Hanoi has a population of over 8 million people and is broken up into 30 administrative districts. This soon-to-be megacity is a confusing mess of streets with seemingly as many motorbikes as there are people.
[Motorbikes in the Old Quarter.]
If you are visiting Hanoi for the first time it may not seem apparent where the city centre is. There is a city square of sorts (Ba Dinh Square), but that is not the best area to stay.
The best area to stay in Hanoi is in Hoan Kiem district. This is the city centre and home of the old quarter. Breaking it down further, stay within the top triangular section of Hoàn Kiếm, around Hoan Kiem Lake. This is in the area bounded by the railway line on the west, Tran Quang Khai on the east, and Trang Thi to the south.
[Map of the best area to stay in Hoan Kiem district.]
If you read nothing else from this article, just set your hotel search filter to only show hotels in Hoan Kiem. Another way to refine your search is to look for Hoan Kiem Lake on the map view of the hotel search and select from the area around the lake.
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Map of where to stay in Hanoi
This map features hotels and landmarks that are featured in this article.
[view where to stay in Hanoi map.]
Hoan Kiem district
Breaking Hoan Kiem down further, there are 18 wards within the district. Those divisions are meaningless for visitors though, so the best way to approach Hoan Kiem is to view it as the Old Quarter and French Quarter.
[Old Quarter Hanoi (via Wikimedia).]
The Old Quarter is the area north of Hang Bong and Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s not an official administrative area, but the government has officially declared it as the Old Quarter. There are 36 streets in this area, named after what the street used to specialise in.
The area is a maze of streets that are easy to get lost in. The small footpaths are overtaken by businesses and bikes, and you will need to keep your wits about you as you dodge traffic from every angle. It’s an experience like no other city in Southeast Asia.
While Hanoi is the oldest capital in Southeast Asia (founded in 1010), the old city is a jumble of architectural styles with a lot of unplanned modern buildings. The magic of the Old Quarter is in the street activity and discovery of temples and old buildings among the chaos. It’s also very much a working area, with streets dedicated to specific industries. This is unlike Hoi An, where the old town has been given over to shops dedicated to tourism.
[Walking in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.]
To orientate yourself, the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square serves as the gateway to the Old Quarter from the lake. The square is more of a traffic circle, and there is a big building filled with cafes and restaurants that faces the “square”.
[Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square.]
The western side of the Old Quarter is bounded by the train line, where you can see the famous Hanoi Train Street.
Ta Hien Street (between Luong Ngoc Quyen and Hang Buom) is the Beer Street (or Pub Street). The streets surrounding this area have numerous backpacker hostels. This is the closest equivalent to Pham Ngu Lao in Ho Chi Minh City (or Khao San Road in Bangkok).
[Pub Street in Hanoi.]
Ma May is another street with a mix of accommodation styles (from backpacker to boutique).
Finding quality cheap guesthouses in Hanoi is hard work. In my travels in Vietnam, I have found cheap guesthouses ($10-15 range) to be clean and in good condition. The cheapest rooms in Hanoi are old and a bit run down, or a windowless box down an alley. Hanoi is hot and humid in the summer, and cold and damp in the winter. I don’t have any specific recommendations because cheap places deteriorate after a few years. One thing I always look for is to make sure the room has a window. This will make a small room less depressing.
[Windows make a big difference in small rooms. My room in a hotel homestay.]
There are no big-name hotel chains in the Old Quarter because there is not enough room for big buildings (or big buses).
One of the bigger hotels in the Old Quarter area is the Peridot Grand Luxury Boutique Hotel.
Search for hotels in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.
BOOKING TIP: Once you have booked a hotel, make sure to mark it on your Google Maps. Sometimes the hotel entrances are down a little alley with a confusing numbering system.
The French Quarter is the informal name of the area below Hang Bong and surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake. As the name would suggest, there are many colonial-era buildings here, though it’s a bit of a stretch to say it is like Paris (as some guidebooks say). It’s slightly less chaotic than the Old Quarter, and the area east of the lake has wider straighter streets that are easier to walk around.
[Turtle Tower in Hoan Kiem Lake.]
The great advantage of the French Quarter is the proximity to Hoan Kiem Lake. This picturesque lake features the Turtle Tower, which is one of the most familiar icons of the city. The lake is an ideal size for walking around, and on the weekends the streets around the lake become pedestrian-only.
[Walkers day around Hoan Kiem Lake.]
West of the lake is St Joseph Cathedral. The area around the cathedral has many budget hotels. The streets around Ngo Huyen near the cathedral have many hostels and guesthouses, and it’s a quieter option than the Beer Street backpacker area.
Here is my review of a typical no-frills guesthouse in the alleys around Ngi Huyen.
[Lots of cheap guesthouses in the alleys around Ngo Huyen.]
Not far from the cathedral is the The Oriental Jade Hotel.
The French Quarter on the east side of the lake is probably where you could draw a long bow in describing Hanoi as being like Paris. The streets are a bit wider, more tree-lined, and less chaotic. The impressive Hanoi Opera House is in this area, adding some weight to Hanoi’s Parisian comparisons.
[Hanoi Opera House.]
Some of the big-name 5-star hotels are in this area, including the Hotel de l’Opera Hanoi – MGallery and Hilton Hanoi Opera. The most historic is the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi. This is the hotel where Trump and Kim met.
The streets south of the lake are wider and straighter. This area was where Anthony Bourdain took President Obama for bun cha. This restaurant was likely chosen because the secret service approved of the more accessible wider roads. There was no way they would film that meet-up in the streets of the old quarter. This area is also home to my favourite chocolate cafe from Saigon (Maison Marou).
The Meliá Hanoi is one of the big hotels in this area.
Even though the name persists, the “French Quarter” is not an official area name (obviously). When searching on booking sites, search in the area around Hoan Kiem lake.
I have stayed at a hotel in the “French Quarter” area called Old Quarter Hotel 1961, so the name can also be used for the area around the lake.
[Room at Old Quarter Hotel 1961.]
Search for hotels in the French Quarter of Hanoi.
Other areas to stay in Hanoi
The purpose of the Nomadic Notes Where To Stay guides is to narrow your search down to the most convenient area for first-time visitors. There are of course other areas to stay, so I have listed them here to give an overview of the city.
Ba Dinh district
Ba Dinh is the district to the west of Koan Kiem. This is the cultural heart of Hanoi, with old city institutions and famous landmarks. Hanoi’s ancient history began at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is at the aforementioned Ba Dinh Square.
The eastern section of Ba Dinh is considered part of the French Quarter, but I think the Hoan Kiem area is better for first-timers.
[Two sections of French Quarter in Hanoi (via Wikimedia).]
Ba Dinh is a district of contrasts because the western end is one of the main modern business districts of the city. There is a cluster of skyscrapers near Thu Le Park, with Lotte Hotel Hanoi being the landmark of the area. At 272 metres tall, this is the second tallest building in Hanoi.
One of the reasons I stick to Hoan Kiem (as a visitor) is that Hanoi has terrible public transport. The city is working towards building a metro system, with the first metro line in Hanoi opening in 2021.
The second line (Line 3) will stop near the Lotte tower, so this area of Ba Đình may become a new place to stay when the metro opens. I will have another look when the line opens.
One of the most oddly famous hotels in Ba Dinh is the Dolce By Wyndham Hanoi Golden Lake. This is the world’s first gold-plated hotel, which are words I would not have expected to read in a hotel guide for the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Search for hotels in Ba Dinh.
Dong Da district
Dong Da is a central district south of Ba Dinh. It’s not as convenient for visitors, but I have placed it here for some comments on its future potential.
The first metro line in Hanoi (Line 2A) starts at Cat Linh on the boundary of Ba Dinh. There will be another metro line (Line 3) that will connect Cat Linh to Ha Noi Train Station.
A hotel that will benefit from metro expansion is the Pullman Hanoi, which is in front of Cat Linh Station (Line 2A) and the future Cat Linh Station (Line 3).
Line 2A is not useful for tourists, so there isn’t anywhere on the metro line that is worth staying at. I took a ride on the Line 2A metro to explore Dong Da for potential neighbourhoods that might become hotspots once Line 3 is connected to Line 2A.
Hai Ba Trung district
Hai Ba Trung District is south of Hoan Kiem. If I was going to live in Hanoi, I would have Hai Ba Trung on my shortlist. It feels more residential while retaining the old charm of Hanoi, and it’s within a reasonable walking distance to the lake and chaos of the old quarter. Thong Nhat Park is one of the biggest parks in central Hanoi.
[Thong Nhat Park, Hanoi.]
Search for hotels in Hai Ba Trung district.
Tay Ho district (West Lake)
Speaking of living in Hanoi, the most popular area for western expats is on the western side of West Lake (Tay Ho). This area has become an enclave filled with international cafes and restaurants. If you are familiar with Ho Chi Minh City, it has a similar vibe to the expat area of Thao Dien. I call Tay Ho “The Thao Dien of Hanoi”.
If you are doing a search for hotels in Hanoi by map search, make you don’t confuse West Lake with Hoan Kiem Lake. West Lake is north of Hoan Kiem and much larger.
It’s an interesting place to visit if you have time and you want to see how expats live. I’ve been to Hanoi over ten times (I’ve lost count now) and I stayed here once to get a feel for it and to see if I would like to live here. There are not many hotels here (more apartment rentals) and it’s a pain to come and go from the Old Quarter if you are a short-term visitor.
West Lake is another area to watch in the future. There are some big redevelopment plans here, including the Tay Ho View project and the proposed floating opera house. Even with these additions, it won’t change the fact that this not the best area to stay for new visitors to Hanoi.
Search for hotels in Tay Ho.
Nam Từ Liêm district
Nam Tu Liem is far from the city centre and you have no business being there unless you are on business there. This area is notable for the AON Hanoi Landmark Tower, which is the tallest building in Hanoi (350 m). The tower includes the InterContinental Hanoi Landmark72.
I went there once for a conference, and I took the arduous motorbike taxi ride there from the city centre. I could see why business travellers would stay there, but if you have never been to Hanoi, then suffer the commute and stay in the city.