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The area is called the Old City of Hanoi because it was the original area of Hanoi. It is now the main tourist site of Hanoi that is used as a staging area for tour groups to sites in the region. The ease of transportation, the shops, the scenery, old buildings, and the proximity to Hanoi's embassy and official museum areas and the many hotels and tour companies around the area is what makes the Old City so popular.
You'll find an unusually natural-looking scenic area on the west side of West Lake, beautiful French buildings, and many interesting museums. The area around the Old City is known for having the best ancient architecture amid some natural scenery, and the main national museums are located in the area. Several of the interesting museums are in a museum area near the Presidential Palace.
Scenic Attractions: West Lake and Hoan Kiem Lake
Museums: There are many. Some of your favorites might be the Ho Chi Mihn Mausoleum and Museum complex, the Hanoi Military Museum, the National Museum of Vietnamese History, the Temple of Literature, and the Fine Arts Museum. If you like rocks, fossils or crystals, then the Geology Museum is a fine museum and is free.
It is said that at the end of the 19th century, Hanoi had 36 streets. These streets are now mainly in the Old Quarter area. The triangular area is bounded by Hang Dau Street on the northern tip, Phung Hung Street on the West, Yen Phu and Tran Nhat Duat (a highway) on the east and Trang Thi and Hang Khay on the south.
The Old City area was the "royal area" of the Tay Son Dynasty until 1802 and of the Trinh rulers before them.
Little remains of ancient Vietnamese construction. But at the Temple of Literature, you can still see steles erected in 1484 and a building built in 1805. There is a watchtower that was originally built in 1812.
This royal area is what the French army took over in 1882 and where they started building their residences, palaces, public buildings, cathedrals and schools. The French took over adjacent kilometers of land to the south and east to extend their new capital's territory.
They started to construct monumental buildings in the Old Quarter almost immediately. These include St. Joseph Cathedral that was completed in 1886 and Dong Xuan Market completed in 1889.
Then they started to construct in the newly acquired adjacent areas to the west and south. These include the Presidential Palace that was completed in 1906 about 1.5 kilometers east of the Old City, and the Opera House completed in 1911 about 1.5 kilometers to the southeast.
An important piece of infrastructure was the then world-class steel Long Dien Bridge that carried trains east to Hai Phong harbor connecting Hanoi with the sea. It was finished in 1903.
While the French were busy with laying their infrastructure and building their residences, the Vietnamese craftspeople and merchants kept busy also doing what they had been doing before the French arrived. The Old City was the main market area of the region, and it is still one of Hanoi's main market areas. So shopping is one of the main attractions.
The area was once a market area where guilds plied their handcrafting and manufacturing trades and sold their goods right outside on the street.
This is why the Old Quarter has so many street names. Each guild occupied a piece of land and sold their products on the street in front. So most streets were called by what were sold there:
A majority of the street names in the Old City area start with the word " hang" that means merchandise or shop. The guild streets were named for their product, service or location.
Hang Bac is a key east-west street for traveling around in the area. It is one of the oldest streets in Vietnam. It is hundreds of years old. "Bac" means silver, and the street started as a silver refinery. The street now has a lot of shops that sell jewelry.
Dong Xuan Street was a busy market area. In order to bring the merchants and sellers under their control, in 1889, they built a large arched structure to house them. It is now the Old City's main market area, and it is now very crowded by Vietnamese wholesale sellers, but it isn't really meant for tourists who usually don't want to buy in big lots.
It is an interesting place to browse though, and if you are very persistent, you can still find good bargains for special teas and herbs from some patient or bored wholeseller.
Thanks to scores if not hundreds of backpacker hostels and cheap hotels that serve young foreign tourists and backpackers, the old city has become a favorite place to hang out. The accommodations are cheap, and the beer is cheap and plentiful.
Cheap multi-night tour packages of about 100 USD help to lure in young young European, Australian, and American backpackers and tourists. They stay for a night and head out in tour buses in the morning.
There are numerous bars and cafes, but many young people like to sit out in the streets on little stools and chairs. The corner of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen and the area around Ma May and Hang Bac streets are the favorite bar and street hangouts. You can find hundreds of foreigners in the streets in this area on pleasant evenings, but it is strange. You'll see the foreigners and local Vietnamese young people sitting in different areas on the streets. They don't mix.
Numerous embassies are conveniently located within about 3 kilometers of the Old City to the west and south. They are concentrated around the Presidential Palace area and to the south of Hoan Kiem Lake. It is interesting that most of them are housed in French-built buildings.
So if you need a quick visa to Laos, China, or Cambodia or another country, you can make the arrangements nearby. If you lose your passport or run into a problem, your country’s embassy is likely nearby and within walking distance.
Thousands of foreign tourists visit the Old City every day. The area is a long-distance travel hub.
The train station is close by (about 10 or 15 minutes away by taxi). It is actually only about 1.5 kilometers away southwest so you can walk to it in about 40 minutes if you know the way.
Distance to long-distance bus stations (see Hanoi Transport): Gia Lam bus station (3 km), Kim Ma bus station, (3 km), Giap Bat bus station (6 km), My Dinh bus station (13 km).
The Old city is a staging area for tour groups bound for areas in northern Hanoi. The favorite tour sites are Ha Long Bay and Sapa. Tour buses meet people in front of hotels around 8 or 10 am, and bring them to Ha Long in about 3 or 4 hours.
Ha Long Bay is outstanding. It is a World-class natural tour experience (like going to the Grand Canyon maybe) and a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site.