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Photo by Richard Neal

Exploring the Old Quarter of Hanoi Vietnam

I emerge from the comfort of my air-conditioned hotel into the sweltering, teeming streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The narrow road is home to a traditional street market. Tanks of wriggling fish, buckets of plump frogs, mountains of fleshy mangos, and stacks of jumbo papayas combine to create a tangy aroma that is not totally pleasant, yet strangely intriguing. Street vendors in conical hats squat on stools and slurp from bowls of pho noodles.
Within seconds I’m accosted by a trio of merchants: a woman plying crimson dragon fruit, a young girl hawking colossal, chocolate croissants, and a guy in a three-wheeled cyclo offering to take me anywhere in Hanoi "cheap, cheap."

I'm a little overwhelmed, but happy to be here nonetheless. Based on recommendations from friends, I’d put this trip together on two weeks notice. Now, dripping with anticipation, not to mention perspiration, I’m ready to take on Vietnam's capital city.

As a boy, Hanoi was the last place on Earth I thought I’d ever visit. Glimpsed in grainy newsreel footage taken from American bombers as they pounded the city, it was known to me as the headquarters for communist evildoers plotting to take over the world. Or so I was told. I knew nothing of its thousand-year history, or that it served as the capital of French Indochina for over fifty years before the Americans arrived in the 1950s.

Today’s Hanoi has survived French occupation and what the locals call the American War to emerge as a lively metropolis that retains its old-world Asian charm. The French influence is apparent through the elegant, colonial-era mansions that line wide boulevards west of the Old Quarter, and the smell of baguettes that waft from countless cafes. The city has had several names over the centuries, the most charming being Thanh Long – City of the Soaring Dragon. After lying dormant through decades of isolation and economic stagnation, the dragon is on the rise again.

I stop to buy one of those chocolate croissants and catch my breath before I press on. The Old Quarter’s narrow streets are packed with hawkers pushing Ho Chi Minh t-shirts, baby bananas, fake designer sunglasses, and cheap meals hidden inside smoking wicker baskets. Locals share gossip at pho stalls that cling to every corner. A few shopkeepers kneel before Buddhist prayer stations inside their stores.

Photo by Richard Neal Motorbikes buzz dangerously close to pedestrians forced on to the congested roads due to merchandise piled on the sidewalks. Many are the vehicle of choice for moving freight as well as passengers. One tiny scooter is so loaded down with tropical plants I can barely see the driver. Another has a live calf tied to the back. I’ve read somewhere that there is a motorbike for each of Vietnam’s ninety million inhabitants. Today it feels like all of them are crammed into this one slender road.

Crossing the street is an extreme sport. My first impulse is to make a mad dash and hope for the best. But after a near fatal encounter with an overloaded minibike, and after observing a few natives, I find it’s best to cross in tiny spurts, giving the oncoming traffic a chance to swerve around me before proceeding further. After a few feeble first attempts I’m an expert. I reward myself with a café au lait and another pastry, this time at a café. The French influence is evident once again, although at under a dollar, the sublime cream-filled creation I enjoy costs a fraction of what I would pay on the Champs Elysee.

As I continue my wanderings, I find that some streets widen on to main thoroughfares while others become narrow alleys. Many of the hotels and shops that I pass are converted tunnel houses. Constructed to avoid taxes based on the width of their street front, these long, narrow buildings are painted bright hues of green, orange, and blue. I discover that, in spite of its challenges for pedestrians, the relentless energy and funky smells of the Old Quarter are best experienced on foot.

I also learn that it’s one big dollar store. Jewelry, lacquer ware, stylish silk clothes, shoes, lanterns, straw mats, toys, artwork, and cosmetics are all priced at a fraction of what I would pay at home. I pick up two “genuine” fake Polo shirts and some hand painted lacquer coasters for five bucks each. Photo by Richard Neal

While the tourist shops are great fun I’m most intrigued by those that cater to the locals. I discover one row of stores that produces hand-carved gravestones, while an avenue of herb sellers fills the air with pleasing aromas. Then I come upon some shops that offer counterfeit money used for burning in Buddhist ceremonies. A stack of fake US$5000 bills can be had for a couple of dollars.

After a couple of hours it’s apparent that each street sells a different kind of product. A quick visit to my guidebook informs me this is hardly a coincidence. Eight hundred years ago Hanoi’s thirty-six guilds established themselves here, each occupying a different street. Most of the fifty streets start with the word hang, which means “merchandise”, followed by the name of the product that was traditionally sold there. Hang Da translates as “Leather Street,” while Hang Tre means Bamboo Street. Some streets retain their traditional name, even though they no longer sell the product they were named after. Hang Ruoi means “Clam Worms Street.”

Nowadays, most roads still specialize in a distinct type of merchandise. A notable exception is the travel agencies that inhabit every street. Signs in English advertise that airplane, train, and bus tickets, as well as complete packaged tours, can be booked for other parts of Vietnam. Their presence, along with the plethora of budget hotels I’ve encountered, explains the hundreds of other backpacker types I’ve spotted among the hordes of locals today.

By late afternoon I’ve reached Hoan Kiem Lake, the Old Quarter’s southern boundary, and a welcome escape from the chaos I’ve been surrounded by. A couple of old men with wispy beards play chess on a park bench nearby. Although I’m wilting under the blazing sun, I’ve one more thing to before I head back to my hotel.

A couple of blocks north I find what I’m searching for: Bia Hoi Junction, one of several Hanoi beer parlours that serves up bia hoi, Vietnam’s very own draught beer. The brew, a light-bodied Pilsener, is pleasant but hardly sensational, but the astonishing price of twenty-five cents per glass makes the stuff popular with the locals. For some reason, the tourists flock to the western style bars with their western prices, but that’s their loss. At these prices, I figure I can treat every one in the place and get change back from a ten-dollar bill. And so I do, much to the delight of the mostly male patrons, many of who have been eyeing me suspiciously. Many of them raise their glass and offer the Vietnamese version of “bottoms up”: “tram phan tram,” a phrase I hope to hear many more times over the next couple of weeks.

If You Go
Getting There:
Hanoi has few direct international flights, but with a transfer in Hong Kong or Bangkok, you can get almost anywhere. Vietnam Airlines links Hanoi to major cities throughout the country.

Most of Hanoi’s budget accommodations are located in the Old Quarter, within walking distance of Hoan Kiem Lake. For under US$20 (as of 2009) there is a wide range of cheap digs that offer clean, air-conditioned rooms, satellite TV, hot water, and free internet in the lobby. For double that amount you get a larger room with three-star touches like hardwood floors, silk trim, and in-room internet. Lavish four and five-star hotels are available that would cost double in Hong Kong or Bangkok. Bargain hard, as prices can be negotiable, especially during fall and winter.

City Gate Hotel Nestled on a narrow, side street near the old East Gate, this minihotel offers clean rooms, internet, an elevator, and even a small restaurant. Hanoi Backpackers Hostel is a laid-back hostel with secure dorms and a couple of single rooms. Breakfast, lockers, internet access, and tea and coffee are included. Check out the action on the rooftop bar. Dripping in atmosphere, the rooms at Queen Hotel feature wooden furniture, silk lamps, hairdryers, and a personal DVD player. There are only ten rooms so reservations are definitely recommended.

Rick Neal is a free-lance writer living in Vancouver, Canada. His credits include and He has travelled to Mexico, Central America, Turkey, China, and Vietnam. He hope to make South America his next destination.

© 2009