Hanoi used to be a tiny town which is even tinier than it is now. Speaking from the perspective of a Jakarta immigrant, I can’t believe I did so much whining about having to commute from the West Side to the Old Quarters for work. Some of my colleagues in Jakarta commute from Bogor to central Jakarta, back and forth every day five days a week and on a bike. I feel sorry for them but anyway it’s just a matter of perspective. Back to my beloved tiny town Hanoi, it used to be just the currently known Old Quarters and a little bit of land outside. Small and old but precious, anyone of us can literally walk in a random place in the Old Quarters to have fun or chill out. Here’s the list of 50 things you can do in the tiny Old Quarters of Hanoi. Note: it doesn’t mean you must, or you can’t do others.
1.Book a show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
This activity seems to be a prerequisite for being a Hanoi tourist. Everyone watches a Water Puppet show once in their life, but sadly, often during their elementary school years, which explains the fact that more tourists are found in the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre than locals.
Address: Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, 57B Dinh Tien Hoang, Hoan Kiem (opposite to Hoan Kiem Lake)
2. Drink cheap beer on Ta Hien St.
If the business of the above picture bothers you then don’t worry once you find yourself a spot, it’ll be just you and your beer, and your fellow drink mates. No one will disturb your conversations except for the street magicians and the police that come by duty to sweep you all out for quite a few seconds around midnight. It is known that business is not allowed after 12 in Hanoi, but here and there in the Old Quarters bars and pubs open until 1 or 2, and Ta Hien street such a place just eases back into business once the police goes out of sight. Sure they feed those police well I guess. Nice breezy corner, street beer and well a good Heineken is about $1. I can show you places that sell some 25cent pint in this city, but let’s just consider you don’t drink Heineken with less than $7 in Singapore, then I think $1 should be fine.
3. Get drunk at Hair Of The Dog bar on Ma May St.
One of a kind, friendly and affordable bar with a whole second floor (first, if you’re referring to the ground as ground floor) dedicated to foreigners. Maybe after your foreplay from Ta Hien St.
Address: 32 Ma May St.
4. Spend your last pennies at weekends’ night market
A night market is the place where you buy things you don’t even need nor want. You buy them knowing that you’ll throw them away in three weeks but you just buy them because that’s what you do at a night market.
Address: Hang Ngang – Hang Dao – Dong Xuan St., weekends only (Friday and Saturday)
5. Take a tricyclo tour
Tri-cycle, or tri-cyclo, or xich lo has been banned around the city except for the Old Quarters. Enjoy it before it is banned city-wide.
6. Eat bun cha on Hang Manh St. or Cau Go St.
Bun cha is an amazing dish except for fish sauce hater. Heaven for garlic lover like me.
Address: Bun cha Dac Kim, 1 Hang Manh St.
7. Drink egg coffee at Giang Cafe
Dinh, Lam, Nang, Giang are names of the four old Hanoi cafes, all located in the Old Quarters. Giang is particularly famous for its egg coffee. (And Vietnam is particularly famous for its coffee, too).
Address: Giang Cafe, 39 Nguyen Huu Huan St.
8. Shop for arts on Hang Trong St. or Hang Gai St.
If you are wondering what to buy for your beloved, just pick a random piece of art from Hang Trong St. or Hang Gai St. because everyone loves artsy things, aint’ them?
9. Check out local tours at Sinh Cafe on Hang Be St.
Sinh Cafe is not only a shelter for tourists, local people are fond of its service as well. Find the real Sinh Cafe in the link above.
Address: 52 Luong Ngoc Quyen St.
10. Queue for ice cream on Trang Tien St.
I personally don’t understand the hype around Trang Tien ice cream, so I’d rather take it as a cultural attraction rather than food-wise.
Address: 35 Trang Tien St.
11. Take a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake
12. Drink tra chanh Nha Tho at Nha Tho
The capital of the youth generation, nuff said.
13. Go on a motorbike tour…
… like this happy couple. If you are questioning the reliability of this picture, yes it was taken on a street of Sai Gon (unfortunately not the Old Quarters of Hanoi) when Pitt and Jolie was (probably) en route to meet their adopted son Pax Thien.
14. Watch street artists perform at Ta Hien junctions and Ta Hien St.
15. Watch live band performance at The Doors Cafe (Hang Chinh St.)
This is my favorite live music cafe, hence #15 in this list. I wrote an article about live music cafes in Hanoi mentioning The Doors as well, you guys can check out
Address: The Doors Cafe, 11 Hang Chinh St.
16. Hang out at the pre-Doi Moi style cafe Cong
Cong (Commie) is one of the most successful cafe franchises. It garnered public attention due to its old school style that resembles the pre-Doi Moi architecture and ambience, to which most of Hanoian people in their 20s grew up and spent their childhood. Now it’s getting simple. People choose Cong because it’s everywhere. You might want to check out Cong cafe at 35A Nguyen Huu Huan St. (next to #27 Xoi Yen), 27 Nha Tho St. (overlooking #47 St. Joseph Cathedral), 54 Hang Dieu St. (near #36 Bun Bo Nam Bo), 46 Trang Tien St. (near #10 Trang Tien ice cream), and more across the city.
The inside of Cong cafe Nha Tho, photo courtesy to my beloved husband
17. Eat a hot bowl of pho at Pho Ly Quoc Su
Address: 10 Ly Quoc Su St.
Pho Ly Quoc Su is different than pho Bat Dan, if you really are a pho fan and looking for varieties. Pho Bat Dan is a little meatier and thicker in broth, if I could tell.
18. Try the infamous bun dau mam tom in a super small alley on Hang Khay St.
Address: 17 Hang Khay St.
You guys know durian? It’s the kind of edible stuff that you either love it to death or be dead to love it. So is Bun dau mam tom.
19. Watch popular Vpop singers at Swing Lounge Trang Tien
There’re some V-pop singers that are worth a try, and very often they’ll drop by Swing Lounge for a mini show. To be honest I’ve never been here due to my lack of interest in mainstream music, but the frequency of check-ins among my Facebook friends is high, so I guess it could very well make a nice date.
Address: Swing Lounge, 21 Trang Tien St.
20. Shop for luxury in Trang Tien Plaza
I reckon this is the only luxury mall in Hanoi you can find. Correct me if I’m wrong.
21. Pose at brick sidewalks around Hoan Kiem Lake
Because it’s probably a good place to produce great pictures, including pre-wed photos.
22. Visit a communal house on Bat Dan St.
23. Put aside your bike and chill on pedestrian streets
Ta Hien st. and its proximity become car free at night, and I think it kinda resembles that modern-eccentric vibration of Hoi An, or Malacca, or a random night market in Bangkok. Street food, small bars and pubs, street performers, people chitchatting. Such an Asian feel isn’t it?
A photo of Ta Hien St. in daylight, also taken by my beloved husband.
24. Buy fruits or flowers or balloons from a random street vendor
I don’t know if they do good business, but for some reasons it keeps growing. I lived with these street vendors for 25 years I took them for granted until the day I left home for Jakarta and suddenly missed them so much. Am I cheesy or do I just need to buy fruit without having to go to Lotte Mart or whatever..?
25. Grab your supper at Dong Xuan market
There’s that small alley beside Dong Xuan Market, at the end of the weekends’ night market if you happen to be there at weekends. I don’t remember the name, but it’s quite striking. The porridge is famous.
26. Shop for vintage and bohemian dresses on Chan Cam St. or Duong Thanh St.
If you see somebody wearing these pants (I googled it and took this photo from http://www.gottobepresenttowin.com, I hope the owner doesn’t mind I just mean it as an example), I’m sure that he or she has been in either Thailand, or an Indochinese country. You can get one easily anywhere in the Old Quarters (e.g. Ta Hien st.), about $3.
For more vintage-bohemian options, there’re a few addresses. Below is one of my favorites.
Address: Chan Con Cong, 14 Duong Thanh St.
27. Eat Xoi Yen (sticky rice) on Nguyen Huu Huan St.
Just sticky rice, but the portion is XXL and everything is so Vietnamese.
Address: Xoi Yen, 35 Nguyen Huu Huan St.
28. Enjoy Luala street concert on Ly Thai To St.
I once worked in an office that overlooks Luala Concert, and I must admire the creator. Diva My Linh singing with all the instruments and behind is the half way construction site and people from all walks of life gathering out of curiosity. I don’t blame the un-fabulous background of this ‘concert’ and yet I adore it so much because that’s just arts shining out of a hectic life, just marvels happening in a place with so much life struggle and mediocre, and it’s just shadowed people opening new doors. The contrast in this photo and in the whole idea behind it is just like those novels of the good old time.
Address: 61 Ly Thai To Building
29. Learn the meaning of the 36 streets
I don’t know all myself. But there’s a simple rule, the name often starts with ‘Hang’, which means a sells place, followed by the stuff they sell. For example, ‘Hang Ca’ is a place that sells fish, since Ca means Fish. So much has changed since the beginning of the Hangs, and now the rule mostly doesn’t apply anymore. Isn’t that sad, LOL. You’ll bump into Hang Chicken, which sells fashion stuff, then Hang Thorn, which sells artsy stuff.
30. Watch a history show at Hoa Lo Prison on Hai Ba Trung St.
31. Pick up a random conversation with a motorbike taxi driver
I think they’re better talker than me.
32. Eat Cha Ca on Duong Thanh St.
Just another must-try food and even we Vietnamese love it so much my parents made my husband love it too.
Address: Cha Ca Thang Long, 31 Duong Thanh St.
33. Do anything at Hanoi Opera House
34. Drink Highlands coffee and Highlands Cau Go, which overlooks Hoan Kiem Lake
If you happen to fall for Vietnamese coffee, which you might now resist, you will be familiar with Highlands coffee as a place that sells both authentic coffee and fabulousness.
35. Shop for super fake made-in-Vietnam branded goods on Dinh Tien Hoang St.
Well I once bought a Crumpler bag here with $30. If you are not against fake stuff, then take a friendly look at Dinh Tien Hoang st. and maybe Lo So st. The very main road overlooking Ho Guom.
36. Eat a bowl of Bun Bo Nam Bo on Hang Dieu St.
Simple dry beef bee-hoon that really fits everyone’s taste. Lots of Caucasians here so it might be well known on Trip Advisor I guess.
Bun Bo Nam Bo, 89 Hang Dieu St.
37. Eat desserts on Cho Gao St.
You can have desserts at Cho Gao st., or Hang Than st. for coconut pudding, caramel pudding and mango pudding. Quite hectic a place, some Ta Hien feel if you recall from #2.
38. Hang out with your favorite gang eating hot pot on Phung Hung St.
I just discovered that hot pot is also attractive in summer, because it’s always the best to eat hot stuff when it’s too hot for your tongue. Hot pot is just so tempting especially when there’re lots of people around it.
39. Shop for sourvenirs on Dinh Liet St. (for example: iPho tee)
At one end of the much-mentioned Ta Hien st. is Dinh Liet st. (the Old Quarters is such a small place huh), where you can find all the knitted stuff, scarves, accessories and tourist tees and pants.
40. Eat pho Bat Dan on Bat Dan St.
Like I said in #17, Pho Bat Dan comes with thicker broth, more meat and thicker spices, which I think will remind people of Pho Nam Dinh (i.e. a different city) somehow. I once queued for Pho Bat Dan exactly like the people in the picture, and well it was simply worth it.
Address: 49 Bat Dan St.
41. Chill out on the balcony of Dinh Cafe
What differentiates between Dinh Cafe and the rest 3 I mentioned in #7 is the music. This is where rock people chill (a.k.a. where great minds meet each other haha)
Address: Dinh Cafe, 13 Dinh Tien Hoang St.
42. Visit a 19th century style house on Ma May St.
Address: 87 Ma May St. (ticket required 10,000 VND ~ 50 cents)
43. Take a shot at O Quan Chuong
44. Eat pizza at Pizza 4P
Such a huge place in the middle of the Old Quarters. Great pizza and very modern, well just another Western cuisine but really comfortable and nicely designed.
Address: Pizza 4P, 24 Ly Quoc Su St.
45. Visit Den Ngoc Son
Because it’s in the middle of Ho Guom, that’s all.
46. Take a good photo of Thap Rua
I think the symbols of our country signify our qualities well. From Thap Rua, to the Lotus, to the Buffalo. Just seeing what the U.S has, an eagle! And what Singapore has, a lion! For us it’s a buffalo but I myself don’t mind because that’s what we are, simple and hardworking. So is Thap Rua. Nowhere near a splendid tall and huge landmark, it just stands there quietly for years old but gold.
47. Attend a service at St. Joseph Cathedral Hanoi
48. Get a French date at Metropole Hotel Hanoi
We were colonised by the French for like half a century (?) – for which I’m sure how many years they were in Hanoi in particular. Metropole Hotel Hanoi is one of their legacies, beside the architecture and the language.
49. Sit down at a random food house for your afternoon snack
It’s #49 and I’m still having so much in my mind that I don’t know what to write as the last option. I’ll just leave my own favorite thing to do in the Old Quarters here, which I don’t know if it’s good because of my attachment to the city or because it’s really good in itself. The Old Quarters is full of good street food that’s so simple yet mesmerising and I’m not saying it because I haven’t had a taste of it for months. I loved it while I was there, and we did food tour anytime we could (we as in me and my college friends). The essence of this kind of food tour is we don’t plan what we eat, but sit down and enjoy.
50. Honorable mention: getting chased by huge dogs at the Library of Trang Tien