Visiting the Shopping Streets in Hanoi
The heart of Hanoi, the Old Quarter has been home to colourful markets for over 1000 years. The shopping streets in central Hanoi are still mostly specialised in the goods they sell, although this does not always correspond with the street names all the time, each group of merchants seems to have selected historically a zone and that continues today. Jerome had already discovered a road packed with toy stores on the way to St Joseph’s Cathedral. We had promised we would walk back past this shopping paradise. In the past Jerome had probably wondered how many cuddly toys he could get into his bedroom, we know now, it is hundreds, thousands, even though I have to admit we did not count the mountains that were piled into the little shops. Every child that comes here must have incredible difficulties to choose, not only do they very in size, there was everything from classic animals like teddy bears to famous cartoon characters.
Buying a Vietnamese Kite
We were glad that while Jerome glanced at them he was more interested in the kite store next door. He loves flying his kite in London, ever since he got into it after our trip to Mexico last year. The kites in Hanoi were different to most you can buy in Europe, adorned with pictures of dragons and other mystic animals. Jerome was mainly drawn to the beautiful, wavy tails. Aware of how much he would like to have a kite we assured him to come back on our last day in Vietnam as we were worried about packing it for our travel. In fact we actually bought him some kites in Hue as we chanced upon them in a shop there for 60.000VND each and an absolute bargain. Be aware though they are usually sold without the string in Vietnam. Kite flying is a popular past time during the summer, even for adults and some areas even hold competitions. Adult kites are much larger and some even make a magical, flute like sound when up in the air, called “dieu sao”.
Get Lost in the Maze of Alleys
The best way to explore the streets, is to just wander and get lost. Do not expect to find any wooden storefronts and traditional craftspeople or you will be disappointed. The Old Quarter is much grittier and not picturesque or even romantic as some visitors might expect. The goods on offer are mainly items that are essentials for Vietnamese population ranging from silvery steel cookware, to electric lamps, or cheap kitchen china. Naturally there are also mixed in with them the souvenir shops and those selling fake or cheap Western goods especially outdoor wear. However, we did encounter a few stores selling some crafts and even watched a lantern maker glue silk onto the wooden skeleton of the lamp. I admired especially the silk and paper lanterns that everyone associates with Asia, but my advice, is refrain from buying these in Hanoi if you are planning to spend some time in Hoi An. The lanterns are made there and you have plenty of shops to find the right ones that you would want to take home with you.
What to Buy
Strolling through the maze of streets we could have bought anything from herbs (imagine the fragrant smells), straw mats, mirrors and paper money to burn for the ancestors at one of the temples – or even to set them in flames just on the street as we witnessed one young lady doing so. Watch your step when you walk around, we nearly stepped on a chicken too.
Ngo Hang Chieu Food Alley
Turning into Ngo Hang Chieu, a narrow and dark alleyway, we were overwhelmed by the strong smell of food. A one stop street for all those who would like to try different Vietnamese dishes at once. For many it might be an easy way to sample authentic, local food. It can get rather crowded at lunchtime but it certainly is a great experience to mingle on the low, plastic chairs with the locals. Try the noodle soup, banh xeo, or a savoury Vietnamese pancake banh che a sweet version with beans and jelly.
The Market at Cho Dong Xuan
At the end of the food alley we entered the vast market hall of Cho Dong Xuan. A modern market hall with a vast array of stalls, arranged over two levels. I had been excited about visiting the market hall, as I though I might find some interesting souvenirs and handicrafts but even the boys were disappointed at the knock off wares and other cheap goods for sale, mostly aimed at Hanoi residents rather than tourists. It reminded me a lot of the covered market in Merida in Mexico and we did not linger for very long, making a beeline for the exit to the Hang Khoai.
Fruit and Vegetable Market
Turning right, we found rows upon rows of makeshift market stalls. Some stands were barely visible under the cover of plastic sheets, to protect the vendors and goods from the torrential tropical rain. Exotic fruit and vegetables were the main produce on offer, some we had never seen before. It was a colourful sight to see, much better than the main market halls, and we curiously walked along the road to admire the stalls. Citrus fruits, including pomelo and lemons were sold next to mangosteen, pineapples, rambutan and other exotic fruits. Some of the ladies looked too old to carry their wares to the markets and others only had a small number of goods, which made us wonder if it was worth their time to come into town to sell them.
Thang Ha Street Market.
On Thang Ha Street we noticed that the vendors sold all kinds of food produce, including seafood and other life animals. Butchers were chopping meet on blocks in the street and seafood was swimming in small buckets. Some stalls might be a little upsetting to look at for vegetarians or smaller children, however I feel that it is part of Vietnamese culture and should be explored with kids as well.
The Old East Gate
At the end of the road we reached the old East-Gate and watched the hectic traffic weave seamlessly through the narrow opening. Taxis were pulling up to let people out to visit the markets so we decided on impulse to jump into one and return back to our hotel for an afternoon swim in the pool.
A Local Market at Ngo Phan Chu Trinh
On the way back I discovered that the road behind the hotel turned into a market every afternoon and instead of spending time with the boys I ventured out to take some more photos. The market there had a very different feel to the one we had just visited. First of all there were no other tourists and it was not as busy.
A Real Local Experience
The goods for sale were pretty much the same, fruit, vegetables and even some live chickens in cages. The people looked curiously at me, walking by with my camera and seemed happy to be photographed (I usually refrain from taking photos of strangers as I feel I would not want others to take random photos of myself). The atmosphere was very friendly, it was almost like everyone knew one another. The sun was just setting and gave the whole street a golden glow.
Back at the Hotel
I was glad I had come and happily returned to Lapis hotel, where I found the boys still in the pool.
Street Food for Dinner
For dinner we went to the street food stall on the corner, where we had rice with minced meat and fried egg, it reminded me of a Thai dish that I have in one of my favourite restaurants in London. We hit our beds quite early that evening, excited about our planned cruise in Ha Long Bay the next day.
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