Anyone that has traveled to Hanoi will tell you – visit the Old Quarter, walk the streets, eat the food, and experience Hanoi at its heart. This is the full submersion test. You’ll quickly learn where you stand on the Love-Hate scale and if Vietnam is for you.
As you walk through the Old Quarter, motorbikes whip by with seemingly no method to the madness. Sidewalks, a much desired safe zone for Westerners, are blocked with motorbike parking, “restaurants”, and other street vendors leaving pedestrians to walk through the streets. To navigate further than the entrance the hotel, a trust in the local’s motorbike skills and a little faith in God is required. At some point in time, crossing a street is inevitable, but here the traffic does not and will not stop. Hundreds of motorbikes and sometimes cars will cross the thick white bar-code lines that indicate a crosswalk, even while the crosswalk indicates it’s safe to cross. To the average traveler, especially the average Western traveler, this may sound like a lot to ask. Don’t be discouraged by the fact that crossing the street could be described as a near death experience. The risk-reward ratio in Hanoi is very high. Crossing the streets, the Old Quarter, and the City will introduce you to coffee, drinks, food, and shopping that’s worthwhile for everyone.
Where to Go
The Old Quarter has no exact beginning or end. There’s more than a dozen answers online of where the boundaries begin and end. For tourists and visitors, I would suggest starting at Đài phun nước, the traffic circle north of Ho Hoan Lake. From there walk north on Hand Dao road, which turns into the night market on Saturday. Take your time and take detours, this area is meant to be explored. Chùa Cầu Đông, on Hand Dao, offers a more permanent market and a unique place to see and sometimes there are weekend street performances here.
Things to Do You’ll quickly notice, in no particular order, three things in the streets:
- Stores, including plenty knock-off establishments
- Sidewalk restaurants, with their standard fare of blue and red plastic seating
- Coffee shops and cafes
Advice – do as the locals do.
Shopping If you’re planning on buying some bags, jackets, shoes, or coffee, I suggest spreading this out through your time in Hanoi. Spend some time checking the various shops for their inventory, prices. The further from you are from Đài phun nước, the better the prices will be.
Coffee & Cafes
Rumor has it Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer of coffee, after Colombia. I have yet to corroborate this, but coffee lovers will rejoice. Coffee is consumed in quality, not quantity here so don’t expect a venti to go. Portions are small and potent, even regular black coffee enthusiasts may enjoy some creme or condensed milk in theirs. Try the coffee a few different was, as it does vary from the Western standards. The local special is Trung, or egg coffee, a must try. It’s served with or without milk, hot or cold. I think it’s dealers choice, but I prefer hot coffee, no milk.
Looking back, I anticipate missing this area for awhile. When I return to Hanoi, one day, this will be the reason. The chaos, food, coffee, and culture overwhelms you in an incredible way.
Stay tuned – Halong Bay, Food, and some Old Quarter Shopping Advice coming soon.