For Ronan O'Connell, this is the real Vietnam.
Thirty six. That number was all it took for me to develop a deep affection for Hanoi. To me, this city is Vietnam. While there are several fantastic metropolises in this nation, none feel anywhere near as authentically Vietnamese as its capital Hanoi.
Much of that is due to the charm of the 36 streets of its Old Quarter. This beguiling area is no bigger than Perth’s small CBD. Yet it is remarkably dense with culture and history. So much so that, during several of my dozen visits to Hanoi, I haven’t even left this area. The Old Quarter offers enough to keep visitors surprised, engaged and delighted for days on end.
A jumble of narrow streets lined with ageing storehouses, atmospheric temples and a scattering of stately French colonial mansions, the Old Quarter looks just as you hope Vietnam will before you jump on the plane in Perth. It has become the epicentre of the city’s tourist trade, with dozens of boutique hotels, bars and restaurants aimed at foreigners. Yet, quite remarkably, the Old Quarter still possesses a distinctly Vietnamese soul.
For starters, many local people still hang out here, unlike other tourist havens in South-East Asia such as Bangkok’s Khao San Road or Kuta in Bali. They sit in groups outside cafes drinking the thick, sweet Vietnamese tea, or the weak, bitter local beer, and watching this district’s ceaseless energy unfold. The other thing which has kept the Old Quarter from becoming just an inauthentic tourist trap are its trades. For more than 1000 years this area has been a hub of artisans, with certain streets dedicated variously to the handmade production of conical hats, silk garments, brassware and paper lanterns.
While many of these trades have been made obsolete by factories, there are still artisans at work in every corner of the Old Quarter. Together with the lively atmosphere, the appealing architecture and the incredible street food, this artistic culture helps make the Old Quarter one of the best places on the planet to explore on foot. You don’t need a map. Just head off in any direction. You’ll soon find yourself besotted by the ancient ways of life fostered here in what is a swiftly modernising city.
The Old Quarter wraps around the northern half of the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake. In the middle of this lake is the petite but fascinating Ngoc Song Temple, one of the city’s oldest religious structures. Visitors can access this temple by crossing Cau The Huc, a gently-arched, bright-red bridge which is one of the icons of the city.
Hanoi has a number of similarly pretty lakes, surrounded by manicured parks which make for lovely places to momentarily escape the city’s bustle and rejuvenate.
The largest of these is West Lake, just north of the Old Quarter, a huge body of water which the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the city are located by. For tourists, this lake is of particular interest in its south-eastern corner. Here they will find the 11th century Taoist temple Quan Thanh, and Tran Quoc Pagoda, Hanoi’s oldest Buddhist temple. From there it is just a short walk south, through attractive tree-lined streets, to a cluster of significant sites. These include the grand Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh Museum, and the Vietnam Military History Museum.
Hanoi’s energy is intoxicating. It can also be quite draining after a few days. That is why so many tourists rightly opt to break up their time in Hanoi by taking a side-trip to the natural phenomenon that is Halong Bay. This pristine stretch of ocean is spiked by hundreds of lofty limestone karst islands. Most of them are uninhabited. All of them are spectacular. Aside from visiting the 36 streets, this is the one experience any visitor to Vietnam should not miss. Book a night or two on a luxury boat, kick back on the deck with a beer or a brew, and soak up the natural majesty that is northern Vietnam.