The Old Quarter, the beating heart of Hanoi, is always busy, particularly on weekends. Many of those who don’t head out of the city find themselves strolling around its vehicle-free pedestrian mall after a hard week of work or on public holidays. It’s a fun night out, but people looking to stay out late were often disappointed as the local nightlife largely shut down at midnight. A recent decision to extend opening hours and expand the pedestrian mall on weekend nights has been warmly welcomed by local people, tourists and expats, shops and entertainment venues.
The 16 streets added to the pedestrian mall brings the total to 26 streets in the Old Quarter and city centre. The closure of certain streets around the iconic Hoan Kiem Lake promises to make weekend nights even more of a thrill. The Guide is therefore happy to provide a list of things to see and do.
Shop, eat, drink
If you’re a shopaholic your mind is about to be blown. There are hundreds of stores of well-known brands such as Charles & Keith, Playboy, and Aldo around the lake or in nearby Trang Tien Plaza, which together with Made-in-Vietnam stores are open until 10pm. You can find a lot of vintage and modern clothes, shoes, silk scarves, handicrafts and souvenirs, starting from an inexpensive VND200,000-300,000 ($8-12) each. Just a few steps away from the lake on Hang Dao as it stretches towards Dong Xuan Market, the night market is another ideal shopping hotspot, especially if you’re good at bargaining. A bonus is that simply strolling around is a great night out.
When you tire of shopping and your stomach starts to rumble, there’s a wide selection of food to choose from. Take the chance to try Hanoi’s street food, which is the soul of local cuisine in any Asian city.
The very best of Vietnamese dishes is available in the area and costing just a dollar or two. Famous traditional food such as phở (beef noodle soup), bún chả (noodles with grilled pork), nem (spring rolls) and other delights can also be found at restaurants such as New Day and Madame Hien, among others. Sticky rice, a common Vietnamese breakfast or fast food and mixed with either pate, Chinese-braised pork, simmered pork, shredded meat, or eggs is definitely worth a try.
The area is also famous for street BBQ along Ma May and Ta Hien, and bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches) and papaya salad with dried beef, a popular light dish, at 43 Hang Buom or on the footpath of the small road between Cau Go and Dinh Tien Hoang. There’s a multitude of light food to choose from to enjoy with a beer, such as fresh peanuts, nem chua (fermented pork rolls), nem Phùng (small pieces of pork), pho mai que (cheese sticks), and thịt xiên nướng (grilled meat sticks). They can be ordered at every street drinking place, where you can also find draught beer for VND5,000 (25 cents) a glass.
As the pedestrian mall has been expanded, more shops, restaurants and food and drink stalls have opened. The ambiance has also become more animated as more and more people take to the idea of a night walking around town, and the road running around Hoan Kiem Lake continues to be a popular meeting point.
Watch, join, enjoy
The banning of vehicles gives the whole area a more appealing look. Kids have space to run around under the watchful eye of their parents as they take a leisurely stroll.
It’s also good for friends and couples, who can walk and talk or share a Thuy Ta or Trang Tien ice cream, the two oldest ice cream brands in the city, which first appeared in the 1950s. For sale around the lake, a popsicle or cone with chocolate, green bean, milk, or green rice flakes are a must-try for anyone visiting Hanoi.
Thanks to the recent installation of free wi-fi in the area everyone can easily access the internet wherever they are. Hanoi is also busy building 1,000 public toilets, primarily in popular places.
Appreciating the effort of the city in providing a new playground for local people and tourists and expats, Quang Minh, who lives locally, said people have embraced the idea of a pedestrian mall. ‘It feels like a Central Park of Hanoi, where people can get way from the busy city,’ he said. ‘It’s like a luxury that we couldn’t afford before and is now free.’
Streets that were previously a mass of noise and smoke from vehicles is now a new space for youngsters and also artists.
While kids try roller-skating, teenagers seem to have a lot of fun with old and new games and some get together in groups to create music. Others bring their pets for some much-needed freedom, which adds to the atmosphere.
Another thing adding to the atmosphere is spontaneous performances by artists. Along Dinh Tien Hoang Street, young and old painters sketch portraits of customers, surrounded by curious eyes comparing the model and the picture.
Elsewhere, in groups or with just a guitar or violin, street musicians also attract crowds. Whether a pop song or traditional folk music, applause rings out for the performers when they finish. Though sometimes the musical competition sound a bit chaotic from a distance, when you get up close their sound drowns everything else out. Bart, a tourist from the Netherlands, said he found the pedestrian mall and the live music being played to be diverse and interesting.
And there’s always the beauty of Hoan Kiem Lake after walking around the pedestrian mall.