Alternatively called Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Ancient Quarter, or just simply 36 Streets, the Old Quarter of Hanoi is a must-see for anyone visiting Vietnam. Located at the northern end of Hoan Kiem Lake, the Old Quarter is the home of most the economical hotels, tourist shops, and cafes in Hanoi.
The Old Quarter is truly old: people have called Hanoi home continuously for more than 2,000 years, and the Old Quarter is the first area settled by humans. Most of Vietnamese history and culture has unfurled from the location of the Old Quarter. Unlike other cities with “old towns”, which by-and-large have become nothing more than souvenir shops and cheap tourist attractions, Hanoi’s Old Quarter is still the vibrant centre of life in Hanoi. With people on the street by 5:30 a.m., and restaurants opening by 6:00 a.m., the hustle-and-bustle of the Old Quarter doesn’t really start to slow down until 9:30 at night.
The 36 streets that make up the Old Quarter are all named for the type of good or serve they used to sell there. There are streets named for bamboo, silk, silver, medicine, shoes, fans, chickens, and even coffins. This method of naming the street after goods or services goes back to the days when craftsmen would work together in guilds to produce and sell their wares. Even today, walking through the Old Quarter, you might come across an entire block of nothing but paper makers, tinsmiths, or tailors.
A Day in the Life of Hanoi’s Old Quarter
The long homes lining the streets of Old Hanoi are called “tunnel homes”, because they are not very wide but extend far behind the street front. The section of the home facing the street is generally where the merchants produce and sell their goods; behind the public section is a garden courtyard, and behind that is the residence where the family lives.
Everywhere in Old Hanoi, life spills out from these tunnel houses onto the streets. On the streets, you’ll find average Vietnamese people going about their day, tourists looking for some interesting shopping, and street vendors selling their wares. You’ll have to walk around stools set onto the sidewalks, where cafe customers are eating their rice or drinking tea, and you’ll need to watch out for the motorbikes racing by in the streets.
Things to See in the Old Quarter
Amongst other sites of interest, the Old Quarter is home to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the most frequently visited historical site in Hanoi. Drab and imposing from the outside, the rough, grey granite slabs hide polished stones of red, black, and grey on the inside. Designed to look like Moscow’s Lenin’s Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum rests in the centre of Ba Dinh Square, where President Ho read the Declaration of Independence in 1945, after the Japanese had been defeated. Be careful when you visit the mausoleum; the guards strictly enforce rules regarding dress (no shorts or miniskirts), talking (don’t do it), walking (visitors must walk in two lines), and there is no smoking, photography, or video taping allowed anywhere inside the mausoleum.
Right next to the mausoleum is the Ho Chi Minh Museum, a living scrapbook of Vietnam’s struggle to boot out foreign powers.
Nearby you’ll find two contrasting buildings also related to Vietnam’s twentieth century history: the Governor’s Palace and the House on Stilts. The Governor’s Palace is an ornate, yellow, colonial style building that was built in 1906 to house French government officials ruling over Vietnam. Large and imposing, the Governor’s Palace isn’t open to the public, but you can walk around the grounds and snap a few photos.
The House on Stilts, on the other hand, was Ho Chi Minh’s home on and off from 1958 through 1969. Built of teak in the traditional Vietnamese village-style, the House on Stilts was a simple home that represented Ho’s communist ideals.
Visit While You Have a Chance
If you want to see Hanoi’s Old Quarter the way it’s been for hundreds of years, you should visit soon. A government proposal suggests razing many of the tunnel houses and replacing them with fancy new condominiums and commercial buildings. If the construction is approved, as much as a third of the tunnel houses will disappear – along with the families that have called the long, narrow houses home for generations. In a process of gentrification all too familiar in the west, the face of the Old Quarter may be very different in just a few years. In other words, go see Hanoi’s Old Quarter now, while it’s still old.