Hanoi's old quarter is brimming with life.

A steady stream of motorcycles whizz by as we weave through the dense crowd of shoppers along Hang Dao. Above the narrow street plant-packed balconies poke from water-stained terraces that climb into the humid afternoon sky. On the footpath an enthusiastic shopkeeper spruiks clothes that cover every surface of his little store.

"T-shirt?" he asks.

"Yes please - how much for the Tintin one?"

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A hopeless exchange of prices and frowns takes place before we settle on a figure not much lower than the original.

Hang Dao is one of the 36 famous streets in Hanoi's old quarter. They are famous not only for their hyperactivity but also for the way each is devoted to a particular trade. There is a street just for shoes, for flowers, for jewellery and even for dried fish.

Along Hang Bo we see rolls of colourful fabrics and every kind of lace, trim, zipper and button imaginable. It feels like a haberdasher's dream.

A woman sells prints and posters in Hanoi's old quarter.
A woman sells prints and posters in Hanoi's old quarter.

As we turn down Hang Thiec, the clang of hammers fills the air as tinsmiths work busily on letterboxes, kettles and other shiny items.

The walking makes us hungry, which is a good thing - Vietnam's cuisine, particularly the street food, is reason alone to visit. Earlier, for lunch, we opted for the popular pho: a fragrant rice-noodle soup with beef or chicken and fresh basil, lime and chillies.

But tonight we try cha ca - a Hanoian dish - at the bustling Cha Ca Thang Long restaurant where it is the only thing on the menu. Turmeric-covered fish is grilled with dill in a hot pan at our table.

We serve it up ourselves with vermicelli noodles, peanuts and a shrimp sauce. Like most Vietnamese dishes, it is fresh, delicious and enjoyably interactive.

We head back out on to the streets in search of another local speciality known as bia hoi, draught beer served in a plastic cup on the footpath. The freshly brewed lager is sold for about 20c a cup at street-side bars and corner stores (or seemingly by anyone with access to a keg).

Huddled on small plastic chairs we mingle with locals and travellers for a while before the comfort of our hotel beckons.

From the rooftop pool and bar of the Apricot Hotel we look out over the nearby Hoan Kiem Lake and take in the city lights.

Cha Ca at Cha Ca Thang Long restaurant, in Hanoi. Photo / Greg Willis
Cha Ca at Cha Ca Thang Long restaurant, in Hanoi. Photo / Greg Willis

We step on to the glass skywalk that runs alongside the pool and we can see a pianist playing in the lobby, 10 floors below our feet, before coming to our senses and scurrying back to solid ground. The next morning we take a stroll across the road - slowly, to let the motorbikes veer around us - to the serene lake we saw the night before. Around the water's edge people eat icecreams or just sit and think under the leafy trees. But we learn there is more to Hoan Kiem than meets the eye.

According to local legend, a golden turtle emerged from the lake about 600 years ago to give Vietnamese emperor Le Loi a magic sword. With this sword the emperor grew strong and drove away the invading Ming army.

Rare giant turtles are believed to be living in the water today, while a 2m specimen is on display at a temple at the lake.

We stick with the aquatic theme and head to the nearby Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, where the wobbly wooden stars splish and splash across the stage.

Buffalo boy playing the flute, Agricultural work and Chasing the fox that tries to catch ducks are highlights of the humorous and masterful show.

From here we walk to the stunning neo-Gothic, French-colonial St Joseph's Cathedral.

We continue on to the inspiring Temple of Literature, the nations first university, dating back to 1076.

It becomes clear Vietnam's oldest city boasts a wealth of history and culture. It is charming and museum-like and should remain so, with development restricted in the old quarter.

But unlike a museum, Hanoi is loud, full of action and incredibly fun.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Flight Centre has Economy return airfares flying Air New Zealand to Ho Chi Minh from Auckland, with prices starting at $1249. Valid for sales February 29-March 14 with travel June 4-30, August 2-September 20 or October 11-29. flightcentre.co.nz

- AAP