For many visitors, the hustle and bustle of Hanoi’s Old Quarter stands out as the most memorable part of their visit to this ancient city. Hanoi’s Old Quarter is often referred to as ‘the 36 streets’ after the 36 guilds that once occupied the city’s commercial heart. However, these days there are over 70 streets crowded into this square kilometre, and it’s easy to get lost, so this simple itinerary guides you to the most interesting sights. On leaving Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the route follows a couple of streets packed with stylish souvenirs before tracking the rim of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Begin the day on busy Hang Bac, one of the few of Hanoi’s ’36 Streets’ that still plies its original trade—silverware. Look for number 42-44 and wander around Dinh Kim Ngan, a classic example of a communal house, used by locals for political, religious or commercial meetings. Then head around the corner to look at Heritage House on Ma May—a beautifully restored tube house, which is the most common form of architecture in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
The Bach Ma Temple is the Old Quarter’s oldest place of worship, and often busy with locals making offerings at the altar. A couple of blocks northeast of here, the Quan Chuong Gate is the last remaining vestige of the city’s ancient defence walls. For a glimpse at locals going about their business, duck into the enormous Dong Xuan Market, just a short walk northwest of the gate.
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In the afternoon, be ready to pick up some extra weight as you’ll be passing along two of the city’s top shopping streets. Wander west down Hang Gai, dropping in to shops like Hanoi Moment and XQ in search of distinctive souvenirs. Hang on to a few dong, however, as you’re bound to be tempted by the window displays in shops like Things of Substance on Nha Tho, the short street that fronts St Joseph’s Cathedral. This huge edifice is evidence of the success of French missionaries’ efforts to convert the Vietnamese to Catholicism.
Turn right into Hang Trong from Nha Tho, and within a few steps you’ll find yourself on the west bank of Hoan Kiem Lake, gazing across at the Turtle Tower, one of Hanoi’s most iconic structures. Walk round the south end of the lake and finish your tour at the The Huc Bridge, from where you can walk into Ngoc Son Temple for a look at a stuffed giant turtle, or cross the road to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre to enjoy a show.