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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.