Hanoi’s Old Quarter 1: Around Hoàn Kiếm Lake

Having lived in a big city for decades we’ve longed for a quieter, less polluted and greener environment for quite some time now. However there’s something attractive about the chaos and busyness of a crowded and chaotic setting like Hanoi, Vietnam and its historic Old Quarter. Crossing the streets with hundreds of motorbikes zipping past and picking our way through hawker stalls and makeshift storefronts of plastic stools on sidewalks would probably exasperate a typical traveler but it was strangely beguiling to us.

street scene. Old Quarter, Hanoi
Typical Old Quarter street scene

We’ve traveled to Vietnam numerous times in the 1990’s and early 2000’s and Leo has been to Hanoi and the Old Quarter twice before so this scene isn’t really a surprise. Something else has changed though: tourists have descended in droves on the 1,000+ year old city – one of Asia’s oldest – and Hanoi has become much more vibrant commercially.

a coffee and souvenir shop at a French colonial building
Many cafés and shops here are housed in French colonial buildings

It was almost a given that we would be staying at the Old Quarter along with Nina’s Uncle Rene and Aunt Tess for this trip. This section of the city is its primary shopping district where most mid-range hotels are located and where a proliferation of shops, restaurants and cafes in charming French colonial buildings may be found. Streets and alleyways thriving with hawker stalls have been named for specific trades centuries ago; many shops plying these trades are still there.

shops selling clothes and souvenir items at the Old Quarter
Shops selling clothes and souvenir items among other products fill the streets of the Old Quarter

Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple

There are also several attractions easily accessible from our hotel on Hang Bong Street. Hoan Kiem Lake – the center of city life – is a short walking distance away and it was inevitable that we would be joining locals and tourists in strolling along the shores of the green lake for a good deal of our time in Hanoi.

red bridge leading to Ngoc Son Temple at Hoan Kiem Lake
The iconic red bridge at Hoan Kiem Lake

Located on an island in the northern part of the lake is an 18th century Buddhist temple, Ngoc Son, accessible via an iconic red bridge. Ngoc Son Temple is dedicated to Tran Hung Dao, a brilliant military strategist and legendary figure who repelled two Mongol invasions in the 13th century.

Ngoc Son Temple gate and bonsai tree
LEFT: Gate to Ngoc Son Temple; RIGHT: Bonsai tree at Ngoc Son
Ngoc Son Temple scene
Ngoc Son Temple is dedicated to the brilliant military leader Tran Hung Dao

Inside Ngoc Son Temple are embalmed huge soft-shell tortoises that used to populate the lake. The last known tortoise died in 2016 and his embalmed body may be found in one of the glass cages inside the temple. There is a Turtle Tower or Pagoda on another island in the southern part of Hoan Kiem.

embalmed huge tortoise at Ngoc Son Temple
Huge tortoises used to populate Hoan Kiem Lake. This last known large soft shell tortoise which died in 2016 has been embalmed and preserved inside Ngoc Son

Also located on the northern shores of the lake is the world-famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. Water puppets originated in the 11th century when villagers in flooded rice paddies used rods under the water to support puppets, making the latter appear to be moving across the water on their own. The theater uses a water pool for a stage with puppeteers hidden behind a screen and a live band on both sides of the pool playing traditional Vietnamese instruments. There are several shows each day so we never needed to queue up in a long line to get tickets. (Unfortunately taking photos or videos of the performance except by phone cameras are not permitted.)

Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
The Thang Long Water Puppet Theater

Hanoi may be a busy and congested city but there are several pockets like Hoan Kiem Lake (there are other lakes in the city by the way) and small parks where locals and visitors can take refuge from the bustle of city life. It’s easily one of the things we enjoy most about this city.

flower field at the perimeter of Hoan Kiem Lake
Brief escape from the hectic city life: A flower field at the perimeter of Hoan Kiem Lake
Dining by Hoan Kiem Lake
Dining at one of the restaurants near Hoan Kiem Lake featuring (clockwise from bottom left) mushroom vegetables claypot rice, grilled meat, bún chả (grilled meat over rice noodles and herbs dipped in sauce) and vegetarian pho (noodle soup). Bún chả is thought to have originated from Hanoi; the first bún chả restaurant was located right at the Hoan Kiem district. The world famous pho is also said to have originated from Hanoi in the late 19th century.

Whenever we got tired from strolling around Hoan Kiem Lake, we would just check in on any of the numerous restaurants and cafes in the vicinity. There are no shortages of cafes and restos in Hanoi and a stroll along its streets is like a virtual food tour. A particularly interesting café located along the northern shores of Hoan Kiem Lake is The Note Coffee. Its warmly welcoming staff intrigued us and its interior even more. The staff here are so friendly they even allowed Leo to shoot videos about how they make their coffee – complete with English instructions. The café is named for the colorful post-it notes that patrons leave behind and which are posted on the café’s walls and table tops.

coffee and post-it notes at The Note Coffee
Enjoying egg coffee, coconut latte, iced coffee and the ambiance at The Note Coffee

But we came to The Note primarily for coffee and specifically for egg coffee and coconut latte which our tour guide in Ha Long Bay earlier encouraged us to sample. Nina went for a simpler iced coffee which was not exactly the same as cà phê đá or typical Vietnamese iced coffee made with condensed milk and smaller but plentiful bits of ice which we’ve always enjoyed since first visiting Vietnam in 1998.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral

St. Joseph’s Cathedral
St. Joseph’s Cathedral

West of Hoan Kiem Lake is St. Joseph’s Cathedral, one of the first buildings constructed by the French colonial government in Vietnam. Located at the junction of Nhà Chung and Nhà Thờ streets, it is less than 300 meters from our hotel, an easy walk.

front door and religious sculpture at St. Joseph's Cathedral
7% of Vietnam’s population is Catholic

Built in Neo-Gothic Style, the cathedral is a clear sign of French influence on the capital, as well as the cafes and restaurants housed in old French colonial buildings in the area. Since we had arrived here near the weekend before Good Friday and Easter Sunday, there were religious ceremonies inside the church grounds clearly visible from the second floor of the nearby café where we dined and lounged on our final day in Hanoi.

a cafe near St. Joseph’s Cathedral
One of the cafes near St. Joseph’s Cathedral

There are numerous restaurants and cafés in the surrounding area here and one of them – 10 Ly Quoc Su is reputed to have one of the best, if not the best, Phở or noddle soup in town. Hanoi, by the way, is where this universally famous dish is said to have originated in the late 19th century. We tried a couple of times to dine at 10 Ly Quoc Su since it was just walking distance from our hotel but the lines were too long and our stomachs too hungry that we had to look elsewhere.

dishes at at La Place Café-Restaurant
Dining at La Place Café-Restaurant
Cha Ca La Vong
Among the dishes at La Place is cha ca la vong, a grilled fish (snakehead) served with rice noodles, peanut, green onions, herbs and shrimp paste

Shopping at the Old Quarter

As we said earlier it’s shopping galore at the Old Quarter where souvenirs may be found alongside local products and export overruns at cheap or affordable prices. During weekends and Friday evenings, some streets around and near Hoan Kiem are closed to traffic to allow people to wander freely and we took advantage of this to do some shopping and observe more of the street life in this part of the city.

souvenirs for sale at Old Quarter shops

pop-up cards for sale at Hoan Kiem Lake
Exquisite pop-up cards for sale at Hoan Kiem Lake

The helpful staff at Hai Bay Hotel where we stayed also referred us to Dong Xuan Market, the largest indoor market in Hanoi and still inside the Old Quarter but this was during our final morning in Hanoi when we had already shot our bolt as far as shopping was concerned.

There were still a few destinations worth visiting in the Old Quarter, however – the subject of our next post.

5 thoughts on “Hanoi’s Old Quarter 1: Around Hoàn Kiếm Lake

Add yours

    1. I used a wide angle lens (10-18mm) in some of the landscape shots but not all the time. Kaso tinamad na ako magpalit ng lens every time 🙂 gamit ko ibang lens for the close-up shots.

    1. I (Leo) had the same experience back in the early 2000’s. Medyo malamig noon (about 12 degrees C) but since we were living in Baguio back then I enjoyed just walking around the Old Quarter. There were very few foreign tourists back then.

      1. Simply walking around is a wonderful experience. Then drop by one of those ubiquitous cafes and sip the famed egg coffee. Heavenly 🙂

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