There’s more to Hanoi than the Old Quarter. If you want to experience Hanoi like a local, spend a morning in Ngoc Ha—Hanoi’s most charming inner-city neighbourhood. Here’s a quick guide to Ngoc Ha’s green spaces, street food, local markets and temples.
A sea of push bikes, floral pajamas and conical hats. That’s how I’ll always remember Ngoc Ha (Ngọc Hà), the neighbourhood we called home during our year in Vietnam. It’s hard to believe that in Hanoi, a throbbing metropolis of nine million people and even more motorbikes, you can still find a little slice of village life.
When you move overseas, Ngoc Ha is exactly the kind of place you hope you’ll end up. Quiet, friendly, safe, and completely authentic in its character and understated appeal. We didn’t know it when we signed the lease on our apartment, but we ended up living right in the heart of Ngoc Ha, one of Hanoi’s most charming residential areas.
Ngoc Ha is located in Hanoi’s central Ba Dinh district, roughly halfway between Tay Ho (West Lake) and the Old Quarter. The main street, also called Ngoc Ha, runs directly behind the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. To the west, Ngoc Ha neighbourhood unfolds as a maze of narrow alleyways, interspersed with the occasional communal house, temple or shimmering lake.
Just a few minutes’ stroll from some of Hanoi’s most important historical sites—the Mausoleum and Ho Chi Minh Museum, Thang Long Citadel, One Pillar Pagoda, Ba Dinh Square—Ngoc Ha is the perfect side excursion for anyone who wants to experience Hanoi’s local side.
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A flower village in the heart of Hanoi
Not long after we arrived in Hanoi and moved into our apartment on Ngoc Ha’s main street, I attended a talk at a local gallery. The speaker opened her address by reminiscing about pre-war Hanoi and her childhood growing up in Ngoc Ha Village—the same area I was living in. Her recollections of life in sleepy Ngoc Ha painted a picture of a small, tight-knit community.
Her words completely re-shaped my view of Ngoc Ha, which until then, I thought was just a neighbourhood like any other.
Ngoc Ha is, in fact, one of the original parts of Hanoi—a city with more than 1000 years of history as Vietnam’s capital behind it. In the past, Ngoc Ha was its own self-contained village. Each family owned their own verdant plot, where they grew flowers and bonsai trees to supply to the rest of the city’s residents.
There aren’t many flower gardens left in Ngoc Ha today, but the neighbourhood retains its village feel.
By the 1990s, life in Hanoi had well and truly shifted pace, and living standards improved for families throughout the city. People started renovating and constructing new homes—always towering up and up on tiny foundations (property tax is charged by the square metre in Hanoi, which is why houses are notoriously thin and tall).
Ngoc Ha’s location between Tay Ho and the Old Quarter made it a popular spot, and the area was transformed by the influx of new people and new wealth. Somehow, in spite of all this development, Ngoc Ha’s residents managed to hold onto their spirit of community.
Relative to other parts of Hanoi, Ngoc Ha is extremely green. By virtue of the laneways and lack of main roads, it’s also very quiet. The area’s close proximity to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Ba Dinh Square (where Uncle Ho famously read out Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence) has forced Ngoc Ha to develop with more restraint than other neighbourhoods—codes prohibit building any structure taller than the top of the Mausoleum within a certain radius, lest it overshadow Hanoi’s most recognisable landmark.
Ngoc Ha is a fascinating area and not to be missed by anyone who enjoys straying a little left of the beaten track. I hope this quick guide to Ngoc Ha inspires you to discover some of what Hanoi’s most atmospheric neighbourhood has to offer.
Things to do in Ngoc Ha
For such a small, thoroughly local and untouristed area, Ngoc Ha has an awful lot to offer visitors. My recommendation is to set aside a morning or afternoon to explore Ngoc Ha, either before or after visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Hanoi’s diplomatic quarter.
Here are my favourite things to do in Ngoc Ha.
| Ngoc Ha Communal House & lake
Like all ‘villages‘ in Hanoi (and elsewhere in Vietnam), Ngoc Ha centres on the communal house. Đình Ngọc Hà is the heart and soul of the neighbourhood—it’s a place for worship, recreation, and for gathering on special occasions. If there’s a festival on, you’ll find the temple and surrounding streets festooned with colourful village flags.
You’re just as likely to find the courtyard and the hall completely empty—especially in the mid-morning, once the adjoining fresh food market has dispersed.
Lotus-shaped lanterns line the bridge that spans the temple moat, joining the house and gardens with the outside world. When you cross the bridge, you step onto a tranquil island of ponds and palm trees that feels a world away from the rest of the city.
| Dinh Ngoc Ha Market
If the communal house is the heart of Ngoc Ha, the morning market is its lifeblood. Every morning from around 5am, a huge network of stalls unfolds around the temple and lake, spilling out into the neighbouring laneways and backstreets. This is by far the most atmospheric and interesting market I visited in Hanoi.
Everything seems to be done the old-school way—conical non hats, woven baskets, produce wrapped in banana leaves rather than plastic. Most of the shoppers and stall owners are middle-aged or elderly, which convinced me that this market has been operating in the same fashion for many, many mornings past.
If I could go back and spend just one more day in Hanoi, you can bet I’d end up whiling away the morning people watching at this market. Things wind up at around 8am, so be sure to arrive early.
| Ngoc Ha Market
There is a second, slightly smaller market located on Ngoc Ha’s main street, just where it branches off into a narrow lane. This market is also extremely atmospheric—every time we walked down this section of street, which was where we did all our grocery shopping, we felt like we were stepping back in time.
Ngoc Ha Market is on daily and unlike the morning market, stays open until late.
| Wander the laneways
When you look at Ngoc Ha on the map, it appears as a mass of twisted alleys with very few main arterials. In reality, the laneways are even narrower and more twisted than you might expect—there’s often barely enough room to squeeze in two motorbikes heading in opposite directions.
Do be mindful of traffic as you wander up and down Ngoc Ha’s maze of residential laneways, which are charming and quiet and filled with wonderful vignettes of daily life, pretty window grills and house plants.
You might get a few funny looks from locals who will probably think you’re lost—but rest assured, you’re in the right place.
| Temples & pagodas
As well as Ngoc Ha’s main community hall, there are a few other landmarks in the area that are worth checking out. Chùa Bát Tháp (pictured above) is a lovely temple located off Doi Can. The main part of the complex, visible from the road, is ancient and appears to be fire damaged.
The newer house that has been constructed nearby is replete with water features and incredible lotus ponds. If you love temples, Đền Đống Nước and Chùa Bát Mẫu are also notable for their architecture and gardens.
All welcome visitors during casual opening hours (usually early until late, with a break in the middle of the day for lunch), and are free to visit.
| B52 Lake
Hồ Hữu Tiệp, better known as B52 Lake, has a rather unusual water feature. Here, you can see the wreckage of a US B52 plane that was shot down over Hanoi in the Christmas bombing of 1972. The wreckage, which apparently fell first onto a nearby rooftop before sliding into the lake, is now considered something of a victory monument.
Head a little further north to Truc Bach—another of my favourite Hanoi suburbs—to see the lake where John McCain’s plane came down.
| Hanoi Botanical Garden
Just opposite Ngoc Ha, Hanoi’s Botanical Garden is one of the city’s finest green spaces. It’s particularly fun to visit early in the morning (before 5am in summer) and mid-morning on weekends, when locals flock here to play badminton and do choreographed tai chi and aerobics. Note the rather depressing Communist-style kids playground and sculpture gardens, including work by artists from the former Yugoslavia.
| Doi Can
Doi Can is a main road that runs along the bottom of Ngoc Ha, hemming the suburb in. It’s famously known as a street where you can buy anything (I can attest to that). Alongside clothes boutiques and shoe shops, there are a few good cafes and street food stalls. Further along Doi Can, just after Ngoc Ha, you’ll find Dao’s Care—a wonderful spa and one of my favourite social enterprises in Hanoi.
Where to eat & drink in Ngoc Ha
Ngoc Ha is a local area, so the main food offerings are street stalls. There is a great bia hoi (beer garden) on Huu Tiep Lake, as well as a few local tea shops. Most of Hanoi’s best cafes are closer to the Old Town, but Ngoc Ha has a few trendy coffee houses of its own.
Phở Bò Gốc Gạo | Located inside Ngoc Ha Market, this famous pho joint serves unadulterated, utterly delicious bowls of steaming hot pho ga (chicken pho) and pho bo (beef pho). The ideal breakfast food if you’re out and about early in Ngoc Ha.
Bún Chả Huyền Linh | I walked past this tiny hole-in-the-wall bun cha restaurant on Ngoc Ha’s main street a thousand times before I finally decided to go in. You can’t miss it—the pork is grilled on an open fire out the front, sending plumes of thick smoke (laced with the salivating smell of charred, fatty pork) down Ngoc Ha’s surrounding laneways.
Lovegan Cafe | This incy-wincy restaurant serves vegan versions of Hanoi classics (including a tofu banh mi), and also sells cakes, vegan protein powder, and other health food products.
Tomodachi Kaikan | A well-regarded Japanese restaurant located in a house down one of the alleys near Dinh Ngoc Ha. Regrettably, we never got a chance to eat here.
Cutisun | We were regulars at Cutisun—an exceeding popular French restaurant located just north of Ngoc Ha. The house special—Australian steak with chips, a banh mi and a side salad—paired with a glass of red always went down well.
DIY Box Leather & Coffee Workshop | Located near B52 Lake, this cafe-cum-workshop offers classes in leathercraft, where you can make your own wallet or belt over a cuppa. Cool, huh?
Blue Note Bar | A popular drinking hole on the edge of one of Ngoc Ha’s bigger lakes. If you’re looking for something fun to do, Blue Note hosts regular poker nights and open mic events. It’s big among locals and expats—you won’t find too many other tourists here.
Where to stay in Ngoc Ha
I always recommend first-time visitors to Hanoi base themselves in the Old Quarter—but if you’re looking for something a bit more affordable and gives a taste of local life, Ngoc Ha might be the perfect place for you.
Airbnb | The family owned apartment block where we lived also offers short-term accommodation on Airbnb. This is the listing if you’re interested in booking.
Homestay | Ngoc Ha Flower Homestay is a cute homestay located close to the communal house. Check availability and rates here on Agoda.
Here are the booking sites and services I personally use whenever I travel to Vietnam.
– Find affordable flights to Vietnam on Kiwi.com, a booking site that mixes and matches airlines to find the best route (there’s a money back guarantee if you miss a connection).
– Use iVisa to check if you need a tourist visa for Vietnam and apply for an expedited e-visa online.
– Pre-book a private hotel transfer from Hanoi Airport or Ho Chi Minh City Airport.
– Pre-order a local 4G sim card for pickup at your first Vietnam hotel.
– Find the best hotel deals in Vietnam on Agoda, book a Vietnam hostel, or find a unique Airbnb.
– Reserve your Vietnam Rail tickets for the train to Sapa, Da Nang, Hue or Saigon.
– Buy your domestic bus or plane tickets in advance using Baolau or 12GoAsia.
– Find the best cooking classes and foodie experiences in Vietnam. Here are my top 15 Vietnam food experiences to help you decide.
– Find the best city tours and day excursions in Vietnam. Check out my top 10 best Vietnam day trips for more inspiration.
– Consult my comprehensive Halong Bay guide to find the best cruises & tours.
– Try an alternative tour or DIY experience with social enterprise Backstreet Academy.
– Pick up a copy of the latest Lonely Planet guidebook for Vietnam.
Have you ever happened upon a local neighbourhood on your travels? What do you prefer: popular attractions or local spots? I’d love to hear your thoughts!