Which street has what?
Published/Last edited or updated: 5th August, 2017
The 36 streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter spread over a small area, but just try spending time here without getting lost! Here's a rundown of some of the main streets and what you can find there.
But first, some background. Back in the day—around the 13th century, give or take—these streets became hectic with (possibly) 36 humming artisan guilds, either being established to provide goods to the emperor, or to trade with merchants, depending on who you read. Each guild was built surrounding its own temple dedicated to its patron spirit. The Old Quarter back then was gated and protected behind ramparts; only the eastern gate remains standing today.
Some streets still specialise in selling certain objects, but only a few remain properly faithful to their original craft. Some of the original streets and their merchandise include Cho Gau for rice, Hang But for brushes, Hang Huong for incense and Hang Than for charcoal.
The etymology of the 36 behind the 36 streets is unclear. Some believe there may have in fact been 36 guilds originally, but it's also possible the 36 derives from four times nine, where four refers to north, south, east and west, and nine represents plenty.
These days aside from some 70 or so streets in the Old Quarter, there are plenty more little alleys to wander around, too. While you wander, keep an eye out (and up) for tube houses, originally built with very narrow fronts and long rooms stretching back from the street in order for the owners to avoid paying property taxes based on street frontage. Houses were also restricted to being two-storeys high in deference to the palace and any passing royalty. A good example is 87 Ma May.
Hang Quat is one of the most colourful streets in Old Quarter. Hang means merchandise, and Quat means fans, so traditionally this was Fans-for-sale Street, and they were made from bamboo, paper or palm leaves. During the French occupation, the street was named Rue des Eventails, or Street of Fans, and it was only named Hang Quat in 1945, after the August Revolution. Fans have been replaced by items for worshipping. Running west from Luong Van Can Street (Toy Street), Hang Quat is about 200 metres long and is packed with shops selling an array of brightly coloured items, such as Buddhist statues, candlesticks, flags and lamps, as well as intricate wooden shrines. These items are mostly used for at-home worshipping—most homes and businesses have a shrine at which householders and workers will worship their ancestors with offerings of fruit, incense and other items, and also for larger celebrations and festivals. This street is also the place to go for hand-crafted wooden seals in all shapes and sizes.
As well as the shops, Hang Quat has other points of interest. Check out the temple near the junction with Hang Hom and the memorial to soldiers from Hang Gai ward near Luong Van Can. The alley that runs off Hang Quat to the south (To Tich), parallel to Luong Van Can, is a good spot to stop off for a delicious bowl of hoa qua (fruit with condensed milk and coconut milk), and it also has a couple of interesting souvenir shops as well as more stamp shops.
One Hanoi street remaining true to its name and of particular interest to tourists is Hang Bac. Bac means silver and yes, the street is still lined with silver shops. As well as selling silver, the shops are traditionally known as a good place to change dollars and dong. This street is also a good place to pick up other souvenirs such as Hanoi T-shirts, propaganda posters and it’s also home to socially responsible Mekong Quilts. If, after all that shopping, you fancy a break, try the nuoc mia da (sugar cane juice) at the junction with Hang Ngang.
The street changes name as it travels along. At the junction of Hang Dao, Hang Bac becomes Hang Bo. Traditionally, part of Hang Bo was Hang Dep, which made sandals and later on leather shoes. The other part of the street sold firecrackers and other things imported from China and Hong Kong. The name Hang Bo came from the very big cylinder-shaped containers made of bamboo used to pack goods into, but they’re not seen in this area anymore. Instead, one block of Hang Bo is lined with haberdashery stores, selling all manner of thread, buttons, zips and so on—a great place to visit if the button’s popped off your favourite shorts thanks to the beer and pho. In the evening, the threads are cleared away and out come the bamboo mats and the heady smell of muc nuong—grilled cuttlefish. It’s worth a wander, if not a taste, as it’s quite atmospheric. Head east instead and it becomes Hang Mam, originally home to pickled fish but now lots of headstone makers... There's a good Cong Ca Phe here too.
Hang Vai was traditionally Hanoi’s main textiles street. Nowadays its main attractions are twofold: a pleasant vibe, with few tourists and little traffic, but plenty of on-street action such as sugar cane juice spots, pho restaurants, tea stands and street vendors; secondly, it’s home to a selection of bamboo shops, which sit at the junction with Thuoc Bac.
Heading east Hang Vai turns into Lan Ong, a great street to walk along to see traditional herbal medicine shops. It stays more true to its history than many of the other 36 streets, with a few modern additions thrown in. There’s no disguising the distinct aroma of traditional medicine along this street, which seems to overpower all the other usual Hanoi street scents. At the eastern end of Lan Ong, where it meets Hang Buom, traditional medicines turn into towels and other bathroom-related linens.
At the junction of Hang Giay, is the temple for which Hang Buom is best known: Bach Ma. One of the main temples in Hanoi, Bach Ma honours the white horse that appeared to Ly Thai To, the founder of Hanoi, and directed him to the appropriate place to build the Thong Long Citadel. After the temple continuing east along Hang Buom the tourist-orientated bars and restaurants start appearing, then it’s onto Ma May.
Ma May, meaning rattan or cane, is a combination of Hang Ma and Hang May (these were streets at the beginning and end of Ma May). Ma May could now be translated as hotel street, or grilled beef street, or travel agent street. Take your pick as you’ll find them all along here, but don't miss the restored heritage house at number 87. Cafe Nola is a good spot for a caffeinated pick-me-up along here, too.
Hang Giay is right in the centre of Old Quarter. Giay means paper or shoes, and while nowadays there are very few shoes on sale along it, pretty much everything else is available. The top two-thirds of the street are given over to shops selling primarily toys, snacks, preserved fruits and alcohol, often all in one store. The road isn’t narrow, but with the wares spilling out onto the street and motorbikes parked erratically, either delivering or shopping, it’s not the easiest of streets to navigate.
This part of Hang Giay is a good place to go in the evening as well. The shops just north of the junction with Hang Buom, opposite Bach Ma Temple, close and the space turns itself over to a street restaurant. The menu’s quite wide ranging—and in English—and although prices are a little inflated, it’s still relatively cheap grub. There’s also a bo bittet place at number 22 and pho is readily available. Hang Giay is also the place to go for coffee, with a number of shop/cafes dotting the bottom half, selling roasted coffee beans as well as freshly brewed cups of the strong beverage. Check out Cafe Pho Co (Old Quarter Cafe) at number 34, Hue Cafe at 26, Vi Lan Cafe next door and, further up Cafe Phuc Xuong. You’ll smell them before you see them.
Manh are roller blinds made of thin strips of bamboo and the traditional wares of Hang Manh. Now they’re in short supply, although still available at a couple of places, and vinyl flooring seems to have taken over as the household item of choice. What makes Hang Manh an interesting street to visit nowadays are the music shops. Think not of electric guitars and digital drum kits, but of gong bans, k’long puts and khen h’mong. Yes, Hang Manh is the place to go for traditional handmade instruments. Even if you’re not musically inclined the shops are really interesting and beautiful places to browse, with some great gifts available. Shops worth a look include Manh Cuong at 1B, a narrow but well-laid out store, and Thai Khue at 1A, a few doors down and next to the bun cha place. Thai Khue has a more chaotic set-up than Manh Cuong but it cries out to be explored, and the proprietress is often outside putting the finishing touches to an instrument. Further south on the street are a couple of shops selling larger instruments, including xylophones. Next door to Manh Cuong is a shop selling antiques. Some of the items wouldn’t be out of place in the Museum of History or the Fine Arts Museum.
Hang Dieu comprises a strange melee of stores. Running north from the six-way junction at Duong Thanh until it turns into Hang Ga, it sold cigarettes in the 19th century and, more recently, leather shoes and sandals. Neither of these wares are in evidence anymore and now we think of it as “bedding street”—it’s home to at least a dozen shops selling mattresses and bed linen. If a nice set of flowery bedding, complete with love hearts and teddy bears is on your shopping list, you're in luck!
We haven’t been able to find out what “Ta Hien” originally sold but these days it’s best known for being home to bia hoicorner and the bars that line its narrow alley. Aside from the fresh beer, Ta Hien is a must-visit street in the Old Quarter, as it brings together a good mix of shops, bars and other services, even if in a very tourist-orientated way. Ta Hien runs south to north, from Hang Bac to Ma May, and is an extension of Dinh Liet Street, which goes down to the north of Hoan Kiem Lake, or would if there wasn’t a huge building in the way. It has two distinct sections. From Hang Bac to Luong Ngoc Quyen it’s a standard, Old Quarter tourist street. The junction with Luong Ngoc Quyen is bia hoi corner, where you can while away the hours sipping cheap beer and people-watching. North of the junction, the road narrows and has recently been refurbished: The first 100 metres or so of the road has been paved and the neat and tidy buildings all look the same. This is where you will find a number of small bars. Plenty of street food stalls are open, during the day more than at night, along this stretch as well. What makes this part of Ta Hien more interesting are the specialist shops, such as stamp shops that will make you a stamp with your name for a bargain.
Some Hanoi streets have completely given themselves over to tourism, such as Hang Be. Bamboo rafts, its original wares, are in scant supply, but so you know: cai mang rafts were made of a dozen or so bamboo poles—bought on nearby Hang Tre—lashed together with green bamboo bark and were suited for Hanoi’s shallow waters and to weather the annual typhoons.
Around the corner is Pho Gia Ngu, a pleasant street to wander along, full of locals shopping and eating. Gia Ngu roughly translates as fishery, a name that comes from when there used to be a lake in this part of the city and people earned their livelihoods from fishing. Many of the shops lining the street sell dried spices and fruit and vegetables as well as mam tep chung thit, a flavouring made with small shrimps mixed with pork.
Look for tin items are found along Hang Thiec and silk along Hang Gai—follow your nose and you'll either get utterly lost, or sooner or later emerge at a main road you recognise.
Samantha Brown is a reformed news reporter. She now edits most of the stuff you read on Travelfish.org, except for when you find a typo, and then that's something she wasn't allowed to look at.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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