Hanoi Old Quarter: Explore the Soul of the City

At first glance, Hanoi Old Quarter appears as a dirty, crowded and chaotic area. But if you take time and explore it more closely, you might find its charms hidden beneath the ugly appearance. From the sound of the street vendors to simple figurines made of glutinous rice powders, all these small things represent the eternal soul of Hanoi.

Tucked between the Hoan Kiem Lake, the Long Bien Bridge, a former city rampart and a citadel wall, Hanoi Old Quarter has a history that spans more than a thousand years. Started as a snake and alligator-infested swamp, it evolved into a crafts district in the 11th century when the Vietnamese reclaimed independence and King Ly Thai To built the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long (the old name of Hanoi). Soon, skilled craftsmen migrated to the city. And artisan guilds were gradually formed by people originating from the same village and offering similar services.

A silent moment at Hoan Kiem Lake – The southern border of Hanoi’s Old Quarter

The 36 Streets of Hanoi Old Quarter

The craftsmen worked and lived together in a specific area, creating a cooperative system for merchandise. Finally, they gave the name of their crafts to the designated streets of the quarter, such that most streets acquired names beginning with hàng (Wares), for example, Hàng Da street (leather wares street) or Hàng Thiếc street (tin wares street). In total, there were 36 streets for 36 trades.

While several of these streets are still specialised in the trade that gave them their names, others have been replaced with another type of wares to meet the demand of modern-day customers. For instance, Hàng Buồm street (sail wares street) no longer sell sail equipment. Instead, it has become dominated by traditional cakes and candies.

The street of Hanoi’s Old Quarter

The Street Vendors

While wandering around Hanoi Old Quarter, you will encounter at least one or two street vendors. Even though it isn’t a feature unique to Vietnam, street vending is still an essential part of city life. No one has ever known what time or age they did appear. The only thing we know is that they serve as an informal yet extremely important agent in the local economy.

Strange as it may sound, street vendors do have stable trading relationships and frequent customers. Quality is, therefore, preserved to an acceptable extent and local people who shop for fresh grocery can enjoy the luxury of having products delivered to their door daily without any extra cost. Products vary as widely as needs call for, with vegetables, fruits, flowers and home-made dishes are the most common goods. Nevertheless, bargaining is virtually obligatory, especially if you are a tourist.

Tò he (Toy figurines)

As you continue exploring the Old Quarter, you might come across some tò he, one of the rare surviving traditional toys of Vietnam. Amid the bustling scene of the Old Quarter, it’s easy to miss these colourful toy figurines because only a handful of craftsmen can still produce them. Made of glutinous rice powders, tò he is edible and can be kneaded into any shape and form, ranging from flowers, animals to characters in folk stories or cartoon. It is considered a cultural ambassador of Vietnam because it represents the skill and imagination of the Vietnamese craftsmen.

A child is making tò he

33 thoughts on “Hanoi Old Quarter: Explore the Soul of the City”

  1. I was hoping to see a pic of tò he 🙂 Bargaining with street vendors reminds me of home, Zimbabwe.

    1. Thank you for your feedback! I will update this post as soon as I have a better photo of tò he. My current one is so bad and posting it would be a disgrace 🙂

  2. Suzanne et Pierre – Paris, France – Originaire de l’Abitibi et de Montréal, nous avons établi nos pénates à Toronto en 1987. Après y avoir vécu pendant 25 ans, nous étions prêt pour un nouveau défi donc nous avons accepté un transfert à Paris en mai 2012. Pendant 2 ans et demi, nous avons sillonné la France et l’Europe pour découvrir de nouveaux endroits et de nouvelles cultures. Nous sommes revenus nous installer à Montréal en janvier 2015. Originally from Abitibi and Montreal, we moved to Toronto in 1987. After 25 years of living in Toronto, we were ready for a new challenge so we accepted a transfer to Paris in May 2012. For 2 1/2 years, we travelled throughout France and Europe to discover new places and new cultures. We came back to settle in Montreal in January 2015.
    Suzanne et Pierre says:

    Lovely photos and story. (Suzanne)

  3. Jolene – Sydney, Australia – Jolene is a banker by trade, a writer at heart, and is a contributor to Thought Catalog. You are welcome to peek into her adventures and reflections on films and life at "SoMuchToTellYou", her ultimate love affair with words.
    Jolene says:

    Are you back home? Reminds me of “old” Shanghai with its bustling street activity and people essentially living their lives out in the open. Is there a “new” Hanoi and is that what you will show us next??

    1. Yes, Hanoi was expanded in the last decade. Nearby villages such as Ha Tay, Ha Dong, etc. became parts of the “new” Hanoi. I didn’t intend writing about them, but thanks to you I might have a look at them 🙂 Let’s see if I can see anything special in these areas.
      Posts about my hometown, Ho Chi Minh City (commonly known as Saigon) will come this year. So stay tune! 😉

      1. Jolene – Sydney, Australia – Jolene is a banker by trade, a writer at heart, and is a contributor to Thought Catalog. You are welcome to peek into her adventures and reflections on films and life at "SoMuchToTellYou", her ultimate love affair with words.
        Jolene says:

        Oh great, do let us know all Saigon has to offer! I’m sure a lot has changed in the past couple of decades for Vietnam.

      2. fkasara – I'm Sara, a Northern Italian with experience in Italy's travel industry and hospitality sector. Other than the classic travel tips, in my blog I mainly share cultural and lifestyle aspects of the Belpaese, that often elude tourists, yet make our country unique. Be inspired, avoid cliches and let Italy spice up your life!
        fkasara says:

        Happy to see you posting about Vietnam! I’m looking forward your posts about your hometown!!

      3. Thank you, Sara! It will definitely be published in this year 😉 I already have the idea for that post, but some photos are still missing.

  4. Mel & Suan – Singapore – Mel works his day job for a living, but lives for antiquities, history and geography at all other times. He enjoys writing and thought sharing and obviously traveling. Suan is a homey person, who like girlie stuff such as cross stitching etc. Enjoys shopping & modeling for Mel. What a match!
    Mel & Suan says:

    Its incredible that the old quarters are divided into trades, a street each for different products.

  5. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    I have yet to make it to Hanoi, but I’ve heard and read great things about it. But this is the first time I learn about tò he. I had to google it up to see the different variations of the figurines, and oh my! They’re meant to be eaten? They’re just too pretty and cute — although the same can be said about those super cute Japanese bento meals.

    1. Yes, tò he are 100% edible but people usually don’t eat them for two reasons. First, as you said, they are too cute. Second, they don’t taste good 🙂 It’s just glutinous rice powders mixed with food dyes.

  6. Nano @ Travels With Nano – Tokyo, Japan – Hi, I'm Nano! Welcome to my site! Travels With Nano is filled with everything I am passionate about: uncovering the world one sight, bite and cultural experience at a time. I'm here to share savvy travel tips and inspire (not influence!) your future travel adventures. Needless to say, I am thrilled to have you here reading!
    Nano @ Travel With Nano B. says:

    Len, I was so happy to read this, because I was contemplating on our next destination in Asia and Vietnam is high on the list. I think we will definitely visit. I’m particularly keen to see Hoi An. xx

    1. Hoi An is high on my list as well 🙂 I really want to see how much it has changed in the last decades. 15-16 years ago, the town was just a ruin. It was literally dead. Locals also left the town because there was nothing to do there. You only saw a few tourists and service was terrible. But now it is Vietnam’s top destination 🙂

  7. SueBee and Kat – Southern California is like a goldmine to us! It's the entire world represented within one time zone, in an area reached within a half day drive most any direction. Surrounded by world-class museums, music and cultural activities, restaurants of every ethnicity, geography that encompasses beach, mountains and desert, anyone would be hard-pressed to sit home doing nothing. Therefore, we're nearly always on the go, taking pictures along the way, sharing our adventures with you! We hope you follow our blog and join us in our adventures!
    SueBee and Kat says:

    Looks like a fascinating place. I enjoyed your pictures.

  8. Gabriela Marie Milton – Gabriela Marie Milton #1 Amazon Best-Selling Author, 2019 Author of the Year at Spillwords Press NYC; internationally published poet; poetry collections Woman: Splendor and Sorrow (Vita Brevis Pres, July 27, 2021); Passions: Love Poems and Other Writings (Vita Brevis Press, April, 2020)
    short-prose-fiction says:

    Gorgeous post!

  9. Seeking Wonderful – Ljubljana, Slovenia – Hi. I'm Janja from lovely little country in the heart of Europe called Slovenia. I am constantly planning new trips, even if I can't afford to take them. Seeking wonderful in the world around me and travel with my love to see some more of it. Love big cities, green nature, little surprises, Taiwanese ice teas, chocolate and sea.
    Seeking Wonderful says:

    Wow. Your photos are amazing. They really capture everyday moments and bring out the best of situation. So very pretty.

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