Exploring Hanoi: Old Quarter

Hanoi, Vietnam

I wander the streets of Vietnam’s second largest city. Photos, stories, and bucket list sucesses


July 2015

We stayed in the heart of Old Quarter, Hanoi’s beautiful 1000+ year old city center. Old Quarter is the most popular destination for tourists, yet I never felt that it was too “touristy“. Lots of young Vietnamese locals in their 20s hung out in old quarter for the vibrant night life and dining, and the locals went about their daily business in what I felt was pretty representative of daily life (in other words, I don’t think the locals were ever “putting on a show” like other touristy destinations).

We arrived in the city at night, and a fresh layer of rain had began to dry on the streets, giving the ground a shimmering vibrancy as it reflected the lights of the bars and shops. Musicians played on every other street corner, and the city was alive with delicious scents and lively voices.

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The view from our hostel in Old Quarter

Restaurant seating consisted of low-down plastic stools, crowded along the sides of the narrow streets. People grouped around bowls of pho or hotpot. Hookah was a very common service offered at the bars, and it was fun to watch as groups of backpackers or locals gathered around to smoke shisha out of the tall pipes, or out of ingeniously carved pineapples.

Women wearing streetclothes and conical straw hats offered different items out of baskets that they hung on their shoulders (similar to a yoke). It was common for women selling donuts to be particularly aggressive in trying to get us to purchase their wares. I have to admit, the vendors with their cone hats added a lot to the picturesque quality of the city.

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A Vietnamese local carries her wares through the streets of Hanoi

We spent one day just wandering through the city, with no set agenda.

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Wandering Hanoi

My group of friends had just been with me to Laos, but in Vietnam we met up with a similarly sized group from our Thialand study abroad trip, as they had been kicking it in Hanoi for the past couple of days. It was odd to meet up with friends again after such a short time, because we felt as if we had been a world away.

The buildings were vibrant, with an ancient feel about them. I like describing them as French colonial style with Chinese-Pagoda accents.

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Old Hanoi skyskrapers

The colors and shapes were not ony beautiful, but had such stark variation from one another.

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Vibrant Hanoi

There were innumerable tailors, a craft that Vietnam is well renowned for, as well as massage parlors, North Face shops, and souvineer joints. Each compact (tall & skinny) building had apartments on the upper floors, with businesses running out of the bottom.

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Beautiful buildings in the heart of Hanoi

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Balcony gardens, seen in a Hanoi Apartment

The economy was fascinatingly unique, and because of the merchant laws, businesses were clumped together based on the wares sold. We stumbled accross a street that sold almost exclusively stuffed animals, and another that sold candy. We walked through one alleyway that exclusively sold fake flowers, which was gorgeous to walk though.

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Exploring the shops of Hanoi

At one point, we even saw a section that just sold tassles for curtains and drapes. Spices, nuts, and dried fruits in large burlap sacks or wicker baskets were for sale in bulk, giving certain shops an exotic air.

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Spices and nuts for sale in Hanoi

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We also stumbled across a few bustling markets, somehow functioning in the middle of busy urban areas.

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Fresh market, seen in Hanoi

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Old Quarter, Hanoi

Because of the ridiculous prices of owning a car in Vietnam (even more expensive than in the US!), the vast majority of locals get around on motorcycles. The streets were always bustling, and people even used motorcycles to transport large items.

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Motorcyclist transports bamboo stalks through Hanoi traffic

If you want to cross a street, you have to just cross. Similar to Thailand, there are no working cross-walks. You just have to walk across. Yes, even when the streets are bustling. If you are confident, and walk with a consistant stride, there is no need to worry, as the motorcyclists will easily navigate around you safely. Hanoi had a constant feel of organized chaos.

Hoan Kiem Lake


This chaos was especially felt when we reached the plaza near Hoan Kiem Lake, an iconic Hanoi location.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to capture any good pictures of the lake in all its splendor.

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The view from our hostel in Old Quarter

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Hoan Kiem’s famous red bridge

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Flowers around Hoan Kiem Lake

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Walking along the lake

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A foggy day walking around Hoan Kiem lake

However, I promise that the lake was truly beautiful. There’s a great blog post with some high quality pictures here.

While we had experienced countless monsoons while exploring Thailand and Laos, we had never had to endure more than a few hours of continuous rainfall. When we arrived in Vietnam, however, we were greeted by an unapologetic storm. Luckily, the downpoor never quite reached torrential levels (for any extrended period of time). That being said, there were very few instances without at least a drizzle. The rain often required us to don ever-so-fashionable plastic ponchos in bright colors. We only had to pay a little less than a dollar of the local currency (dong).

When we were walking along the massive lake and exploring the surrounding park, a massive monsoon hit. The rain came down on us hard, for what must have been 15 minutes straight. We found shelter underneath a small overhang, and we crowded together with a huge group of people who were also trying to escape the drenching.

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A massive downpoor begins

After a few moments of scrambling to secure electronics in dry-bags, we were able to laugh about our tight situation. It was pretty comical how many people were squeezed together under the safety of an awning. We waited until the rain let up a bit before coninuing along our way.

We ended up getting coffee at a restaurant overlooking the plaza and the lake, and we apoogized to the restaurant staff for our drenched state (we definitely dragged in a lot of mud to a pretty swanky establishment).

The views were absoltutely spectacular.

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Hoan Kiem Lake & surrounding Old Quarter

It’s hard to tell from my picures, but this intersection was particularly busy and hectic, and crossing the street was a stressful experience.

 

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Pho better or worse


After a while longer of wandering around the town in the rain, our stomachs couldn’t wait any longer and we had to stop for food. We went to a little hole-in-the-wall business that was selling pho.

Sitting down on tiny plastic benches, getting splattered by rain that came down around the umbrellas, and being served hot steaming pho was one of my favorite moments in Vietnam. The servers didn’t speak a single word of english, but they laughed jovially with us as we, drenched, dug into our pho.

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Fantastic pho

We were given fresh herbs (including Thai basil and mint), limes, and the most amazing hot sauce. If you think that soup is delicious on a rainy day, you can’t even phathom how perfect this pho was.

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Pho shizzle

I even had to take my glasses off, as they were steaming up

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Glasses off to enjoy my pho


Our wandering eventually brought us to a beautiful Buddhist temple.

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Morotcycle parking outside of a Vietnamese Buddhist temple

We stepped in to the courtyard, and stopped to listen.

Rising above the relentless splatter of rain onto the clay tiles was an absolutely gorgeous chanting. Scores of women in grey robes walked rhythmically around one oft the buildings. They chanted with melodic, lilting voices. Their voices echoed together to produce the most beautiful harmonies. 11781882_942329619123305_6559176117846735088_n

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I could have easily stayed and listened to the rain mixed with those voices for hours. Absolutely relaxing and haunting.


Tran Quoc Pagoda

Besides Hoan Kiem Lake, we sought out one other landmark: Tran Quoc, a picturesque Buddhist Pagoda. We hopped into a taxi, dripping onto the upholstery and rustling in our plastic panchos.

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Arriving at Tran Quoc

The pagoda was impressive, even in the fog and gloom. There was a little koi bond with cute statues and bonsai trees arranged around it, and incense soaking in big metal vases.

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Soaked

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Hanoi’s famous Pagoda

The area was lovely, but there wasn’t much to do. We walked back along one of Hanoi’s massive lakes.

Swan boats


Of the more comical excursions during our travels was swan paddle-boating in Hanoi.

We had been wandering Old Quarter for the better portion of a day, and the rain had never ceased. Monsoon season was truly upon us, and the humidity mixed with rain and sweat meant that we were constantly drenched and a bit cranky.

Walking back into the center of town from the pagoda, we spotted some swan boats eerily floating on a massive empty lake.

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Swan Boats!

 

This was too ridiculous of a situation for us to refuse, and we went in to the business next to the boats. There was a restaurant on the top level with a view of the lake, and we ordered some watered-down pina coladas since we kept getting “caught in the rain.”

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Business is booming.

After our snack, we paired up and hopped onto the boats.

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Off to adventures!

The buildings against the skyline were diverse, and the lake seemed to stretch on for miles and miles.

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Hanoi’s eclectic skyline

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Reprieve from the rain

We were the only souls out on the massive lake, and the only ones willing to traverse the rain & gloom.

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So Majestic

The person I paired up with was too tall to fit in our boat, and he ended up resorting to peddling with his hands, which was extremely comical.

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Paddlin’

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Having a magical time in Vietnam

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