Hanoi and its Old Quarter


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Have you ever wondered what does Hanoi mean? What is the Hanoi Old Quarter? What to see in that neighborhood? 

These are some of the most frequently questions, about Hanoi and its Old Quarter, we received from our clients on Hanoi food tours. Within this article, we would like to answer them as local foodie guides would do.

Hanoi Turtle Tower

Since Hanoi has been the capital city of Vietnam for more than 1010 years, it’s home to a lot of history, many traditions and anecdotes. So within the context of a post, we try to organize the information as brief as we can with questions and answers as below.

What Does Hanoi Mean?

Hanoi means “city inside the river”.

History of Hanoi brings us back to 1010AD, when a Vietnamese King Ly Thai To chose a flat area surrounded by the Red River to be the capital of Vietnam. The king proclaimed that he saw a dragon soaring from the land where he had chosen to be the capital, so he named the capital “Thang Long”, which literally means “soaring dragon”.

Thang Long remained the name of the city until 1831 when another king renamed it “Hanoi”, which means “the city inside the river” (the Red River). That’s what Hanoi means, the city inside the river, and the city holds on to its second name till now.

Where’s Hanoi Old Quarter?

Back to the 11th century when the king was building the capital and his palace, craftsmen from all over the country were brought to the city for the constructions. While staying in the city, these craftsmen and artisans coming from the same province or sharing the same profession naturally got together in one ward to better support each other.

These wards later became a busy merchandising quarter, which was locating in the east of the king’s palace and on the eastern side of the city. Today, you can easily spot its location on any Hanoi tourist map.

Hanoi Quan Chuong Gate

What the “Hanoi – 36 Streets” Mean?

From 12th to 14th century, craftsmen wards became busy artisan guilds. Craftsmen were producing goods right inside their homes, and selling their products in their store fronts. Finally, they called the street running through each guild after what was being produced and sold there.

It was also practically easy for customers from everywhere, those who need silk go to the Silk Street, those needing noodles will go to Noodle Street making noodles, bamboo at the Bamboo Street and so on.

According to historians and researchers, there were 36 first streets named after the products being sold, so “Hanoi – 36 streets” has been the common way to indicate the Hanoi Old Quarter.

Hang Khoai Street

Bamboo Street

Why houses in Hanoi Old Quarter are so narrow?

In 14th and 15th centuries, craftsmen were taxed on the width of their storefronts (we heard that this tax policy was also popular in the world too), so they built narrow houses to pay as less tax as they can.

Over the years, Hanoi Old Quarter became the home of narrow houses, which are known as “tube houses (like in the US they have “shotgun houses”). A tube house is usually no more than 3 meters (10 feet) wide, with rooms arranged one behind the other. This type of house is still popular along the length of Vietnam today, especially in newly developed areas, due to the high land prices.

That traditional architecture retains in the Hanoi Old Quarter, where each house is still owned by one family, starting from the bottom – grandparents and great grandparents or right behind their shop, parents on the 2nd floor, then the children on the higher floors.

Hanoi Old Quarter

What’s special about Hanoi Old Quarter today?

When walking through busy streets in Hanoi Old Quarter, we will notice that there are often supper narrow lanes between shops. That’s because houses we see on each street only shows 20% of all the houses, the other 80% of the houses are hidden behind the shops.

So, between two nice shops, there is usually a sharing dark lane leading to a living area of up to 10 different families. That explains why locals are earning their livings by selling drinks or foods on the sidewalk.

With these interesting history and traditions, Hanoi Old Quarter is considered the city’s main business hub as well as the best traveler spot. This charming part of the city offers an impressive insight into the complex and long history of Hanoi, whilst alongside rife modernization.

For foodies, Hanoi Old Quarter is a cradle for the city’s delicious street foods, many restaurants have been on the business for generations, like these best Pho in Hanoi Old Quarter.

Hang Quat Street

Smoking Tobacco

Are Walking Streets and Night Market Worth Seeing?

To boost tourism and local economy, Hanoi has been organizing a night market and an interesting walking area surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake every weekend.

From around 19h00 every Friday to midnight Sunday, Hang Dao Street and its northernly continuation to Dong Xuan Market become a night market. While streets around Hoan Kiem Lake will also be closed to traffic, only open for walking.

From our notice, the weekend night market is a fun place to experience modern Hanoi, but there is not much on sale that would interest Western travelers. Most shoppers are young Vietnamese, mostly students, snapping up fashion accessories like mobile phone covers.

The night market and the walking streets around Hoan Kiem Lake has formed an interesting pedestrian zone, becoming a magnet and a cultural attraction for both domestic and foreign visitors. We think that these activities are exposing the city’s new lifestyle for Hanoians, and this lively zone is worth seeing for every Hanoi visitors.

To explore the rest of Hanoi and its Old Quarter, please contact us for a private Hanoi food tour with a real local foodie, we are good at what we are doing and looking forward to showing you around our city.

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