Exploring Hanoi's Old Quarter

As I’m sure any seasoned traveller will agree, oversleeping can ruin the best-laid travel plans. When you’ve got a plush king-sized hotel bed and several days of exhausting travel and sightseeing taking a toll on your body, sometimes you just need to have a snooze for a solid 14 hours.

That’s exactly the situation Jessica and I found ourselves in when we woke up at midday in Hanoi. We quickly checked out of the InterContinental Hanoi Westlake and hopped in an Uber, hoping to make the most of the 12 hours or so we had left in the city by exploring Old Quarter, Hanoi’s charming central neighbourhood.

 

I had been to Vietnam once before, on a quick cruise stop in Halong Bay for a few hours, so I was looking forward to seeing what life was like in the big city, and in particular trying out some of the local eats and drinks. Vietnamese culture is chiefly represented in the West by its outstanding cuisine, so I was curious how the “authentic stuff” would compare.

We were dropped off at an intersection in Old Quarter adjacent to the Hoan Kiem Lake, where a tourist information booth attendant helped point us to the main attractions we should visit. First on our list was the Dong Xuan Market, a gigantic indoor market complex on Hang Khoai Street.

 Old Quarter, Hanoi

Old Quarter, Hanoi

Of course, we were starving by this point, so it was time to get to work on the list of Vietnamese foods I wanted to try. Banh mi sandwiches are a popular treat here in Canada, and we stopped by a store specializing in banh mi for lunch.

While delicious, I didn’t actually taste much of a difference compared to the sandwich I’d get at my local Banh Mi Boys back in Toronto. Whether that’s a mark of this particular establishment catering to Western tastes or Banh Mi Boys doing a great job of bringing authentic Vietnamese flavours abroad, I’m not quite sure.

January is Hanoi’s rainy season, and on this particular day it was pouring down quite hard. Jessica and I bought some ponchos from a street vendor and carried on towards Dong Xuan Market, and when we arrived, we were more relieved to be sheltered from the rain than anything.

 Old Quarter, Hanoi – Dong Xuan Market

Old Quarter, Hanoi – Dong Xuan Market

I think it’s funny how strongly our perceptions of new places we encounter along our travels are coloured by our past experiences. Check out some articles on Hanoi written by any travel blogger who's from a predominantly Western background, and chances are you’ll find the author singing the praises of how “overwhelming”, “frenzied”, and “unique” they find the tight spaces and bustling merchant stalls of Dong Xuan Market, the tree-lined sidewalks on the main streets, the ramshackle street food vendors, and the chaotic traffic flow filled with endless mopeds and motorcycles.

Meanwhile, what was our first impression of Hanoi? Eh, it’s China lite.

 Old Quarter, Hanoi – Dong Xuan Market interior

Old Quarter, Hanoi – Dong Xuan Market interior

 Old Quarter, Hanoi – Dong Xuan Market interior

Old Quarter, Hanoi – Dong Xuan Market interior

Nevertheless, I do think that part of the beauty of travel stems from the fact that we all experience it differently. And while Hanoi didn’t strike up much excitement at first glance, things definitely took a turn for the better when we sank our teeth deeper into the city’s gastronomy. 

Indeed, on our way to the next Old Quarter attraction, we passed through a small alleyway that was packed to the brim with street food vendors, and we decided to sit down for a helping of bun cha. This traditional Hanoi delicacy is something I was tasting for the first time, and I definitely enjoyed every bite of it. 

 Old Quarter, Hanoi – Street food

Old Quarter, Hanoi – Street food

It’s a bit of an adaptation on the pho that we’re all familiar with, although the soup is more akin to a dipping sauce in this dish, and you have grilled fatty pork instead of beef. You take some pork and some rice noodles, dip it in the fish-based sauce, and down it in one fell swoop.

 Old Quarter, Hanoi – Bun cha

Old Quarter, Hanoi – Bun cha

While we were here, we learnt from some other travellers of another local delicacy: egg coffee. Apparently one of Hanoi's top-rated coffee shops, specializing in this foamy variety of coffee made with egg yolks and condensed milk, was just around the corner. Naturally, that was our next stop.

Along the way, we passed by the Bach Ma Temple, the oldest temple in the city. We spent a couple of minutes strolling inside and admiring the interior of the Buddhist temple. 

Pretty soon, we arrived at Cafe Giang, whose dingy and cramped quarters belies the delicious egg coffee that this place is renowned for. A Hanoi staple since the 1950s, egg coffee is said to be on every coffee shop's menu in the Vietnamese capital.

 Old Quarter, Hanoi – Cafe Giang entrance

Old Quarter, Hanoi – Cafe Giang entrance

It was fluffy, hot, and sweet. After trying luwak coffee in Bali, this trip continued to open our eyes to the amazing things people around the world can whip up with liquid happiness.

Cafe Giang is just steps away from Hoan Kiem Lake, the small body of water in the heart of Old Quarter. We walked south along the lake, hoping to see the remaining attractions before sundown. 

The area around here is known as the French Quarter, and you definitely get a bit of a Parisian vibe from some of the streets around here. To match, there's a few high-end shopping malls in this area as well.

 Old Quarter, Hanoi – French Quarter

Old Quarter, Hanoi – French Quarter

The Hanoi Opera House is an impressive building, although I'm sure it'd look a lot more grandiose under the lights on show night compared to this dreary, overcast afternoon.

 Old Quarter, Hanoi – Hanoi Opera House

Old Quarter, Hanoi – Hanoi Opera House

We made it to St. Joseph's Cathedral on the other side of Hoan Kiem Lake just as the sun was setting. This 1886 Catholic cathedral has echoes of Notre-Dame, its twin bell towers reaching up to the sky in a similar fashion to Our Lady of Paris.

 Old Quarter, Hanoi – St. Joseph's Cathedral

Old Quarter, Hanoi – St. Joseph's Cathedral

The cathedral is situated in a small square fronting Nha Chung Street, where right next door you'll find another small Buddhist temple with a Chinese-style courtyard. Hanoi is a city where French, Chinese, and Vietnamese influences all wash up on each others' doorsteps, superimposing onto Old Quarter a patchwork of cultural clashes.

 Old Quarter, Hanoi – Ly Trieu Quoc Su Pagoda

Old Quarter, Hanoi – Ly Trieu Quoc Su Pagoda

As I pondered the modern-day consequences of imperialism, we made our way to the terminus of our Old Quarter tour, and also the last stop on our gastronomic adventure: Pho Gia Truyen, one of Hanoi's top-rated pho shops.

 Old Quarter, Hanoi – Pho Gia Truyen sign

Old Quarter, Hanoi – Pho Gia Truyen sign

While researching the best places in town for Vietnam's signature dish, I had discovered that the type of pho served in Western countries is very much an adaptation of the Ho Chi Minh City style of pho. Hanoi's variety, on the other hand, comes with a comparatively saltier and clearer broth, is served in smaller bowls, and has the traditional garnishes of green onion and cilantro added to the soup before serving, rather than on the side.

 Old Quarter, Hanoi – Pho Gia Truyen pho

Old Quarter, Hanoi – Pho Gia Truyen pho

Despite the departure from the flavours I'm used to, I thoroughly enjoyed my dinner at Pho Gia Truyen. I can't confidently say that I prefer the Hanoi style of pho, although that probably means I'm not as much of a pho purist as I'd like to think just yet.

We finished up every last drop of our soup before quickly vacating our spots at the jam-packed restaurant. It's clearly a popular dinner spot among locals and tourists alike, with plenty of seating spilling out onto the street. After a quick rest stop at a Starbucks, we called an Uber to pick up our belongings at the hotel before heading to the airport.


Conclusion

Jessica and I love to get to know a place by simply strolling around, meandering through its streets and slowly absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells as though we'd lived there our whole lives.

That's exactly what we did for 12 hours here in Hanoi's Old Quarter, and I have to say I really enjoyed the experience, however much the city did at times resemble a carbon copy of familiar places in China. The palpable French influences certainly helped to shatter that illusion, though, and left me feeling intrigued for my next visit to Vietnam.