If you tell me that Old Quarter – Hanoi is a bit ruined with all those old buildings, I would laugh and tell you that it is true but it is the most beautiful thing about Hanoi. For this special blog, I want to leave all the sorrow of war and the colonial domination behind, and take a look at how the French architecture changed the look of Hanoi in 100 years.
The French people came with the mass construction of office buildings, personal mansions, theaters, Opera houses, and prison. Sometimes, I wander around Hanoi and realize that many old French-style houses are well-hidden behind large and shining billboards in old quarters, or laid behind a narrow valley that no doubt you will miss if it isn’t by chance you step inside
The common of color
Most French styled sites were painted in yellow with green windows, this concept is highly copied by Vietnamese later on that yellow is a common color for building everywhere in Vietnam. I think many of us don’t know why they pick that color or just because it is a common color. That is the strength of “Vietnamizing” all the foreign factors, things are embraced as one of the parts of Vietnamese culture.
The remained glory
Cathédrale Saint-Joseph – The oldest church of Hanoi
Embarked on a grand mission of civilization, the French colonial administration redesigned Hanoi to match what the French people had in their homeland. The Cathédrale Saint-Joseph built-in 1886, the neo-Gothic church with twin bell towers to match those of Notre Dame de Paris. The Cathedral is a remarkable piece of architecture but to most of the local people, it is where we have a short break with friends while drinking “tra chanh” and “chem gio” (aka chit-chatting).
Trang Tien Plaza
A short walk from St. Joseph’s Cathedral, passing Hoan Kiem Lake and you will see Trang Tien Plaza located at Trang Tien Street. Once it was named Magasins Godard (later, Grands Magasins Reunis), the first department store in Hanoi. Today’s version of this building is far from the luxurious and outstanding appearance during colonial times. (Or it is just me who has a heart of old).
Hanoi Opera House
The next stop should be Hanoi Opera House whose design was inspired by Opéra de Paris – Palais Garnier. The type of stone used for the roof of this building was transported from France. Now you can buy a ticket of 120,000 VND to get inside and to see the marble staircase, French murals, and chandeliers.
Hanoi Metropole Hotel
Not far from Hanoi Opera House is Hanoi Metropole Hotel. I don’t know much about this hotel except for its expensive price, and a portrait of an 8-year-old Hmong boy by Joan Baez that caught my eyes the first time I came there. Thanks to the Internet, I was able to detect the opening date of the hotel in 1901. What makes the hotel special is not only its luxury design but also the war bunker under it. Most of the hotel’s staff was aware of this bunker but it was only rediscovered in 2012. Unfortunately, the tour is not open for the public; unless you stay in the hotel then you will be able to discover a part of Vietnamese history in the most famous venue.
Hoa Lo Prison
Laid between Hoan Kiem Lake and Thong Nhat Park, around Hoa Lo prison is the French Quater. This name is not well-known by many young Vietnamese but if you have time you should spend half of a day discover this area and visit mansions and Parisian-style buildings. Many of those are now turned into government offices; some were redecorated to by fine dining restaurants and coffee shops. I would recommend some nice places such as Home Hanoi Restaurant, 34 Châu Long; Cosa Nostra, 24 Tông Đản; The Hanoi Social Club, 6 Hội Vũ; Bêtô Bistro & Tea lounge, 1B Hai Bà Trưng.
>> Read more about Hoa Lo prison
Despite the beauty of colonial building, it would be unwise romanticize this dark period of Vietnam history, I was too young to know what happened but my grandparents knew my heart, I grew up hearing their stories about the old Vietnam, how it was changed by French domination, how they missed the old values the values of Trang An’s people. All that is now behind the dusted door, but the French-Vietnamese style architectures persevere a special enchantment for visitors to Hanoi.
Activities you can do at Hanoi French quarter
The Hanoi French Quarter is a fascinating area where you can soak up the city’s colonial past and vibrant present. Here are some ideas for things you can do there:
Immerse yourself in the architecture: The French Quarter is known for its stunning colonial buildings, with wide boulevards, leafy trees, and elegant facades. Take a stroll down Trang Tien Street, marvel at the grandeur of the Hanoi Opera House, or snap a photo in front of the iconic St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
Explore the museums: The French Quarter is home to several excellent museums, where you can learn about Vietnamese history, culture, and art. Visit the Vietnam National Museum of History for a comprehensive overview of the country’s past, or explore the Hoa Lo Prison for a glimpse into the harsh realities of Vietnamese life under French rule.
Shop for souvenirs: The French Quarter is a great place to find unique souvenirs and gifts. Browse the stalls at Hang Gai Silk Street for beautiful silk scarves and clothing, or pick up some hand-painted lacquerware at Trang Tien Plaza. There are also several art galleries and boutiques in the area selling everything from traditional crafts to contemporary designs.
Indulge in Vietnamese cuisine: The French Quarter has a wide variety of restaurants serving up delicious Vietnamese food. Try a bowl of Bun Cha (grilled pork with vermicelli noodles), sample some Banh Mi (Vietnamese baguettes), or enjoy a fresh seafood dish at a lakefront restaurant.
Catch a water puppet show: Water puppetry is a traditional Vietnamese art form that originated in the Red River Delta. Enjoy a unique performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, (Address: 57B P. Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội) where puppeteers skillfully manipulate wooden puppets on a pool of water.
Relax at Hoan Kiem Lake: Take a break from sightseeing and enjoy the peace and quiet of Hoan Kiem Lake. Rent a paddle boat and explore the lake, or simply relax on a bench and watch the world go by.
Enjoy the nightlife: The French Quarter comes alive at night, with a variety of bars and clubs to choose from. Sip on a cocktail at a rooftop bar with stunning views of the city, or dance the night away at a lively club.
These are just a few ideas for things you can do in the Hanoi French Quarter. With its rich history, beautiful architecture, and delicious food, there’s something for everyone to enjoy in this charming part of the city.
I hope you have a wonderful time exploring the Hanoi French Quarter!