Welcome to the Old Quarter. Most certainly the ugly side of Hanoi, but it’s the local atmosphere that makes all the difference – and not always in a positive way!
There’s no doubt that Hanoi’s Old Quarter is one of the tourist hotspots in the city. It has 36 streets and sidewalks and there seems to be a lot of activity in each of them, day or night! The Old Quarter not only has some amazing colonial and historic architecture (remaining relatively unscathed during the Vietnam War), but it the main place in the city to appreciate the every day of the normal Vietnamese locals.
One of my hostels in Hanoi was located in the Old Quarter, so I didn’t have to do much travelling to the place, although I can tell you that it is about a 15 minute ride from Hanoi Train Station, and only a short walk away from Hoan Kiem Lake. When you do arrive here, you can spend hours and hours just walking around browsing the area, but you had better keep your wits about you, as I did not find it to be the safest place in South East Asia, regardless of its reputation as a tourist hot spot. One of my fellow backpackers had his phone stolen in broad daylight by a couple of chancers on mopeds, and the sheer number of scams in the Old Quarter really gives Hanoi a bad name.
The street food in Hanoi’s Old Quarter is marvellous. It was always a joy to enjoy some freshly roasted duck or some pho ga (chicken noodles) beside the busy roads – which in themselves were a danger! However, when I think back about the food, I can understand why so many people fret over Vietnamese cuisine, as some of it is a little scary to look it, let alone taste! Perhaps it’s not a good idea to sit on your own on the street with the locals, but if you’re in a small group then pull up a few chairs and sample the atmosphere (and food)! For me, apart from the com tam, which is broken rice, my favourite snack in Hanoi would probably be the banh mi, which are little French-inspired baguettes that can be filled with any meats going (there are even ice cream versions available!).
Most of the street names in the Old Quarter are named according to the specialised products on sale in the markets there. I also noticed this kind of system in Chinatown in Singapore. There is a Roasted Fish Street, a Bamboo Products Street, a Dried Apricot Street, and a Silk Street! It was really good to see the locals trying to sell their products, and some people were quite aggressive in getting our attention, but I guess that’s a way of life around here.
For some more great information on the Old Quarter, and of Hanoi in general, I found the following blog post from Tim and Laina to be very helpful!