The Old Quarter is truly old: people have called Hanoi home continuously for more than 2,000 years, and the Old Quarter is the first area settled by humans. Most of Vietnamese history and culture has unfurled from the location of the Old Quarter. Unlike other cities with “old towns”, which by-and-large have become nothing more than souvenir shops and cheap tourist attractions, Hanoi's Old Quarter is still the vibrant centre of life in Hanoi. With people on the street by 5:30 a.m., and restaurants opening by 6:00 a.m., the hustle-and-bustle of the Old Quarter doesn't really start to slow down until 9:30 at night.
The 36 streets that make up the Old Quarter are all named for the type of good or serve they used to sell there. There are streets named for bamboo, silk, silver, medicine, shoes, fans, chickens, and even coffins. This method of naming the street after goods or services goes back to the days when craftsmen would work together in guilds to produce and sell their wares. Even today, walking through the Old Quarter, you might come across an entire block of nothing but paper makers, tinsmiths, or tailors.
A Day in the Life of Hanoi's Old Quarter
The long homes lining the streets of Old Hanoi are called “tunnel homes”, because they are not very wide but extend far behind the street front. The section of the home facing the street is generally where the merchants produce and sell their goods; behind the public section is a garden courtyard, and behind that is the residence where the family lives.
Everywhere in Old Hanoi, life spills out from these tunnel houses onto the streets. On the streets, you'll find average Vietnamese people going about their day, tourists looking for some interesting shopping, and street vendors selling their wares. You'll have to walk around stools set onto the sidewalks, where cafe customers are eating their rice or drinking tea, and you'll need to watch out for the motorbikes racing by in the streets.