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Tour Hanoi in the sidecar of a motorbike

The most unexpected way to explore Hanoi, Vietnam, is in the sidecar of a motorbike.

Posted: Nov 13, 2018 4:43 PM
Updated: Nov 13, 2018 5:15 PM

With its pastel-hued shop houses, labyrinthine lanes and impenetrable swarms of motorbikes, the Old Quarter is among the most-visited areas of Hanoi, Vietnam.

It's here where you'll find Hanoi Opera House, Hoan Kiem Lake and the National Museum of Vietnamese History -- not to mention a maze of guild streets.

Though you could easily explore on foot, there's another way to tackle the tangle of leafy streets -- one that affords a unique perspective.

Enter Sidecar Tours Vietnam, which lets visitors cruise around the Old Quarter in Soviet-era Ural motorbikes.

"I think as a tourist riding along in the sidecar is fascinating," Steve Christensen, a Sidecar Tours Vietnam guide, tells CNN Travel.

"You get a chance to see everything, looking up at the buildings and watching history go by."

Hit the streets

Christensen picks up travelers on his vintage motorbike, originally used by army and police, to start the adventure through the Old Quarter.

Established centuries ago during imperial times, the storied district has long been the center of commerce in the city.

There are 36 "guild streets," each of which was more or less dedicated to a specific craft from bamboo to copper, cotton, manufacturing, silk and lacquerware, to name a few.

"Hanoi was founded over 1,000 years ago but the Old Quarter is even older than that," says Christensen, who has lived in Hanoi for more than 20 years.

"Each street is associated with a product, and each product is associated with a village."

Take Hang Chieu Street, for example. Named after traditional sleeping mats, Christensen says the lane was originally dedicated to straw bedding, which keeps you cool in the humid summers.

"When I walk down Hang Chieu Street and around the old quarter, I see the continuation of commerce," says Christensen.

"This street has always been [a place for making] mats and ropes, but now it has evolved into other products like plastic bags."

A trip through time

At the end of Hang Chieu Street, you'll come across the stately Quan Chuong Gate.

Built in 1749, this is the last of about 21 brick-and-stone gates that once surrounded the fortified city.

"The rest was taken down in the French era to make room for growth," explains Christensen. "This gate was closest to the river, so all the products came through here."

Passing by the relic, Christensen zooms to Hang Ma Street, also known as Paper Street.

It's not quite what it sounds like. Instead of everyday stationery, this street is dedicated to paper offerings -- think paper iterations of luxurious cars, bags and gadgets that are burned as offerings to deceased relatives during festivals.

"People sell paper representations of luxury lifestyle items," explains Christensen. "At certain times of year, you would take this to your pagoda and burn it for your relatives to use in the afterlife."

The city's beating heart

Next stop? Hang Thiec Street.

Known for being the most active -- and noisiest -- of the Old Quarter's craft streets, the area is famous for its welding, sanding and metal work.

"Here at Hang Thiec, they make tin boxes, cooking utensils, things for the house, vents, all the stainless steel products," says Christensen.

"As you can hear from the noise, activity is always going on."

Lining the buzzing street, shops overflow with tools and creations. From children's toys to crockery, it's all small-scale, handmade manufacturing.

"You can see that the metal, paper and packaging products ... It's all made within the center of the city," says Christensen.

"The old quarter of Hanoi is really the heart of the city. You look down one street ... you can hear the sounds of commerce."

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