Hanoi would not be Hanoi without its Old Quarter which is a maze of streets dating back to the thirteenth century, its present-day chaos are just a different version of the old ones, when specialized trade guilds were responsible for individual street. The Old Quarter is crazy, busy and crowded; you’ll be jostled by passing cyclos, motorbikes, and hawkers with shoulder-poles hanging pendulous burdens of local products. Hanoi Old Quarter is one of the most famous places in the world that grows on you the more you experience it.
As a tree sprouting from the cool waters of Hoan Kiem Lake, the streets of Hanoi Old Quarter are like chaotic branches and tendrils as they fan out in jagged patterns across the area north of Hanoi’s famous lake. Limited on one side by the Red River and on the other side by the once-great Hanoi Citadel, the Old Quarter is, as the name denotes, the oldest area and has been an important economic center for a long time. In its earliest inceptions, Hanoi Old Quarter was accessed by a series of canals on its northeast edge which lead to regional waterways. The western part of the Old Quarter was developed in the beginning nineteenth century when the completion of the Hanoi Citadel left open areas that were settled by outlying villages and tradespeople. There is the city’s largest market here, call Dong Xuan, and it welcomes a lot of foreign visitors to the city with its maze of streets, multitude of services, great hotels and restaurant “finds.” Getting lost in the maze maybe one of the biggest joys when you come to visit Hanoi.
If you have time to explore the Old Town, you should keep an eye out for the classic Old Quarter tube houses such as at 87 Ma May St. or at 38 Hang Dao (directly north of the lake). A tube house is just a long, narrow tube of space that is subdivided into sections that served the family’s every need. Why are tube houses so narrow? In fact, why do Vietnamese still build so narrow and high houses? Properties were taxed on the basis of their street frontage, and real estate has always been expensive in Hanoi Old Quarter. Tube houses are divided into sections. The front is the business office, where a lot of goods are displayed and where business is conducted. In a succession of courtyards and interior spaces, there are two stories. There are areas set aside for gardening and for servants, and, at the back, private family quarters with the kitchen and the loo. You may spot traditional homes by their low tile roofs parallel to the street. The more time you spend in the Old Quarter, the more adept you will get at finding the old among the new.
The Hanoi Old Quarter evolved from workshop villages which were organized by trades, or guilds, and even today, streets are called as the name of products or trade. Some streets still offer the services of old such as Hang Thiec Street, or Tinsmith Street, is still the place for people to buy tin receptacles and for sheet-metal work. However, others have changed: Hang Vai, or Cloth Street, is now home to the bamboo trade, and a lot of old streets support new trades. You will not find anything named “Cheap Plastic Toys Imported from China Street” or “Motorcycle Seat Repair Street”, but they do exist. It’s a fascinating slice of very old life in Hanoi, including markets that are so crowded and narrow to a few feet.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is also where the seeds of Communist revolution were sown which started in 1907 with the Tonkin Free School Movement, a program of study at a school in Hanoi Old Quarter, just north of Hoan Kiem Lake, which focused on Vietnamese traditions instead of the de rigueur French curriculum. The school was closed down by French officials, but the patriotic zeal which founded it would never die.