restaurant owners await a surge in early-evening business along Ta Hien street. (JGA photo)

As the sun sets and day becomes night, attention turns to the central blocks of Phõ Tà Hiên, not far from the Bạch Mã temple. Here and on Phõ Mã Mây are the Old Quarter’s greatest concentration of cheap hotels and hostels, and backpacker-friendly pubs.

Unlike Saigon, Hanoi is not a city noted for its nightlife. Indeed, during the Covid period, most bars have been closing by 9 p.m., if they open at all. But open-air restaurants on both sides of Tà Hiên continue to fill the narrow lane with tables and chairs in the hope that their once-bustling business will soon return to pre-pandemic normal.

Colorful temples are discreetly hidden down narrow alleys off Hang Buom street. (JGA photo)
An artist has added a window to his colorful residential street, even where there wasn’t one. (JGA photo)
A small child studies a mysterious visitor at the doors of the Bach Ma Temple. (JGA photo)
One of scores of ancient streets in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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