If you are vising Hanoi for less than week, you probably won’t see more than the Old Quarter or West Lake before moving onto great adventures in the mountains of Sapa or in karst hills in Ninh Binh or the caves of Phong Nha.
But if you are digital-nomad, an ESL teacher, or anyone else staying for more than 3 weeks, you may get exhausted by the touristy hustle and bustle of the Old Quarter, and want to live elsewhere. Here, we provide you a short introduction to the different neighbourhoods of Hanoi and their pros and cons.
Hanoi has a lot to offer! Most neighbourhoods and streets have basic amenities, like amazing food and small cafes. Some are highly industrial, some are modern mega-developments that are indistinguishable from similar neighbourhoods in Korea or Taiwan. Find out more below…
The Old Quarter / Hoàn Kiếm – The Centre of Culture
Surrounding the centre’s Hoàn Kiếm Lake, Hanoi’s Old Quarter is the most exciting and culturally vibrant place in Hanoi. It is the first destination of all tourists, and is also the place where local Vietnamese want to go out on a Friday night.
The Old Quarter has dozens of eccentric cafes (e.g., Nola cafe), gourmet restaurants and amazing street food, art galleries for every income-level, discount brand-name merchandise, and an amazing labyrinth of tiny streets snaking through complex architectures and neighbourhoods, with hidden local gems waiting to be discovered.
We could spend days just wandering around the busy streets, sampling food, finding deals, observing strange architecture, and enjoying the hustle of small street-level commerce.
Prior to COVID-19, more and more of the Old Quarter’s cramped real estate was being consumed by tourist-facing services, such as expats cafes, hotels or craft shops. However, there are still many guild streets: old streets and neighbourhoods that were singularly dedicated to a particular craft, like metal-work, painting, lanterns/burning paper, etc. This on-the-street manufacturing and craftsmanship is one of our favourite DIY tours.
For foreigners who want to stay in Hanoi long-term, there really is no point staying in the Old Quarter. Rents are higher than elsewhere. It is loud and smoggy. The dense traffic and thick throngs of humans will wear you down, eventually.
Otherwise, it is a wonderful place to visit on weekends to enjoy people-watching, shopping, and trying amazing food.
Things to do in the Old Quarter of Hanoi
Due to COVID-19, the activities in the Old Quarter have stopped dramatically, so some of these may be out of business!
- St. Joseph’s Cathedral [map]
- Eat amazing Vietnamese food! Do a DIY food tour by sampling the following dishes: bún chả/bún nem (at Hàng Mành, Hàng Than), or phở (at Bát Đàn or Lý Quốc Sư), or snack on bánh tráng Sài gòn (at Hàng Trống), or nem chua rán/nướng (at Tạm Thương alley), have breakfest with some Xôi (sticky rice, at Nguyễn Hữu Huân), eat some BBQ Đồ nướng (at Mã Mây or Gầm Cầu).
- Drink beer and party late into the night along Lương Ngọc Quyến or Tạ Hiện and adjacent party streets.
- Shop for fashion along Hàng Đào, especiall at its night-time Night Market.
- Drink exotic coffees: do a DIY tour of boutique cafes, such as the famous egg coffee at Ga Coffee, or coconut coffee at Cong Cafe, or the famous local coffee and art at Cafe Lam, or sit and study in an amazing art-house called Nola Cafe.
- Tour the artisanal guild-streets of Hanoi [map/article].
- Watch the famous Water-puppet show [map].
- Take a Vietnamese cooking workshop.
- Play board-games and listen to live music at the cozy Hanoi Social Club.
- Gift shopping: see our small-gift and souvenir guide — lovely small products that can be found throughout the nooks and crannies of the Old Quarter.
- Walk around the iconic Hoàn Kiếm Lake and enjoy the lake scenery.
Read more in our Guide to the 20+ things to do in Hanoi (that aren’t lame)
West Lake / Tây Hồ – Funky Expat Paradise
The quaint neighbourhood for Western expats
West Lake is the centre for Western expats (as opposed to neighbourhoods full of Koreans or Japanese). It is a large and sprawling area just north of the Old Quarter that informally encompasses the eastern side of the Lake of the same name.
If only the scenic West Lake were an ocean and not a polluted urban lake, the area known as Tây Hồ would be close to paradise — it has most of the amenities as the Old Quarter, but also has more parks and greenery, less traffic, and more funky establishments that cater to young, hip Western nomads and families, such as artisanal pizza, craft breweries, and co-working spaces with a happy collectivist vibe. There are no giant, sterile super-malls that plight the suburbs.
Housing is more affordable in West Lake than in the Old Quarter, and you are less likely to be disturbed at night with loud parties, karaoke, or incessant honking. There are a lot of narrow, 3- or 4-story apartments within the maze-like alleyways that snake through cramped residential blocks, as is common in old neighbourhoods. For views of the lake, you’ll have to pay a lot more! If affordability is your top priority, then simply look across the Âu Cơ highway that forms the informal western-border of Tây Hồ — on the otherside are fewer expats and more Vietnamese, but it is still within a quick walk to all the Westlake shenanigans.
Another pleasant perk about West Lake: if you live on the northern side of the lake, there is easy access to the Noi Bai airport. The main, spacious highway that leads to the airport starts to become traffic-free as it exits the West Lake area.
French Quarter / Ba Đình – Neighbourhood of Monuments and Embassies
National monuments and large boulevards for diplomats, close to centre
Large spacious streets, gorgeous French colonial architecture, and many important monuments like the Mausoleum of Uncle Ho — the Ba Đình is a famous (yet kinda of sleepy) neighbourhood colloquially known as the French Quarter.
The area is close to the Old Quarter, but, unlike other neighbourhoods close the centre, this area isn’t so walkable: the streets consist of massive blocks separated by big institutional properties which break-up the charm of high-density public areas.
If you are looking for a beautiful place to stay that is close to the Old Quarter, but still relatively quiet compared to West Lake, Kim Ma or the Old Quarter, then consider living in the French Quarter.
The French Quarter has some notable tourist attractions, including:
- the Temple of Literature – read the 1000 years of medical graduates being honoured on the backs of giant stone turtles.
- the Mausoleum of Hô Chi Minh – where Vietnam’s avuncular founding figure “Uncle Hô” is preserved; plus a museum and iconic “stilt house”.
- the Citadel of Thang Long – a once imperial compound and international heritage site.
City Centre and Old Quarter Periphery
Like the Old Quarter, but without the tourists
This area isn’t an official neighbourhood, but it feels that way: is a large, nondescript section of the City Centre that isn’t the Old Quarter, nor the French Quarter. It has all the high-density amenities, shops, facilities, activities, and attractions of a dense urban area but is basically unmemorable.
There are not a lot of expats walking around this neighbourhood (unlike the Old Quarter). Likewise, the businesses and services are 99% focused on local Vietnamese people. This fact makes it some of the best streets and neighbourhoods for staying long-term in Hanoi: you get all the fun opportunities of the nearby Old Quarter, but with less traffic and a more genuinely Vietnamese experience. For example, here you can start to find “wet markets” — open-air, unofficial markets selling super cheap veggies, tofu and small items.
- Check out the famous Hom Market
This is the place where you can spend weeks or months getting to know a vast variety of small restaurants and cafes and random attractions hidden down byzantine alley ways. Just don’t expect anyone to speak English!
Kim Mã – Japan Town in Hanoi
Japanese restaurants, fashion, spas, and good night-life
Kim Mã has the iconic Lotte Tower and Vincom Center Metropolis. It is like a second city-hub outside of downtown Hanoi, with more modern condos and mega-corporate towers compared to quaint, anachronistic Old Quarter.
It is particularly popular with Japanese and Korean expats. There are a lot of Japanese-catering businesses and amenities, like Japanese restaurants, Japanese fashion stores, spas, and much more. It also has a great night-life!
It is another hub for expats, but doesn’t have the touristy, boho-backpacking vibe of Westlake, where digital nomads and English-teachers are larping as adventurers. Rather, Kim Mã is a place for Japanese and Korean families who want to do serious business in Vietnam.
Many new businesses choose Kim Mã as their HQ, instead of the over-crowded and byzantine centre of Hanoi. Likewise, the feeling of Kim Mã is more consumerist and modern-chic — think offices and services for young stay-at-home Japanese mothers.
Things to do in Kim Mã:
- Shopping – for international brands and high-end luxury products, there are many streets dedicated to fashion stores; plus, there is the Lotte Tower and Vicom Centre, which offer the familiar high-end mall-experience like in Japan or USA.
- Eat: there are many delicious, authentic Japanese restaurants.
- Pamper: visit Japanese spas.
- Night-clubs & live-music – check out the New Square Club at the Daewoo 5-star.
Bưởi – The Youthful Hangout on West Lake
Beautiful lake-side community, but without the expats
On the western shore of West Lake, opposite from the unofficial West Lake expat community, is Bưởi. It doesn’t have the raucous, touristy, hippie-vibe that many people associate with “West Lake”. Instead, it has a youthful, local-Vietnamese vibe, with fewer foreigners but all the charm and beauty of Tây Hồ.
It is a popular hangout for a younger crowd, with lots of lake-view coffee shops, kayak-rentals, seafood restaurants, bicycle rental shops for people who want to bike around the lake, corny street-events in the public squares.
You can find lots of homestays. There are tall, narrow apartments hidden in back-alley mazes (assuming you don’t need a car).
As Bưởi becomes more gentrified, there are fewer and fewer wet-markets and more mega-developments. For example, a few blocks eastward, on the other side of the main highway that runs north-south to Hanoi centre, there are massive mega-developments by Lotte and other mega-corps. Will these developments change the character and feeling of Bưởi?
In any case, it is a great place to live, with close access to the West Lake shore, a small-community vibe, as well as modern amenities close-by.
The New Centre of Hanoi- Trung Hoà/Nhân Chính
A centre outside the Centre, where businesses relocate
The two neighourhoods of Trung Hoà and Nhân Chính are colloquially known as “the New Centre”. Less than 20 years ago, they were just tiny towns surrounded by rice fields. Since then they have been transformed into many mega-developments that were intended to an alternative city-centre to alleviate the congestion and old-infrastructure in the Old Quarter. As such, they have better and larger amenities, such as goods hospitals, private and international schools, and giant malls.
The famous “Royal City” is here: luxury condos and high-end retail stores that once astounded the Vietnamese populace when it first opened. Royal City is the abode of many Vietnamese elites such as famous movie stars and industrial tycoons. It has an indoor skating rink, an opulent court-yard featuring Greek statutes, and a lot of stores with luxury, international brands.
But aside from the mega-developments like Royal City, Trung Hoà and Nhân Chính seem plain and ordinary. The area is family-friendly. There is not a lot of night life. There are lots of tiny sole proprietor businesses and traditional wet-markets. There are plenty of Asian expats, like Koreans, but few European or America expats. It is a place to live and work and raise a family, not a place for tourists to live-out a fantastical gap-year.
Many start-up businesses choose Trung Hoà/Nhân Chính to set-up shop, and most older, capital-lite businesses and offices have relocating here, such as financial companies and other B2B services.
Cầu Giấy – Another “New” Centre of Hanoi
Malls, businesses, and slightly more modern amenities than the Old Quarter
Within twenty-five years, Cầu Giấy when from mostly farmland, to the “New Centre” outside of the Old Quarter and its adjacent neighbourhoods. It is basically like Trung Hoà or Nhân Chính (see above).
Cầu Giấy has a very local, Vietnamese vibe. There are few expats and it is not very English-friendly (people are not mean to foreigners, there is just no reason for foreigners to be here). There are no big night-clubs or exciting touristy shenanigans.
What it does have is a great mix of traditional and modern amenities for families and businesses: there are big malls and small wet-markets; there are big spacious, roads and highways, as well as maze-like neighbourhoods; there are giant mega-developments, but also lots of tiny businesses.
A lot of businesses and offices are relocating to neighbourhoods like Cầu Giấy, Trung Hoà, and Nhân Chính. These were the first areas to benefit from the business-exodus from the over-crowded and touristy downtown core.
If you are planning on living in Hanoi long-term, Cầu Giấy could be a great place to live like a normal Vietnamese person — you can enjoy a mix of new and traditional amenities, but not too far from the Old Quarter.
Đội Cấn/Liễu Giai – West Lake Overflow
On the south side of West Lake, but without the expat shenanigans
The area of Đội Cấn/Liễu Giai is on the south side of West Lake, not far from museums and government offices in the French Quarter.
It is a quiet area with a just a few foreigners. Overall, it has a very local-Vietnamese feeling — safe and relatively quiet. There may be only one nightclub/bar in the whole area (if it survived Covid-19 shutdowns). There are lots of small, non-touristy cafes and restaurants that cater to normal Vietnamese people.
The neighbourhood is much more affordable than living in the West Lake expat-zone, and may serve as a sort of overflow-zone for foreigners who want to be close to the cool-vibe of West Lake, but without the high-prices and craziness.
Long Bien Bridge and the Hanoi River-Front
Once a plight, but hopefully undergoing revitalization
In the great cities of North America and Europe, the river-front properties are often the most coveted and luxurious. Therefore, you may be surprised to learn that this is not the case in Hanoi — at least not yet.
Much of the river-front properties are the unofficial home of unsanctioned shanty-communities and floating favelas. If you drive over the Victorian-era Long Bien bridge, you can see the mix of banana plantations, floating favelas and giant refuse piles. Some of the people who live in these favelas are working homeless migrants from other provinces, others are multi-generational families who live in a very precarious situation.
We highlight these areas only to alert readers that they should generally avoid the river-front areas. That being said, there are certainly many wonderful places (e.g. near Phu Gia, or the island of Phố Bắc Cầu).
In the future, there are plans for massive development projects to transform the river-front into high-value, scenic properties. When that happens, where here will the favelas go? If you are interested in helping the people who live in these unofficial communities, consider donating to organizations like Blue Dragon.
There are some fun walking paths that run through the banana plantations underneath the bridge — just don’t be surprised if you are heckled by locals about what you are doing there.
Embassy-Land – Khu Ngoại Giao Đoàn
A quiet place for diplomats
This is a little-known neighbourhood that houses a lot of affluent foreigners and diplomats who work in the French Quarter (where many embassies are located). This isn’t a hippie-expat land like West Lake — but a boring, safe nieghbourhood for the affluent. There are a few Embassies like the extremely-important Korean embassies.
It is sandwiched between two major highways that are relatively free of the traffic-insanity of the city centre, making it easy to move around. For example, it is easy to get to Westlake, as well as to the Noi Bai airport.
This is probably not a great place to live unless you are a diplomat or you want relative quiet and more space — but then why did you come to Vietnam?!?
Keangnam – The Manor
Where Korea meets Vietnam
Reaching further and further out into periphery of Hanoi, where developers have more space to build mega-developments in the modern style of Western or East Asian developed-countries, is an up-and-coming neighbourhood colloquially known as Keangnam. It has Modern high-end apartments, large developments, a lot of malls, nice private schools, a lot of international franchises like Starbucks and french bakeries … and lots of Koreans! Many of the businesses are run by Koreans or cater to Koreans. Most signs are bilingual in both Korean and Vietnamese.
The area that houses the Keangnam towers and Manor building are like a window into the aspirations of young Vietnamese people and their ascendancy into a middle-income Asian country. Walking around the area, you could be in Korea, or you could be in Taiwan or Malaysia — such is the trajectory of consumption habits and quality of life in Vietnam.
University Areas of Hanoi
The many university areas of Hanoi are great for cafes and cheap restaurants
Universities campuses in Vietnam are not the cloistered, country-club-esque playgrounds for wealthy students like they are in the USA. Instead, Vietnamese universities are more austere and functional and blend discretely into the urban matrix.
Sometimes, the colleges are housed in beautiful French colonial buildings. More often, they are drab and yellow, in the typical style of Vietnamese government offices. Some are from the Soviet-era and look built to withstand bombs: gray, boxy, flat-roofed, massive concrete structures.
Likewise, the neighbourhoods that surround the universities do not have the “college town” vibe like in the USA. There are not a lot of nightclubs or raucous bars — instead, Vietnamese students prefer to party in the Old Quarter or Kim Mã.
What you will see are more young people sitting in cafes and restaurants (their preferred study-location), more fashion-stores, and more specialty-shops such as art-supply stores or architectural instrumentation stores, etc.
The best thing about University neighbourhoods are the huge number of small, cheap, delicious restaurants. Imagine a long, maze-like alleyway packed with tiny tables and tiny chairs and spicy-sauces and street foods.
Here are a few of the university neighbourhoods:
- Vocational College of Technology in Bách Khoa
- Banking Academy & Medical College in Trung Liệt/Quang Trung
- Hanoi Univerity (Sciences, Architecture, Languages, Transportation, Language) in Từ Liêm
- Vietnam National University in Cầu Giấy
Ci Putra – The So-Called “International” City for Elites
Luxury homes and large roads for people who can afford cars
Ci Putra is a massive planned-community intended for Hanoi’s wealthiest people, with new luxury homes and a car in every drive-way, plus adjacent condos. Many elite Vietnamese want to live here. Among the many ostentatious features is a giant swimmable lake to imbue the neighbourhood with a faux-Mediterranean vibe.
The community is far from the centre of Hanoi, but sill accessible by highways to busy-areas like Cầu Giấy, the airport, and within a few minutes of West Lake.
An interesting option for expats would be in nearby communities, like Phú Gia to the north: this is the land of peach trees and the Red River. The local residents are normal Vietnamese, and there are still the exciting, traditional amenities like wet-markets and small hole-in-the-wall restaurants. There are affordable, faux-rich condos being built along the boundary of Ci Putra and Phú Gia, in hopes that the wealth-effect from Ci Putra will spill-over and make their neighbourhoods similarly desirable. Some of these adjacent developments are adorned with the statues of Greek gods, and some look like they could collapse in a few years.
Condo-Land in the Outskirts of Hanoi
Modern condos and all-inclusive planned communities on the edge of Hanoi
We highlight this area not for its own individual characteristics — rather, it is representative of a broader trend on the outskirts of Hanoi: condom land! There is a trend for large, multi-building, 30-story-plus developments that plan whole communities in what were rice-fields just a few years ago. They offer modern, mid-to-highend condos for young professional families, and include space for schools, gyms, groceries, pharmacies, large roads for a Western-style car-culture, etc.
Why live here? Maybe you want to be close to an international primary school, or maybe you want to live with big roads which can accommodate a car, or maybe you just want to feel “modern”.
In any case, many foreigners who like to romanticize the rice-field-and-straw-hat vision of Vietnam will probably not like these areas. However, for expats who work as ESL-teachers, may find yourself gravitating to these areas to service the multitude of young affluent families who spend a lot of money on private English-tutoring.
Island of Phở Cuốn – Ngũ Xã is our Favourite Place in Hanoi
An island secret on the edge of West Lake
This neighbourhood is a tiny island in a small bay on the south side of West Lake, nestled between the Old Quarter/French Quarter and West Lake community. It is a beautiful area, with interesting architectures, pleasant water-ways, greenery, and the distance lights of the city.
The island of Ngũ Xã is famous as a type of “pre-party” place for local Vietnamese to eat and drink. The specialty food is the delicious Phở Cuốn: a flat noodle that is deep-fried and blows up into the shape of a crunchy pillow (aka, “pillow phở”). Together with veggies and delicious Hanoi-style sauce, it is a local favourite.
The island of Ngũ Xã so popular that rents are quite expensive, and the noise at night-time must be horrendous. But, as a thing-to-do in Hanoi, Ngũ Xã is a gem and “must-do” for tourists who love trying new Vietnamese food. However, it is not a popular tourist destination (yet) so if you want to try the authentic Phở Cuốn, you’ll need to practice your Vietnamese.
- See our Word of the Day blog to learn more Vietnamese.
Where to live in Hanoi?
See our recommended places to live in Hanoi, for a variety of budgets, including best websites to find rental accomodations.