The Old Quarter is Hanoi’s stellar attraction, a square kilometer of seething humanity and commerce, the like of which cannot be found in any other Asian city. Because the twisted streets are so narrow, it’s best explored on foot or from the seat of a cyclo.
While most day-tour operators go for the cyclo option, this takes away the element of participation in the experience. On foot you are free to stroll into any shops you pass, chat with the locals, stop for refreshment when you want, and wander down backstreets that the tours don’t go to.
History of Hanoi Old Quarter
Though people have lived and done business here since the city’s inception, the district takes its current shape from the division in the 13th century into 36 artisans’ guilds, each of which occupied its own street.
These street names still exist today, most with the prefix ‘hang’ meaning ‘merchandise’. In those days the guilds specialized in things like silverware, bamboo products, string instruments and votive papers, and while a few such shops survive, these days you are just as likely to see shops selling T-shirts, mobile phones and jewellery.
The Hanoi Old Quarter was once surrounded by ramparts and gates, the only remnant of which today is a crumbling gate at the eastern end of Hang Chieu. This place is a popular spot for tourists taking an obligatory photograph for their albums.
Architecture of Hanoi Old Quarter
The most interesting aspect of the Old Quarter are the so-called ‘tube’ houses, in which the merchants display their wares and live. Properties were once taxed on their frontage, so the clever merchants bought properties with narrow fronts but deep interiors to allow plenty of storage for goods as well as living space for their families.
You can visit a fine example of such a merchant’s house at the Memorial House: (Open: 08:00-17:00 (daily); Admission: 5000D; 87 Ma May), where the wonderfully restored tube building is laid out as it would have been during the 19th century.