Hoan Kiem Lake, Long Bien Bridge, a former city rampart, and a citadel wall surround the oldest part of Hanoi. The area was unified under Chinese rule, when ramparts were built to encircle the city. When Vietnam gained its independence from China in the 11th century, King Ly Thai To built his palace here, and the area developed as a crafts center. Artisans were attracted from all over the northern part of the country and formed cooperative living and working situations based on specialized trades and village affiliation. In the 13th century the various crafts—silversmiths, metalworkers, potters, carpenters, and so on—organized themselves into official guilds.
This area is referred to as the 36 Streets (Pho Co), though there are actually nearly 70. To this day the streets are still named after the crafts practiced by the original guilds, and they maintain their individual character despite the encroachment of more modern lifestyles. Note the slim buildings called "tunnel" or "tube" houses—with narrow frontage but deceiving depth—that combine workshops and living quarters. They were built this way because each business was taxed according to the width of its storefront. In addition to the specialty shops you'll still find here, each street has religious structures reflecting the beliefs of the village from which its original guilds came. Some are temples dedicated to the patron saint of a particular craft. Hang Bong and Hang Dao, for example, each have five of these pagodas and small temples. Many are open to the public and provide welcome relief from the intensity of the streets.
A Good Walk
Begin your walking tour of the Old Quarter in the northern section of the Hoan Kiem District, at the Dong Xuan Market on Hang Chieu Street. From here you can dive right into the bustle of the ancient streets–-but be careful in the traffic. These streets are narrow, and the main roadways are clogged with motorbikes, street sweepers, endless mercantile activity, and more. Also be aware that many streets in Hanoi bear different names in different sections. The main artery north through the Old Quarter, for example, is 1½ km (1 mi) long and changes its name six times. This is the street on which you'll start. From the intersection of Hang Chieu and Dong Xuan streets, head south on Dong Xuan, which immediately turns into Hang Duong (Sugar) Street and then into Hang Ngang Street. Spare a moment for 48 Hang Ngang Street, where President Ho Chi Minh wrote his country's Declaration of Independence in 1945. Continue south to Hang Dao Street, which divides the Old Quarter and serves as a convenient corridor from which to venture down any of the appealing side streets. Once you come to busy Hang Bac Street, turn left and continue to Ma May Street, where you should make another left and walk about 100 yards to No. 87, the graceful Antique House.
From here, backtrack to Hang Bac, turn left, and walk half a block to Hang Be Street, part of the historic boatbuilding district. Bamboo rafts, called cai mang, were once designed on this street for the shallow rivers, lakes, and swamps of the city. From Hang Be Street make a right on Cau Go Street, the southeast border of the Old Quarter. This neighborhood was known for its flower market in colonial times, a vestige of which can be found before the intersection with Hang Dao Street. Just beyond this flower mart and to the left is the northern tip of Hoan Kiem Lake, the focal point for legends surrounding King Le Loi's encounter with the Ho Guom tortoise. On the left (east), a distinctive red footbridge leads to Ngoc Son Temple, a good spot to rest and enjoy the lake.
Walk back to Cau Go Street and through the chaotic intersection here. To the west of this roundabout, Cau Go Street becomes Hang Gai Street, where you can wander through art galleries or shop for embroidery, silk, and other souvenirs. From here turn north onto Hang Hom Street, which leads to Hang Quat Street. This area has a few of the oldest musical instrument shops still standing in the Old Quarter. A quick jog to the left on Hang Non Street will bring you to Hang Thiec Street, where utilitarian tin chests and utensils dangle from every doorway. Farther north, this street turns into Thuoc Bac Street, which eventually intersects with Hang Ma Street. This street takes its name from the paper goods and fake money made for burning to appease and comfort ancestral spirits. Walking east on Hang Ma Street leads you back to Hang Chieu Street and the Dong Xuan Market. At the end of Hang Chieu is the run-down O Quan Chuong, the last remaining of the five gates of ancient Hanoi.