Hanoi's Old Quarter Walking Tour, Hanoi

Hanoi's Old Quarter Walking Tour (Self Guided), Hanoi

The Old Quarter (Vietnamese: Phố cổ Hà Nội) is the name commonly given to the historical civic urban core of the city, located outside the Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long in the northern half of Hoàn Kiếm District, renowned for its small street blocks and alleys, and a traditional Vietnamese atmosphere.

During the Lê dynasty (1428-1789), the area included several lakes and wetlands connected with the Hoàn Kiếm lake and the Red River. Another common name referring to approximately the same area is the 36 streets (Vietnamese: Hà Nội 36 phố phường), after the 36 streets or guilds that once made up the district. Each such street housed merchants specialized in a particular trade. The street names here still reflect these specializations, such as Hàng Bông (Cotton Street), Hàng Gai (Silk or Hemp Street) and so on.

More than six decades of French colonization, from the late 1800s until 1954, and centuries of socio-cultural influence from China are duly reflected in the designs of Old Quarter's houses. The Franco-Chinese hybrid architecture marries French-styled columns with Confucian scrolls, Taoist yin-yang signs and Buddhist lotus sculpture. Many local structures carry a great deal of French charm, with some of them closely resembling famous Parisian landmarks, like the Hanoi Opera House (resembling Palais Garnier) and St. Joseph Cathedral (resembling the Notre Dame de Paris).

The variety of entertainment options found in Hanoi is vast. A popular traditional form of entertainment, water puppetry, can be seen at the Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre.

The Old Quarter of Hanoi is an intriguing neighborhood, home to a mix of everything – architecture, greenery, ancient shops and fresh-as-it-gets street food — all of which can be easily explored on foot. If you wish to get a first-hand experience of it yourself, take this self-guided walking tour.
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Hanoi's Old Quarter Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Hanoi's Old Quarter Walking Tour
Guide Location: Vietnam » Hanoi (See other walking tours in Hanoi)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.0 Km or 2.5 Miles
Author: HelenF
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Hanoi Opera House
  • Trang Tien Plaza
  • Museum of Vietnamese Women
  • Hoa Lo Prison
  • The Train Street
  • Hang Bong Street
  • St Joseph Cathedral
  • Hàng Gai (Silk Street)
  • Water Puppet Theater
  • Hoàn Kiếm Lake
Hanoi Opera House

1) Hanoi Opera House

The Hanoi opera house was built in 1911 by the French colonial rulers to resemble the old opera house in Paris. On August the 16th 1945, the Viet Minh declared that it had taken over the city from the balcony of the building.

The Hanoi opera house was built over a drained pond in 1911. Architects Harley and Broyer were the designers, and the construction was supervised by M. Travary and M. Savelon. The structure combines Greek, Beaux Arts and Gothic styles like the Palais Garnier, the old opera house in Paris. This is the largest theater in Vietnam. It consists of a large stage, a 24 x 24 meter main audience room and several balconies in the middle floor. There are 18 makeup rooms, 2 rooms for voice training, a library and a meeting room backstage. In 1997, the opera house underwent major restoration under the supervision of French Vietnamese architects, Ho Thieu Thri and Hoang Phuc Sinh. The theater was equipped with state of the art acoustic and other equipment suitable for modern audiences.

Visitors can view all types of performances at the Hanoi opera house including folk music performances, western music concerts and Vietnamese operetta and drama. Visitors are not allowed in unless they are part of the audience at a performance. The steps leading to the building are a popular place for tourists to get their photographs taken.
Trang Tien Plaza

2) Trang Tien Plaza

Trang Tien Plaza is a commercial center in Hoan Kiem district, sitting on the site of the old Hanoi General Department Store, close to the Hanoi Post Office and overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake. This is not only one of the largest and most luxurious shopping centers in the city but also an iconic landmark. Designed in an elegant French architectural style, reflecting the beauty and delicate culture of the capital, this three-façade edifice offers more than 215,000 square feet (20,000 square meters) of office space, retail, coffee and food outlets.

The history of this prestigious shopping venue dates back to 1953 when the French Government sold what was then known as Maison Godard to foreign businesses, followed by a change of name to Grands Magasins Reunis. In 1959 it became the General Department Store of Hanoi City (aka General Merchandise) which sold products like fabrics, clothing, bicycles and spare parts, etc. In 1993, the Vietnamese Government took over the enterprise, however, the state-owned business proved unsuccessful and September 29, 1995 was the last working day of General Merchandise.

On April 30, 2000, marking the 25th anniversary of the liberation of South Vietnam, the new complex construction got underway, launched by another state-owned company. Following its completion after 18 months, the new Tràng Tiền Plaza Shopping Center saw the light of day, offering a broad range of products, from basic goods to luxury items. In 2005, owing to the lavish investment by IMEX PAN Pacific Group, Trang Tien Plaza got a new boost, becoming the first and only luxury shopping center in the country.

Today, this high-end mall is a home to more than 200 international brands such as Rolex, Burberry, Zegna, and others. Its 1st floor houses Louis Vuitton, Cartier, GUCCI, Dolce & Gabbana, and BVLGARI among others. On the 2nd floor you will find Versace, Dior, etc. The 3rd floor is given to gold, gems and cosmetics, while the 4th floor is all about menswear and accessories, as well as women's fashion, lingerie, sportswear, and leather goods. The 5th floor is taken up by CGV Cinema & Restaurant, and the 6th floor is dedicated to housewares and children's items.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Museum of Vietnamese Women

3) Museum of Vietnamese Women (must see)

The Museum of Vietnamese Women, located in a leafy courtyard in Ly Thuong Kiet Street in Hanoi is one of the few museums in the world dedicated solely to the life and achievements of women. The museum is a tribute to the sacrifices and contributions made by women to society and to the country of Vietnam.

The idea of establishing a museum dedicated to women was that of Vietnam Women’s Union president Nguyen Thi Dinh and the collections are the result of ten years of patient research. The building was designed by a lady architect, Tran Xuan Diem.

Visitors are welcomed in the first section of the museum by 3.6 meter high statue dedicated to the Vietnamese mother. The sculpture by Phu Cuong is cast in pure gold. Another section shows the contribution of women in the construction of modern Vietnam and their services in defending the nation. The walls are covered with photographs of women taking active part in all professional fields like education, industry, transport and healthcare in Vietnam. There is also a section devoted to the achievements of the Women’s workers union, a 65 year old institution that has taken an active part in the building of the nation.

A popular section is the collection of costumes worn by women from 54 nationalities that make up Vietnam. There is also a gift shop and café for the convenience of visitors.
Hoa Lo Prison

4) Hoa Lo Prison (must see)

The Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, sarcastically referred to as the Hanoi Hilton by American POWs in the 2nd Indochina War, is a vast prison complex built by the French in the style of the Maison Centrales a euphemism used for prisons in France. At first it was used as a prison, detention and torture center for revolutionaries struggling for independence from France. During the Vietnam War, the prison was used to house several American pilots whose planes were shot down by Vietnamese forces.

The Hoa Lo prison was built by the French between 1886 and 1901. Hoa Lo means fiery furnace or stove in Vietnamese. The facility was built to house 450 inmates. During the freedom struggle, the prison had more than 2000 Vietnamese inmates living in sub human conditions. Several tools of torture used by the French are preserved including a Guillotine used to behead early Vietnamese freedom fighters. From 1964 to 1973, the prison was a major POW detention facility and earned its name, the Hanoi Hilton. Well known inmates included Senator John McCain, the 2008 Presidential nominee of the Republican Party and Pete Peterson, who later became ambassador to Vietnam.

A small part of the original facility is preserved. The other part has now become a modern office and residential complex called the Hanoi Towers. Hanoi Hilton is located near the French quarter.
The Train Street

5) The Train Street

Ngõ 224 Lê Duẩn is a narrow alley in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, known as “The Train Street”, which sees a twice-daily speeding train pass close to buildings on either side of the tracks (the railroad tracks take up nearly the entirety of the “train street”). The track was built by the French in 1902 and is still an active rail line as of 2019.

The train passes at 3pm and 7pm daily, on the rail line between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. The alley is so narrow that local residents must remove their personal belongings, including bicycles and children, before the train passes. Locals often sit on the tracks, drinking tea and playing checkers.

The street has become a popular tourist stop in Hanoi, but was closed to tourists by local authorities in October 2019 for security reasons, fearing a severe accident. Tourists would often stop and take pictures to post on social media along the narrow alley. In more recent times, the street was home to squatters and drug addicts amongst numerous cafes and residential buildings. The overcrowded street caused the need to reroute a local train on October 6, 2019, prompting the closure.

Local cafes have sprung up to serve the bustling tourist trade along the street and owners are concerned over the loss of business the closure will bring. The VN Express newspaper cites a train driver that has had three close calls with tourists on the tracks, once only stopping only meters from the woman who was taking pictures of the train.

Tourists can safely watch the train from the outdoor seating areas of the local cafes; owners will typically move their stools closer to the wall and advise patrons to do so as the train approaches. Many will also post train times on chalk boards in their establishments.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Hang Bong Street

6) Hang Bong Street (must see)

Hàng Bông (French: Rue du Coton) is an ancient street running for about 932 meters from the crossroad Hàng Bông - Hàng Gai - Hàng Trong - Hàng Hom to the former city gate Cửa Nam (South Gate). Once populated by cotton dealers and makers of clothes and winter blankets (hence the name), today's Hàng Bông is one of the busiest shopping streets in Hanoi, lined with art galleries, silk and clothing shops.

Formerly this street consisted of various sections, each with its own name, such as Hang Hai (aka Hang Bong Hai), Hang Manh (packed with shops selling comedy shoes, hats, and paper worship items), Hang Bong Dem (inhabited by sellers of cotton balls, cotton- and other blankets), Hang Bong Banyan Tree Cua Quyen (home to a small temple worshiping Co Quyen, with a banyan tree nearby), Hang Bong Lo (where all kinds of fish were sold), Hang Bong Tho Nhuom (back in the early 20th century this was home to the dyers of silk fabrics), and Hang Bong Alley (known during the French colonial era as Rue Lhonde).

Also, during the French period, Old Hang Bong Street was a home to many print houses, bookstores, and journalists. Notorious for many traffic accidents involving trams (prior to 1991), Hang Bong Street, since the turn of the 21st century, has been gradually associated with luxurious fashion, largely surpassing the rival destinations of Hang Dao, Luong Van Can and Tran Nhan Tong streets. Today, this street also accommodates the fancy Silk Path hotel where once used to be the music tea rooms, popular haunt for artists and other creative folk.

At night, Hang Bong Street is a popular gathering spot for youngsters and students, in large part due to the cheap fried and grilled spring rolls sold on the corner of Hang Bong junction and Tam Thuong alley. At the end of the street, on the right-hand (even-numbered) side is a pastry shop very famous with backpackers. On festive occasions, this street is also teeming with sellers of flags and T-shirts.
St Joseph Cathedral

7) St Joseph Cathedral

The St Josephs Cathedral in Hanoi is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hanoi. It was built by the French colonial rulers in 1886.

The St. Joseph’s cathedral is the oldest church in Hanoi. It is referred to by the locals as Big Church. The building is located in Pho Nha Chung or Nha Chung Street near the Ho Hoan Kiem or the Lake of the Returned Sword. The French colonial rulers demolished the ancient Bao Thien Pagoda, an important place of worship by the local people to build the cathedral. The Bao Thien Pagoda was a 12th century temple constructed by the Ly dynasty. The cathedral was consecrated on Christmas Day in 1886. The neo- gothic style church was designed to resemble Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. There is a statue of Virgin Mary in front called Regina Pacis or the Queen of Peace. The towers have impressive stained glass windows and the play of light through the colored glass is a visual delight.

Mass is held twice a day at the cathedral and the church is crowded on Sundays and holidays. Visitors are welcome and can enter the church through a side door to view its magnificent interiors.
Hàng Gai (Silk Street)

8) Hàng Gai (Silk Street)

Set on the edge of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, near Hoan Kiem Lake, Hang Gai or Silk Street is one of the most bustling commercial destinations in the capital, specialized in silk. The entirety of this 300 meter-long street is lined with more than a hundred stores trading in silk or related products and services. The vast majority of the local fashion boutiques and tailor shops have been in business for decades, offering ready-to-wear and made-to-measure garments.

Back in the times of the Le Dynasty (1428-1789), Hang Gai (literally “Hemp Street”) was the middle section of the road that linked the Nhi Ha river shore to the Southern Gate of Thang Long imperial citadel, and was the place were ropes and hammocks were sold. The word “Gai” in Vietnamese means hemp that was used in making of the hammocks. Similarly, during the French colonial era, Hang Gai was known as Rue de Chanvre (chanvre is the French for hemp, too).

Generally renowned for its quality, the area has a number of firm favourites among the clientele, such as the Khai Silk and Tan My Design shops whose craftsmen are perfect if you’re too pressed for time to get a tailor-made outfit during your stay in Hanoi. They can make you a suit within 24 hours, though it’s best to allow more time for a second fitting to make sure that it fits perfectly.

Most stores in Hang Gai Street accept cards and it pays to go to a better quality store and avoid street vendors to ensure the best buy. As with most retailers throughout Vietnam, bargaining is also welcome – you can start at 50% off the asking price and pay no more than 70%.

Aside from boutiques and tailor shops, Hang Gai Street also hosts a number of souvenir outlets selling notebooks, lamps and postcards, as well as prominent art galleries such as Thang Long Art Gallery and Green Palm Gallery.
Water Puppet Theater

9) Water Puppet Theater

The Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi seeks to preserve an ancient Vietnamese art form developed in the Red River delta in North Vietnam. Water puppetry or Mua Roi Nuoc was performed in shallow flooded paddy fields and ponds of the Red River delta. The theater is a well known Vietnamese cultural event and theater troupes have travelled around the world and performed at cultural exchanges and art festivals.

The puppets are mounted on poles hidden under a shallow pool of water. There are performances that portray life in a typical Vietnamese village. Elaborate performances tell tales from legends and myths of rural Vietnam. The brightly colored puppets are made of lacquered wood. The unique special effects of light and water make the show unique. The performance is accompanied by an orchestra that uses traditional Vietnamese musical instruments like drums, flutes, drums and the Dan Bau that resembles a harp. Songs are sung during the performance and stories are told in the native tongue. The puppets are expressive and one does not need to know the language to enjoy the story. Well known performances include the Dance of the Fairies, Dance of the Dragons and the Legend of the Restored Sword.

Each show lasts for about one hour. Cameras are allowed and visitors are sometimes given cds of the music or vcds of the performance when they purchase tickets.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake

10) Hoàn Kiếm Lake (must see)

Hoàn Kiếm Lake (Vietnamese: Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, Hán tự, meaning "Lake of the Returned Sword"), otherwise known as Sword Lake (Hồ Gươm) or Tả Vọng Lake (Hồ Tả Vọng), is a fresh water basin in the historical center of Hanoi. This 12-hectare body of water is one of the major scenic spots in the city and a focal point for its public life.

In the past, the lake was variously named Hồ Lục Thủy (Vietnamese for "Green Water Lake", aptly named for its water's color) or Hồ Thủy Quân ("Mariner's Lake").

According to legend, after defeating the Ming China, Emperor Lê Lợi was boating on the lake when a Golden Turtle God (Kim Qui) surfaced and asked for his magic sword, Heaven's Will. Lợi concluded that Kim Qui had come to reclaim the sword that its master, a local God, the Dragon King (Long Vương), had given Lợi sometime earlier to defeat Ming China. Later, the Emperor gave the sword back to the turtle after he finished fighting off the Chinese. Emperor Lợi renamed the lake to commemorate this event.

The Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) standing on a small island near the center of the lake is associated with this legend. Large soft-shell turtle species, named Rafetus leloi in honor of the emperor, have been sighted in the lake for many years. The last known specimen here was found dead on January 19, 2016. There are three more remaining representatives of this species still at large.

Near the northern shore of the lake lies the Jade Islet, upon which stands the Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Son). The temple was erected in the 18th century to honor several prominent individuals, including 13th-century military leader Tran Hung Dao who distinguished himself in defeating the Mongol invasions of Vietnam thrice; the classical scholar Van Xuong; and Nguyen Van Sieu, a famous writer and official who undertook repairs of the temple in 1864. It is owing to that renovation that the temple got its current appearance, including Tran Ba communal house, the vermillion-red Thê Húc Bridge ("Perch of the Morning Sunlight") that links Jade Islet to the shore, and the Pen Tower.

The latter, one of the key tourist sights in Hanoi, stands 12 meters in diameter and 4 meters high, and has five floors. In the body of the tower, Nguyen Sieu carved three words “Ta Thien Thanh”, meaning “Writing to the blue sky”. The tower features Thien-Nhan architectural style and symbolizes harmony between natural and man-made worlds.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.

Walking Tours in Hanoi, Vietnam

Create Your Own Walk in Hanoi

Create Your Own Walk in Hanoi

Creating your own self-guided walk in Hanoi is easy and fun. Choose the city attractions that you want to see and a walk route map will be created just for you. You can even set your hotel as the start point of the walk.
Hanoi Introduction Walking Tour

Hanoi Introduction Walking Tour

Known for its centuries-old architecture and rich culture with Southeast Asian, Chinese and French influences, the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi, traces its origin back to the third century BC. Originally, a portion of modern-day Hanoi served as the capital of the historic Vietnamese nation Âu Lạc. Following the collapse of Âu Lạc, the city was made part of Han China (111 BC-40 AD).

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Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.0 Km or 2.5 Miles