Once an alligator-infested swamp, Hanoi's Old Quarter's winding streets are the heart and soul of the capital. The Old Quarter began to garner its reputation as a crafts location when the Vietnamese people gained independence in the 11th century and King Ly Thai To had his palace built there. Two hundred years later, the artisan villages built up around the palace walls evolved into craft guilds. Though history refers to the '36 Streets' there are actually closer to 50; historians believe that 36 refers to the number of guilds with workshops in the area. Many of the streets were named after these guilds and the merchandise they sold. Some streets' vendors have been selling the same wares for hundreds of years.
Hanoi's vivacious Old Quarter is packed with stores that sell all manner of goods. If you understand a modicum of Vietnamese, look to the street signs to give you a clue. For example, Hang Gai means 'Silk Products'. Find everything you need, right in the centre of Hanoi, from silks, embroidery, lacquerware, propaganda art, paper, stuffed toys and watches. Hungry? Then head to one of many pubs and restaurants for delicious food and beverages. It is recommended that you carry your handbags and purses in front of you as there have been incidents of motorbike drive-by snatchings.