To the French must go the credit of thoroughly transforming this once-swampy southern suburb of Hanoi. In order to reflect the grandeur and aesthetic befitting the capital of their protectorate (the French called it Tonkin, from the Vietnamese Dong Kinh, or Eastern Capital), French developers rebuilt much of southern Hanoi from the ground up. The wide tree-lined boulevards combine with the majesty of Parisian-style villas and the shuttered elegance of government buildings to form a handsome seat of colonial power. The French are long gone, of course, and for decades Hanoians lacked the affluence to renovate or further build on the architectural contributions of the colonialists. Villas fell into disrepair, and only those buildings appropriated for state offices were even moderately maintained. This part of the city is caught in a 1920s and 1930s time warp.
Although much of the French Quarter's appeal lies in its grand but aging architecture, the area is now a leading diplomatic and commercial section of the city. As you walk through this airy, surprisingly green district, note the considerable international presence here: several embassies occupy renovated villas or compounds in the grid of avenues south of Hoan Kiem Lake, and modern office buildings have begun to shadow the streets of this lovely part of town.
A Good Walk
This 3- to 4-km (2- to 2½-mi) walk, beginning southeast of Hoan Kiem Lake, ends on the west side of the lake. If you've arranged for a driver to pick you up afterward, tell him to meet you in front of the Nha Tho Lon, the Grand Cathedral, also known as St. Joseph's.
Start on the steps of the downtown area's grandest building, the restored Opera House. In front of you is Trang Tien Street, which leads straight out to the southern edge of Hoan Kiem Lake. The area behind and to the south of the Opera House is Nhuong Dia, site of the original Thang Long naval base, which protected the city from enemies attacking via the Red River. By 1875 the French had filled this area with their own military barracks and hospitals. From the Opera House steps turn sharply to the right and follow Trang Tien Street east to its end. Here, at No. 1, is the Museum of History, which houses some of Vietnam's dearest artifacts. This often empty landmark stands in a tranquil garden whose only fault is its proximity to the honking, smoke-belching trucks on Tran Quang Khai Boulevard. Just up Trang Tien Street, at 25 Tong Dan Street, is the Museum of the Revolution. Return to the huge intersection in front of the Opera House. From here head south on Phan Chu Trinh Street–-that's the second road on the left if you're looking west from the Opera House steps. As you walk down this street, you'll pass buildings housing the Algerian embassy (12 Phan Chu Trinh St.) and its stately ambassador's residence, the Union of Vietnamese Youth, and the Vietnam Students Association.
Turn right onto Tran Hung Dao Street. A leisurely 1-km (½-mi) walk will bring you past an embassy row of sorts to Quan Su Street. Turn right at Ba Trieu Street and stroll along the tree-shaded sidewalk to Ly Thuong Kiet Street. Cross the intersection and turn right again. Walk about 100 yards until you reach the Museum of Vietnamese Women, on your left, in a modern, three-story structure at the end of a wide courtyard. Retrace your steps to Tran Hung Dao Street and turn right, continuing to Quan Su Street.
At the intersection of Tran Hung Dao and Quan Su streets, on your right-hand side very close to the police headquarters, is a large shuttered building that houses the Ministry of Transportation and Communication. To the left is the Cultural Friendship Palace, the Soviet Union's most striking architectural contribution to this district of the city. Opposite the west side of the Cultural Friendship Palace, at 17 Yet Kieu Street, is the Fine Arts College. Founded by the French as an Indochina-wide arts academy in 1924, the college today trains many of Vietnam's best young artists. Next door to the college is the Alliance Française, a popular center for learning French and a vibrant Western cultural hub.
Now travel north on Quan Su Street to the nearby Ambassador's Pagoda. At Ly Thuong Kiet Street turn right, then left about 100 yards later at Hoa Lo Street. This is the site of what's left of the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, the late-19th-century "fiery furnace" that the French euphemistically called La Maison Centrale and that American prisoners of war sardonically nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton.
From Hoa Lo continue east on Ly Thuong Kiet Street for another block and a half. On the left is the entrance to a bustling market with cho 19–12 (19–12 Market or December 19 Market) on rusting iron gates. Some of Hanoi's most intense street commerce goes on in here, especially in the early morning. (If you want to skip the market, continue east on Ly Thuong Kiet Street and take a left on Quang Trung Street.) The market spills out onto Hai Ba Trung Street, named after the rebellious and heroic Trung sisters, who led a short-lived revolt against the Chinese in [ad] 40. Turn right on this street and then left on Quang Trung Street. Beyond Trang Thi Street, the road merges with Nha Chung Street. Heading north on Nha Chung brings you to the Hoan Kiem District Culture Center (Nha Van Quan Hoan Kiem), a Soviet-style culture and sports complex. Another 215 yards or so and you've reached St. Joseph's Cathedral, a proud but tired-looking stone-and-cement edifice that fronts a small square. From here it's just a two-block walk east to Hoan Kiem Lake or two blocks north to busy Hang Gai Street in the Old Quarter.