Hoan Kiem is one of my favorite places in Vietnam. It is the center of the old quarter, and I can say the heart of Hanoi. Around the lake, the streets start with Hang: Hang Be, Hang Hanh, Hang Gai, Hai Ba Trung, ad infinitum! In the old days when Vietnam was still known as Tonkin, the streets were designated to specific trades so there was a rice street, a silk street, and the like. One of the best past time is to look at the name of the street and guess the product in that street. Some say Hoan Kiem is too touristy, while some say it is archaic and conservative and some say it reflect the industry of the Vietnamese people.
Whatever other people say, I found several reasons that make Hoan Kiem my favorite:
- The ambiance of colonial buildings with evident French architectural designs gives the place a character. It is not a time warp as if you are thrown back several decades past, but the buildings are maintained, and put into good use as offices and shops and has blended well with contemporary architecture.
- The walkway around the lake is perfect for leisure walking or exercise. I always do morning walks and it takes 15 minutes to make one round. When it is not raining, a lot of people can be seen exercising – walking, running, aerobics and a group even bring with them barbells, dumb bells and other gym equipment. Its walkways are kept clean and free from any obstructions. No vendors are allowed which makes walking a very pleasant thing to do.
- At the southern part of the lake, along Trang Tien Street, several bookstores offer English titles. I often visit these bookstores to browse and look for some locally published books. Galleries and art shops are also scattered around. You can even see some artists doing their work along the streets.
- Food is abundant in the area and you can choose from western-themed fastfoods and coffeeshops to sidewalk low table and chairs. I even have a favorite fresh seafood sidewalk stall near my hotel in Hang Be.
- Of course speaking of shopping for silk and souvenirs, this is the best place. During weekends, the Hang Dau Street is closed and transformed into a night market, a shopper’s paradise!
- After a hard day’s work, the plaza is the most ideal place to chill out. One can relax and while away time in bars and coffee shops with good view of the lake and the old quarter.
What can I say, but to sway people that when you are in Hanoi, stay in the old quarter, stay in Hoan Kiem.