The north end of Hoan Kiem Lake is Hanoi’s “ground zero.” Practically all the city’s economical hotels, tourist shops, and cafés catering to visitors are located here. Not only is it the oldest part of the city, it is the busiest and most interesting. Every street is winding, intimate, and shady. At night the lights of storefronts keep the streets lit and animated.
Depending on which guide book you read, this district of Hanoi is variously called the “Old Quarter,” the “Ancient Quarter,” and “36 streets.” It is wedged between the northern shore of Hoan Kiem Lake, the walls of the ancient Citadel, and the levies that protect the city from the Red River. The 36 little streets in the quarter are each named for a commodity once sold by all the businesses on that street. Streets here are named for the medicine, jewelry, fans, copper, horse hair, chicken, and even coffins once sold on them. This explains why the names of some of the longer streets inexplicably change after one or two blocks. As you explore, you will still happen upon entire blocks of tinsmiths, tailors, paper goods merchants, and lacquer ware makers.
In the Ancient Quarter the most appealing mode of transportation for those who do not care to enjoy the “36 Streets” on foot is the cyclo. Often they are driven by men wearing pea-green pith helmets that make them look like soldiers. Settle on the fare in advance (a dollar or less one way). Most drivers will also quote you an hourly rate and will take you to all the obligatory cultural and historical spots.