By turns exotic, squalid, gauche and hip, the high-octane Vietnamese capital of Hanoi provides a full-scale assault on the senses. Its crumbly, lemon-hued colonial architecture is a feast for the eyes; swarms of buzzing motorbikes invade the ear, while the delicate scents and tastes of delicious street food can be found all across a city that – unlike so many of its regional contemporaries – is managing to modernize with a degree of grace. Despite its political and historical importance, and the incessant noise drummed up by a population of over six million, Hanoi exudes a more intimate, urbane appeal than Ho Chi Minh City.
Hanoi city centre comprises a compact area known as Hoan Kiem District, which is neatly bordered by the Red River embankment in the east and by the rail line to the north and west, while its southern extent is marked by the roads Nguyen Du, Le Van Huu and Han Thuyen. The district takes its name from its present-day hub and most obvious point of reference, Hoan Kiem Lake, which lies between the cramped and endlessly diverting Old Quarter in the north, and the tree-lined boulevards of the French Quarter, arranged in a rough grid system, to the south. West of this central district, across the rail tracks, some of Hanoi’s most impressive monuments occupy the wide open spaces of the former Imperial City, grouped around Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum on Ba Dinh Square and extending south to the ancient walled gardens of the Temple of Literature. A vast body of water confusingly called West Lake sits north of the city, harbouring a number of interesting temples and pagodas, but the attractive villages that once surrounded it have now largely given way to upmarket residential areas and a smattering of luxury hotels.
Modern Hanoi has an increasingly confident, “can do” air about it and a buzz that is even beginning to rival Ho Chi Minh City. There’s more money about nowadays and the wealthier Hanoians are prepared to flaunt it in the ever-more sophisticated restaurants, cafés and designer boutiques that have exploded all over the city. Hanoi now boasts glitzy, multistorey shopping malls and wine warehouses; beauty parlours are the latest fad and some seriously expensive cars cruise the streets. Almost everyone else zips around on motorbikes rather than the deeply untrendy bicycle. The authorities are trying – with mixed success – to temper the anarchy with laws to curb traffic and regulate unsympathetic building projects in the Old Quarter, coupled with an ambitious twenty-year development plan that aims to ease congestion by creating satellite towns. Nevertheless, the city centre has not completely lost its old-world charm nor its distinctive character.
Hanoi, somewhat unjustly, remains less popular than Ho Chi Minh City as a jumping-off point for touring Vietnam, with many making the journey from south to north. Nevertheless, it provides a convenient base for excursions to Ha Long Bay, and to Sa Pa and the northern mountains, where you’ll be able to get away from the tourist hordes and sample life in rural Vietnam. There are also a few attractions much closer at hand, predominantly religious foundations such as the Perfume Pagoda, with its spectacular setting among limestone hills, and the spiral-shaped citadel of Co Loa, just north of today’s capital. The Red River Delta’s fertile alluvial soil supports one of the highest rural population densities in Southeast Asia, living in bamboo-screened villages dotted among the paddy fields. Some of these communities have been plying the same trade for generations, such as ceramics, carpentry or snake-breeding. While the more successful craft villages are becoming commercialized, it’s possible, with a bit of effort, to get well off the beaten track to where Confucianism still holds sway.
When Tang Chinese armies invaded Vietnam in the seventh century, they chose a small Red River fort as capital of their new protectorate, named, optimistically, Annam, the “Pacified South”. Three centuries later the rebellious Vietnamese ousted the Chinese from their “Great Nest”, Dai La, in 939 AD. After that, the citadel lay abandoned until 1010 when King Ly Thai To, usually credited as Hanoi’s founding father, recognized the site’s potential and established his own court beside the Red River. It seems the omens were on his side for, according to legend, when the king stepped from his royal barge onto the riverbank a golden dragon flew up towards the heavens. From then on Thang Long, “City of the Ascending Dragon”, was destined to be the nation’s capital, with only minor interruptions, for the next eight hundred years.
Ly Thai To and his successors set about creating a city fit for “ten thousand generations of kings”, choosing auspicious locations for their temples and palaces according to the laws of geomancy. They built protective dykes, established a town of artisans and merchants alongside the Imperial City’s eastern wall, and set up the nation’s first university, in the process laying the foundations of modern Hanoi. From 1407, the country was again under Chinese occupation, but this time only briefly before the great hero Le Loi retook the capital in 1428. The Le Dynasty kings drained lakes and marshes to accommodate their new palaces as well as a growing civilian population, and towards the end of the fifteenth century Thang Long was enjoying a golden era under the great reformer, King Le Thanh Thong. Shortly after his death in 1497, however, the country dissolved into anarchy, while the city slowly declined until finally Emperor Gia Long moved the royal court to Hué in 1802.
By the 1830s Thang Long had been relegated to a provincial capital, known merely as Ha Noi, or “City within the River’s Bend”, and in 1882 its reduced defences offered little resistance to attacking French forces, led by Captain Rivière. Initially capital of the French Protectorate of Tonkin, a name derived from Dong Kinh, meaning “Eastern Capital”, after 1887 Hanoi became the centre of government for the entire Union of Indochina. Royal palaces and ancient monuments made way for grand residences, administrative offices, tree-lined boulevards and all the trappings of a colonial city, more European than Asian. However, the Vietnamese community lived a largely separate, often impoverished existence, creating a seedbed of insurrection.
During the 1945 August Revolution, thousands of local nationalist sympathizers spilled onto the streets of Hanoi and later took part in its defence against returning French troops, though they had to wait until 1954 for their city finally to become the capital of an independent Vietnam. Hanoi sustained more serious damage during the air raids of the American War, particularly the infamous Christmas Bombing campaign of 1972. The subsequent political isolation together with lack of resources preserved what was essentially the city of the 1950s, somewhat faded, a bit battered and very overcrowded. These characteristics are still in evidence today, even as Hanoi is reinventing itself as a dynamic international capital. New market freedoms combined with an influx of tourists since the early 1990s have led to a huge growth in privately run hotels and restaurants, several of international standard, and in boutiques, craft shops and tour agencies. As ancient – and antiquated – buildings give way to glittering high-rises, and as traffic congestion increases, the big question is how much of this historic and charming city will survive the onslaught of modernization.