When the French took control of Hanoi in 1882, they began to develop a swathe of land stretching from a mosquito-ridden plot on the banks of the Red River, which they had already been granted, to the railway station about 2km further west. They destroyed many ancient Vietnamese buildings and monuments, and in their place erected broad, tree-lined boulevards that give Hanoi’s French Quarter its distinctive atmosphere.
Over time, the grid of streets gradually spread south to the boundary of Thong Nhat Park, which is generally recognised as the southern border of the French Quarter. The contrast with the city’s Old Quarter couldn’t be stronger; while the Old Quarter is characterised by narrow, twisting lanes and shopfronts less than two metres wide, the French Quarter’s streets are wide, shaded by huge trees and bordered by elegant mansions occupying large tracts of land. Many of the palatial colonial houses have now been replaced by unremarkable, modern structures, yet enough of them have been restored to their former glory to make a tour of this part of town worthwhile.
Begin at the National Museum of History in the northeast corner of the French Quarter, and take a good look at the splendid building before entering. You could spend all day in this museum (Vietnam has lots of history!), but to allow time to see the rest of the quarter, choose those sections that interest you most and limit yourself to 2-3 hours. Don’t miss the annexe across the road at 216 Tran Quang Khai, which covers the fight for independence in the Indochina Wars against France and the USA.
From the History Museum head west along Trang Tien, the French Quarter’s main road, for a look at the Opera House, which is perhaps Hanoi’s most-photographed building, and the Metropole Hotel on Ngo Quyen, which has remained the city’s top hotel since opening in 1901.
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Many of the hotels and restaurants in this part of town are up-market, so why not splash out for lunch at Pots ‘N Pans (Vietnamese fusion) or La Verticale (gourmet French)? For somewhere cheaper but atmospheric, check out Chim Sao, which serves some hard-to-find Vietnamese dishes like freshwater crab with ginger sauce.
After lunch, head for the recently renovated Museum of Vietnamese Women, which pays homage to the role played by women not only in defending the country against invaders, but also in everyday life. Then take a walk round the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, once ironically dubbed by American POWs who stayed here the ‘Hanoi Hilton’.
If time is running short and there’s only time for one more visit in the day, go for the Temple of Literature; the country’s first university was founded here in 1076. If, however, you’re an art lover, head straight for the Fine Arts Museum, which gives a clear overview of the development of Vietnamese art down through the ages, and is housed in yet another beautifully restored colonial building.