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After a whirlwind 3-day trip in Ho Chi Mihn City (Saigon); we hopped on a plane and head to the north of Vietnam. It takes about two hours to get to Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, from Ho Chi Mihn City. If you’re on a packed schedule, consider half a day wasted on airport transfers and flight delays. We had made the Old Quarter our base for the next three days. Our hotel, Hanoi Guest House Royal, was tucked in one of the narrow alleys of the Old Quarter. It was nothing short of an oasis of luxury — in the midst of chaos and derelict buildings.
The streets of the Old Quarter don’t need a tour guide to be explored. Getting lost in the maze of winding alleys is its top draw. And believe me, it doesn’t take a lot to get lost here. Most hotels provide a schematic map and that should be sufficient for basic navigation. Or, follow the crowd of tourists. They don’t disappoint. Don’t depend on street boards to guide you as most signboards aren’t printed in English.
The Streets of the Old Quarter
Back in the day, during the reign of King Lý Thai Tổ, the Old Quarter might have represented a seat of economic progress — with each street known for its highly specialised guilds. Some streets date as far back as the 13th Century and come to think of it: have witnessed the fall of Kings, French colonialism, the freedom movement, and even the dreaded Vietnam War. Today, the Old Quarter, minus its old glory or old citadel walls, resembles a slowly decaying piece of history. Each street continues to be lined with shops selling their wares. Travel companies, clothing stores, eateries, local fruit and vegetable stores, and even art shops engulf every viable space in the old buildings. At times, it might be entirely possible to ignore the building above the shop and forget the origin of the oldest part of town.
Lunch: New Day Restaurant
The Old Quarter has some of the best local restaurants and finding a seating place can be quite a task during peak hours. New Day Restaurant was a stone’s throw away from our hotel. From the outside, the restaurant doesn’t speak much for itself. I was skeptical before we entered. Fortunately, the food didn’t disappoint and was markedly different from the cuisine we had tasted in the south. It does get pretty busy around here and it’s always best to check on your order. Many restaurants, including New Day Restaurant, offer cooking classes. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time on our trip.
Hoan Kiem Lake
If walking is not your preferred means of travel, you could hop on a cyclo (cycle rickshaw) or opt for an electric car tour around the Old Quarter. The starting point, for the electric cars, is tucked under the tree cover surrounding lake.
After lunch and some rest in the hotel, we decided to spend the rest of the evening around Hoan Kiem Lake. Now, getting out of the busy streets and honking cars of the Old Quarter can be quite the challenge. We checked the printed map for a general sense of direction, followed fellow tourists, and tried to walk away from the narrow streets — opening into (beyond the barricade) the main street. In the month of July, the Hoan Kiem Lake is like a breath of fresh air on a sweaty Saturday evening. Not surprisingly, locals choose to get their daily dose of fitness by either walking or jogging around the lake.
Ngoc Son Temple
It will be hard to miss the curved outline of Ngoc Son Temple — on the north end of Hoan Kiem Lake. By evening, an eclectic mix of tourists and local devotees throng the gates of the temple. If you’re wearing shorts or a low neck tee — you could rent a coat to enter the temple. Most places of worship and some places of historic importance, might stop you from entering, if you aren’t dressed appropriately. Alternatively, you could also choose to carry a shawl or sarong to enter such places. It’s always best to read the instruction board at the entrance.
The temple is built on Jade Island and is surrounded by the tranquil waters of Hoan Kiem Lake. The Huc, a bright red bridge, connects the main entrance to the island and serves as a primary entry point to the temple. The temple was built in recognition of the heroic efforts of General Tran Hung Dao, against the Mongols, in the 13th Century. Ngoc Son Temple is still an active place of worship and don’t be surprised to see locals light incense sticks or bow down in prayer. The silence of the location is often marred by noisy tourists or clicking cameras. When the air is still and the smoke of incense rises above — it might be one of the most soothing experiences you’d find in Hanoi.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
Keep your eyes peeled for Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre — it’s bang opposite the temple. We weren’t aware of show times and missed an opportunity of catching a show. There’s a fancy coffee shop in the same building and you can enjoy vantage views of the lake from the first floor. If you want to buy souvenirs (including old posters and books), Artbook stores would be your best bet. There’s one tucked in the Old Quarter and another near the lake.
Around Hoan Kiem Lake
We continued our walk towards the southern side of the lake. The banks of the lake are perfect to get an insight into local life. From playing games (drawn in chalk) to clicking cutesy couple pictures by the lake — the people of Hanoi surely know how to make the most of a weekend on a sweltering day.
The main street is also dotted with statues of important figures in Vietnamese history. As we wandered around, we came across a towering statue of Lý Thai Tổ. Ly Thai To rose through the ranks of the imperial courts, to become, the first ruler of the Later Ly Dynasty. He is believed to have shifted the imperial capital to Hanoi in 1010 — giving birth to the Old Quarter — a settlement of villages designed to specialise in the crafts.
Beyond the Old Quarter: The French Quarter
It’s hard to miss the pale yellow buildings as you walk deeper into the southern bank of the lake. The French Quarter, as it’s also known, is markedly distinct in its architectural style. Many young couples choose to have their pre-wedding photo shoot in the French Quarter, braving the heat, and in some cases — the rain.
Trang Tien Walking Street is a pedestrian friendly zone on weekends and you can walk around without worrying about the traffic. Coffee shops, upscale restaurants, and designer stores line the street. On a warm Saturday evening, the streets were relatively deserted.
The Trang Tien Plaza boasts of an enviable lineup of international brands. It was tempting to enter, just get a whiff of cool air, but we decided to walk back towards the Old Quarter.
Hanoi Opera House
The Hanoi Opera House is about 15 minutes away from the Trang Tien Plaza. sadly, we couldn’t spend more time here. The Opera House is still functional and if you’re into the arts — it might be a good idea to catch a show.
It started raining cats and dogs, also explaining the spike in humidity levels of the day, as we trudged back to the Old Quarter. To seek refuge from the sudden downpour and grab a bite to eat — we decided to explore the eating options near the lake. Avalon BBQ Garden is located on the topmost floor of a corner building — it’s nearly impossible to miss it. Now, this restaurant might seem a little upscale if you’re on a shoestring budget, but it’s definitely worth the view and food.
The view from the top (the balcony) is stunning and is perfect to rest your tired feet or get away from the chaos below. You can choose meat and/or an assortment of veggies for your Vietnamese barbecue. We chose a mix of both and enjoyed the rain — as the smokey flavours of the marinade filled the air.
As the clock ticked, the crowds waned below. The next day, we would take a cruise to explore Ha long Bay.