Exploring Hanoi’s Old Quarter

When visiting Hanoi in Vietnam, most of the hotels and rental properties are located in Hanoi’s old quarter. It is a very busy district with plenty of shops and restaurants making it a perfect location to explore the best of Hanoi. Some of the highlights of the old quarter are “Sword Lake”, Hoan Kiem Lake, the night market, and St. Joseph’s Cathedral. You will find plenty of street food and vendors walking with sweets and fruit for sale. Regardless of the time of day, the old quarter in Hanoi is extremely busy and the streets are packed with motorcycles, cars, and rickshaws. In fact there are so many motorcycles parked on the sidewalks that it is often easier to walk in the street than on the sidewalks.

People Eating Street Food in Hanoi
Busy Streets and Sidewalks
St. Joseph’s Cathedral
No Room to Walk

The first thing that you need to do when exploring Hanoi’s old quarter is to learn how to cross the busy narrow streets. Many of the intersections don’t have stop lights and crosswalks and even when there are, the motorists usually ignore them. The basic rule when walking or even driving on the streets of Hanoi is that whoever gets to a spot first has the right of way. If you wait until there is no traffic, you will never make your way through the old quarter, so you simply need to walk out into the street, avoiding vehicles directly in front of you, and the other vehicles will simple swerve around you as you make your way across the street. It is a little unnerving at first, but once you get used to it, it becomes quite natural and is completely safe.

Walking Around the Lake
Busy Market and Stage at Night
Selling Flowers by Bicycle
Open Air Restaurants in the Old Quarter

Strolling around Hoan Kiem Lake is a popular activity as the lake is centered in the heart of the old quarter and is a quiet refuge in the otherwise hectic area. The streets around the lake offer some of the best choices for restaurants featuring Bun Cha, Pho, and Egg Coffee. On weekend evenings, the streets on the north end of the lake are blocked to motorized traffic and converted into outdoor markets with live music and a variety of entertainment. Just north of that is the section of the old quarter referred to as the “beer streets” due to the number of pubs that can be found in the area.

The Tiny Chairs
Busy Shops in Hanoi
Easier to Walk on the Street Despite the Traffic
Hoan Kiem Lake

We would highly recommend walking the streets of Hanoi’s old quarter in both the daytime and nighttime hours to get a true sense of the city. You are likely to see other tourists walking the streets as well, but it is predominantly local residents that you will find there. Families and friends gather on the streets at dinnertime and sit in their tiny chairs as they enjoy a meal together. We spent many nights in Hanoi’s old quarter and found every exploration to bring us a new and enjoyable experience.

Fruit for Sale
Driving in Hanoi
More Crowds on the Weekend
Inside St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Women Selling Tourist Items
Typical Old Quarter Narrow Street
Sidewalk Around the Lake


Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple in Hanoi, Vietnam

Located in the heart of Hanoi’s old quarter is Hoan Kiem Lake or Lake of the Restored Sword. It is a popular place for locals and tourists to stroll around and enjoy the beautiful scenery in the otherwise hectic streets of Hanoi. There is a small, tree-filled island on the lake where the Ngoc Son Temple with a red bridge spanning from the shore to the island. There is another small island on the lake that is home to Turtle Tower, which is a focal point as you walk around the lake.

Temple Architecture
Bridge to Jade Island
Artwork Representing the Return of the Sword
Inside of the Temple

The lake gets its name from the legend of Emperor Lợi who received a magical sword in order to defeat the Chinese. After defeating the Chinese armies, a Golden Turtle God, Kim Qui, came to surface of the lake and asked Emperor Lợi to return the sword to the Dragon King who had given it to him. So Emperor Lợi gave Kim Qui the sword and renamed the lake Ho Hoan Kiem, which means Lake of the Restored Sword or Lake of the Returned Sword. Turtle Tower stands near the center of the lake to commemorate that event. There are still a small number of turtles in the lake although they are rarely seen.

Turtle Tower
Offerings in Ngoc Son Temple
Walking Around the Lake
Entrance Leading to the Island and the Temple

Ngoc Son Temple, or Pagoda, is mostly dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao who defeated the Mongolian armies of Emperor Kublai Khan in the 13th century. The name of the temple translates to Temple of the Jade Mountain and the island itself is called Jade Island. The is a nominal fee in order to go to the island and visit the temple and it is open from 8:00 to 17:00 daily. It is one of the most visited sites within Hanoi’s old quarter, so expect plenty of crowds.

Sunset Over Hoan Kiem Lake
Incense burning Outside the Main Temple
More Art in the Temple
Turtle on Display in the Temple

During the week, the lake attracts tourists and locals alike in order to walk the tree-lined sidewalk that surrounds the lake. It is an oasis of tranquility in the otherwise bustling streets of the old quarter. On weekend nights, however, the streets around the lake are converted to walking streets with a market and stages with live music. People gather to play games, eat, listen to music, and generally have fun. It is very lively and very crowded with lots of families coming to enjoy the festivities.

Temple Surrounded by Trees
Busy Market and Stage at Night
Streets Converted Around the Lake on the Weekend
Dragon King

Our hotel was only a couple of blocks from Hoan Kiem Lake and we walked by it several times. Seeing it at sunset is quite beautiful as well, but it is worth visiting at any time of day. It is also worth paying the small entrance fee to see Ngoc Son Temple with its golden turtle statues and beautiful architecture. There are also a couple of touristy restaurants on the shore of the lake, which are worthwhile, but be sure to explore the old quarter and getting street food there as well.

Fountain at the Temple
Walking Across the Bridge
Another View of the Lake as the Sun Set
More Crowds on the