How rich our experience was in Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a testament to how dense the town is. Here are our key tips and things we discovered in our altogether too short visit to Hanoi.
Go to the Cultural Exchange Museum first.
This museum is not that popular. In fact, we walked right past it, and the lights were off when we first stepped in. Some sort of guard came out of a security office and turned everything on when he noticed us. We actually stumbled upon it on google maps, where in icon that said “Culture” indicated that some sort of museum or historical site was there. Without any real concrete plans of what we were going to do in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, this seemed as good a place as any to start. It turned out to be an excellent place to begin our Old Quarter experience.
The museum catalogues the district’s history through early settlement, the rise of communism, the effect of the war, and the return of private industry. Most importantly, the museum gives a surprisingly unbiased look at how these things all influenced the livelihoods and architecture of the Old Quarter. Books and displays chronicled the effects of removing private industry, the effect on artisan towns, and the country pivoting back as they seemingly discovered the error of their ways.
Wandering Through the Old Quarter
Stepping back out into the sunshine, our little visit to the museum made walking through the rest of this town a much richer experience. It opened our eyes to the different stories that the very buildings were telling through their various doorways, color schemes, and carvings. Which spirit animal was guarding this shop house? How much of this area was hit by wartime shelling? These secrets that were once hidden in plain sight, opened up to us after our experience in the Cultural Exchange Museum.
Here are some of the other gems we found as we meandered around the area.
There are many different arts in the old quarter, both old and new. Here’s one stall we came across that had a large collection of used ceramics.
Among the things I found here was a classic pour over cone, hand painted with dragonflies.
Those familiar with our work know that carving is very close to our hearts, and it was a nice surprise to discover that there are vendors all over the area who are selling and customizing these wood carved stamps, which seem to have a strong tradition in North Vietnam. I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence, but you’ll usually find them in the entryways of travel agencies. All except for one. And this is the one we’ll recommend you hunt down, because not only was it the richest experience we found, it was half the price of the other vendors.
We figure that what we found was the actual woodwork workshop that the other vendors use as a supplier. The little workshop was basically a closed alleyway that had a single woodworking table in the middle. The craftsman manning the table, was very accommodating, though he didn’t speak any English at all! After haggling for a bulk discount, we walked away with 5 stamps that we found either fun, kitschy, or spoke meaningfully about visit.
This workshop was on the street with all the cultural costumes, and the address is 59 Hang Quat, near the corner of Hang Hom.
Possibly the only specialty coffee shop in Hanoi, we chanced upon Gau Coffee almost immediately after arriving in the Old Quarter. I almost missed it, but shot a double take when I saw the La Marzocco Linea MP and collection of metal V60 cones. Right in the heart of the old quarter was this fantastic little month-old roaster and cafe run by Sang, who had moved up here from HCMC to spearhead the concept. They’re building a training room upstairs for teaching baristas and café owners in an effort to grow the high-end coffee scene in Hanoi.
Sang himself says that the shop serves “premium coffees,” but is hesitant to refer to his own shop as Specialty Coffee. “Specialty Coffee is hard to achieve” he said, though the espresso itself was a better pulled shot than many others I personally have had in places claiming to be “Specialty Coffee.” I think that this form of healthy dissatisfaction will drive this shop for years to come.
The coffees we had were from their house blend that used honey processed coffees from Ethiopia, Panama, and their own farm in Vietnam. The blend was balanced and with fruit-like sweetness.
For more about coffee in Vietnam, watch out for my upcoming post, which will be an in depth look of different café experiences as we coffee crawled through Vietnam.
Now, here’s a really important tip to remember when getting lost in both Hanoi and Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City…
Uber is your lifeline.
Uber, specifically Uber Bike, gave us the freedom to “get lost,” in the knowledge that we could drop a pin, get picked up, and safely be delivered to our home base: the Airbnb, hotel, or – in the case of Hanoi – hostel. And much like other things in Vietnam, it’s ridiculously cheap! Most of our rides cost either (what I assume is) the minimum of VND10,000 (USD $0.44), up to around VND 36,000 (USD $1.60) for longer trips into other districts. And the drivers are pretty great. In our entire time in Vietnam, we probably only had one bad drivers.
Side note: buying a SIM card and data plan in the airport totally paid for itself (VND 200,000 / USD $8.80) just in the savings we got from not having to take an overpriced airport taxi and enabling us to call an Uber from the arrivals terminal. That same data plan got us 4G high speed connections for the entire duration of our weeklong stay, even when we were on boats in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t even purchase calls and texts, instead calling each other via Facebook Messenger’s voice chat, which worked perfectly.
Though any bike ride in Vietnam is a small pocket adventure, the main tip for UBERing around is to ABSOLUTELY do not ride a Saigon motorbike between 5pm-6:30PM! Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon is CRAZY during rush hour. This city turns to chaos with bikes counter flowing, running up onto sidewalks at full speed (every sidewalk is actually ramped for this purpose), and randomly route changing in a futile effort to get to a path of least resistance. Both Nica and I found ourselves on separate bikes at this same rush hour, me coming from Work Saigon coworking space, and she coming from her pottery class at The Overland Club. My bike ran up on sidewalks, and dove full-speed around the tail of an oncoming bus into the second lane of counter-flow traffic. He gave his horn a tiny little beep-beep as he came out from the blind corner into – of course – another motorbike on a path to head on collision. We narrowly dodged each other. As for Nica? Well, here’s her status message from the trip that she took at the same time:
Part two of 30 Hours in Hanoi is coming next week 🙂