On our personal food tours, we greet our travelers at their hotel and brief them with the walk before heading to the neighborhood that they’re interested in. For the Old Quarter of Hanoi, we’ll walk them through the backstreets and the hidden alleys to see the daily life of the Hanoians.
With most visitors’ limited time in Hanoi, the food walk is undisputed to be the best way to learn about the city. Beside exploring street eats Hanoi and meeting the locals, our travelers get to learn a lot about the history of the city from their personal foodie guide.
When recalling our tours in the Old Quarter, we noticed that one of the mostly asked questions from our discerning travelers was “what to know about Hanoi’s Old Quarter?”. Hence, in this short blog entry, we would like to share our answer to all Hanoi visitors.
As always, we’re foodie guide, so we answer questions in paragraphs as below:
The Old Quarter is the oldest trading area in the city, which is about 1 square kilometer with 100.000 people. Though the area is often referred to as the “36 streets”, it actually has up to 76 different streets today.
The history of the Old Quarter dates back to the 12th century, when the king started to build his palace, and craftsmen from all over the country were required to travel to the capital to do the work.
In the capital, the craftsmen lived together in their own artisan guilds in the swamp between the royal city and the Red River. They also began to make and sell their traditional products on their door steps. To make it easier for the customers to find what they want, the craftsmen named the guilds after the product it sells.
That was the very first foundation of the busy streets in the Old Quarter, where the whole street was selling the same thing and each was named after the product being sold, like Silk Street sells silk.
Back then, the business owners were taxed on the width of their storefronts, so they ended up building narrow houses to pay less tax. That explains why houses in the Old Quarter are so narrow, and we call them the “tube houses”.
After defeating the French in 1954, many rich capitalists’ houses in the Old Quarter were confiscated and nationalized by the communist government. Many state workers in the city were put into the collective housing units, where several families got to share one house.
That explains why, along our ways, we’ll find many dark lanes between two houses; those lanes often lead to a poorer community inside, where many family members are sharing one small room.
Since the economic reform kick-started in 1986 and the country slowly opened up, the people living behind those lanes started to serve tea and food on the sidewalk to earn a living, and that contributed to the culture of eating on the sidewalk in Hanoi.
Doing businesses on the sidewalk is illegal, so the vendors have to routinely runaway from the local police when they come. That explains why there are so many plastic stools on the sidewalk, because they are affordable to be taken away by the police.
Well, that brief information should prepared you well on what to know about Hanoi’s Old Quarter. If you have any question about the neighborhood, we would love to receive your question via email.
Join Flavors of Hanoi’s peronal foodie on our daily walking street food tour Hanoi and explore the best of what the city has to offer. Follow us on Instagram and Facebook for update about local restaurants and more.