HANOI, contrary to the impression some may have gotten from the Vietnam War, is regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Asia, and one the oldest. Spread out around the confluence of the Red River and the To Lich River, it was founded in A.D. 1010 and served as the capital of French Cochin China for around a hundred years until the French were thrown out by the Viet Minh in 1954. Hanoi means “city within the river’s bend” or “inner river.” It remains the heart of Vietnam. Radio broadcasts often begin: “Whenever we find ourselves at the four points of the compass, our hearts are turned to Hanoi.”

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and its center of culture and politics. Quite different than bustling, hyperactive Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi has traditionally been a quiet, slightly careworn city with colonial buildings, lots of parks and palm trees, oddly angled streets, lakes with names like White Silk and Bright Heavens, and boulevards with more bicycles than motorized vehicles. But in recent years motorbike mania has caught up with Hanoi and now it almost as much engulfed in motorbikes as Ho Chi Minh City is. As of early 2014, it remained also one of the few places world with no McDonalds.

The area that Hanoi was built on was once quite marshy. Protected from floods by high dikes and water-dispersing canals, Hanoi has lakes of various sizes all over the place and still occasionally gets walloped by floods. The city still retains its colonial character. The French left behind an opera house, buildings with tile roofs and curled eaves, villas with yellow and green stucco facades and pleasant verandas, and entire decaying neighborhoods that bring to mind New Orleans, not North Vietnam.

Hanoi is in quite good shape considering the damage it sustained during the Vietnam War. More damage, it seems, has been caused by the construction boom in the 1990s by investors from Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong that resulted in the partial destruction of the "Hanoi Hilton" prison, and other buildings and left behind unsightly hotels and office complexes. Most evidence of the war is gone. The tunnels where Hanoi citizens sought refuge during the bombings have mostly been paved over.

Hanoi has more in the way of tourist sights, pagodas and temples than Ho Chi Minh City but less heavy metal clubs and discos. Despite an eventful history, marked by destruction, wars and natural calamities, Hanoi still preserves many ancient architectural works including the Old Quarter and over 600 pagodas and temples. Famous sites include the One Pillar Pagoda (built in 1049), the Temple of Literature (built in 1070), Hanoi Citadel, Hanoi Opera House, and Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. Hanoi has been voted one of the top five cities in Asia by Travel & Leisure.

There are about 3 million or so people in Hanoi (2013) and around 6.5 million in greater Hanoi. A good portion of population lives in Hanoi’s suburbs. In many ways the city is set up so that is more like a collection of villages that a metropolis. Many people live in houses without plumbing and cook outside their homes. The people of Hanoi are sometimes called Hanoians.

Naomi Lindt wrote in New York Times, “Vietnam's capital, has experienced extraordinary growth over the last two decades, evolving from a grim, famine-ravaged place into a sophisticated metropolis with high-rises, sensational cuisine and world-class art. Those shaking their heads at the disappearance of local culture, though, should think twice. For every glitzy mall, there's an incense-filled temple nearby, and cultural influences of the past are still part of the modern-day fabric, from revered Confucian monuments to trendy French restaurants. In fact, it's this zeal for barreling toward the future while always looking back that defines this city. [Source: Naomi Lindt, New York Times, March 30, 2009]

According to Associated Press: “The capital, though not as glitzy as the southern financial hub Ho Chi Minh City, has also evolved from a sleepy town into a boisterous city that has maintained an old-Asian charm with its wide tree-lined streets and colonial architecture. Street vendors sell Hanoi's famous "pho" noodle soup from cauldrons, as they've done for centuries, near luxury shops such as Louis Vuitton and Escada. The capital's nouveau riche push through a sea of motorbikes in their BMWs, Mercedes and Bentleys, a jarring contrast to the red hammer-and-sickle banners streaming across roads declaring, "Long Live the Glorious Communist Party of Vietnam" and loudspeakers blurting revolutionary songs and socialist slogans.[Source: Associated Press, October 11, 2010]


Hanoi had existed in various forms for a long time. In the 3rd century BC, Co Loa (actually belonging to Dong Anh District) was chosen as the capital of the Au Lac Nation of Thuc An Duong Vuong (the King Thuc). Hanoi later became the core of the resistance movements against the Northern invasions. Located in the middle of the Red River Delta, the town has gradually expanded to become a very populations and rich residential center. At different periods, Hanoi had been selected as the chief city of Vietnam under the Northern domination.

Hanoi was launched on its way to be a great city in A.D. 1010 by King Ly Thai To, the founder of the Ly Dynasty, decided to transfer the capital about 100 kilometers from Hoa Lu to Dai La, and so he rebaptized it Thang Long (Soaring Dragon). The year 1010 then became an historical date for Hanoi and for the whole country in general. King Ly Thai To established his court beside the Red River. Over the next 800 years, marshes were drained, dikes were built, the court grew in size and power, merchants set up shops and a university was established. Periodically the city was claimed by the Chinese who were inevitably driven out. It also managed to withstand an attack by the Mongols.

For about a thousand years, the capital was called Thang Long, then changing to Dong Do, Dong Kinh, and finally to Hanoi, in 1831. In 1882, Hanoi became capita of French Tonkin and in 1902 it became capital of all French Indochina. Much of the modern city’s character—it colonial buildings and street lay outs and infrastructure—date to the French colonial period. In 1954 after a nine year war between the French and Vietnamese, Hanoi became the capital of North Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War Hanoi endured heavy raids in 1965, 1968 an 1972, which were concentrated mainly on the bridges across the Red River, the train station and industrial areas in the perimeter of the city. Some of the heaviest bombing occurred when Hanoi was repeatedly blasted by American planes in December 1972 during the so-called Christmas bombings. Although they were not targets Bach Mai hospital and the old quarter were hit. Three quarter of the population of the inner city was moved during the heaviest raids. Today, the train station is the only places that shows any evidence of the bombing. Few people take notice of the shot-down B-52 protruding from a pond near an outdoor market.

After the war as part of the doi moi economic reforms, people turned their living rooms into shops and began selling pho and all manner of goods on the streets. Restaurants and art galleries opened. As time went on more and more tourists and foreign investors arrived. However some houses still do not have electricity and running water and the city desperately needs a better waste management and sewer system. Most household and industrial waste water is discharged directly into the drainage system.

Hanoi has experienced its share of construction and development since the economic reforms in the 1980s but not nearly to the extent of Ho Chi Minh City. Even in the early 1990s there were still very few stoplights. Plans by foreign developers to create a neon city came up against opposition from local planners and architects persuaded the government to draw up a careful, tasteful plan for development. If this plan remains enforced development with modern shopping malls and like will be located outside the city center.


Robert D. Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic, “What Hanoi catches in freeze-frame is the process of history itself—not merely as some fatalistic, geographically determined drumroll of dynasties and depredations but as the summation of brave individual acts and nerve-racking calculations. In the city’s History Museum, maps, dioramas, and massive gray stelae commemorate anxious Vietnamese resistances against the Chinese Song, Ming, and Qing empires in the 11th, 15th, and 18th centuries. Although Vietnam was integrated into China until the 10th century, its political identity separate from the Middle Kingdom ever since has been something of a miracle—one that no theory of the past can adequately explain. [Source: Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic, May 21 2012. Kaplan is the chief geopolitical analyst at Stratfor and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of “The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate” <*>]

“In fact, the Vietnamese historical imagination has a particular intensity about it. The depth and clutter of the Ngoc Son Temple (which commemorates the 13th-century defeat of the Yuan Chinese), its copper-faced Buddha embraced by incense, gold leaf, and crimson wood and surrounded by the pea soup–green Hoan Kiem Lake and its leafy shores, constitute spiritual preparation for the more austere mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself... His mausoleum gives onto distempered, century-old European buildings and churches in what was once the nerve center of French Indochina—an iffy enterprise that Paris tenaciously tried to prolong after World War II, forcing a war with the Vietnamese that culminated in France’s signal humiliation at the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu. <::>

“Beyond these edifices come the city’s latest epic struggles against fate: its screaming, pulsating business district, with hordes of motorbikes—the drivers texting on cellphones in traffic jams—and cutting-edge facades that invade an otherwise cruddy-drab jumble of storefronts. This is pre–chain store capitalism, with cafés everywhere, each different in mood and design, offering some of the best coffee in the world, and no sign of Starbucks. Despite all the history, Hanoi is no outdoor museum like the great cities of Europe. It is still in the ungainly process of becoming—closer to the disheveled chaos of India than to the alienating sterility of Singapore. <::>


Hanoi is regarded as the cultural as well a political capital of Vietnam and a bastion of Confucius values and Communist doctrines. It moves at a much slower pace than Saigon. Nguyen Du Mau, one of Vietnam’s most beloved poets, told National Geographic, “This is a city that nurture’s the soul of a poet. It’s not something easily explained, but is something you feel. In the touch of the mist. In the sight of the Red River. In the traditions, the lives of struggle. A sense of romance hovers over Hanoi like no other city I know. You walk the streets, and you’re passing through a thousand years of history.” [Source: David Lamb, National Geographic, May 2004 **]

“A city of poets? Yes, people have called us that, because Hanoi has always been the home of Vietnam’s artists and the home of Vietnam’s artists and intelligentsia. Part of the reason is historical: This was the seat of Vietnam’s old dynasties. They provided the intellectual foundation for the north. The emperors surround themselves with scholars and poets, and as far back as the Ly dynasty, in the 11th century, poetry was part of our cultural identity. In the south there is no such history and tradition. Saigon didn’t even exist as a city until the 18th century.” **


In 2010, Hanoi turned 1000.Associated Press reported: “Draped in red Communist banners and propaganda slogans, Vietnam's capital turned 1,000 years old in an extravagant ceremony intended to stoke national pride and show the world that this once war-ravaged country has moved beyond its dark history. More than 30,000 people marched in Vietnam's biggest-ever parade, with goose-stepping soldiers, colorful dragon dancers and 10 military helicopters displaying huge Vietnamese and Communist Party flags. [Source: Associated Press, October 11, 2010]

“The procession, a third of which was military, started in the capital's historic Ba Dinh Square where the late President Ho Chi Minh declared independence from the French colonialists 65 years ago. Ho's massive granite mausoleum provided the backdrop for the festivities commemorating King Ly Thai To's decision in 1010 to move Vietnam's capital 62 miles (100 kilometers) north to Hanoi, then called Thang Long. "Experiencing 1,000 years of numerous ups and downs, Thang Long-Hanoi maintains its assured posture and pride, deserving to be the heart of the country," President Nguyen Minh Triet said in a speech.

“But the 10-day millennial bash hasn't been without its problems. Traffic congestion on the capital's already-overloaded streets reached manic levels as police closed off main avenues for parade practice sessions, forcing thousands of jostling, roaring motorbikes to sit revving their engines and beeping their horns in aggravation. The city of 6.5 million was also bloated by busloads of villagers from the countryside pouring in for a glimpse of the twinkling lights showcasing the city's central landmark, Hoan Kiem Lake.

“A lavish fireworks display planned for 29 different sites around the city was canceled after bloggers complained that the extravaganza was wasteful amid mass flooding in central Vietnam that has killed 64 people in the past week, leaving 22 others missing and hundreds of thousands more suffering. The Communist Party said the quarter million dollars saved from not putting off the fireworks would be donated to flood victims. A display at My Dinh National Stadium was still planned as the grand finale, despite four people being killed at the site earlier in the week, including two Germans and a Singaporean, when two containers of fireworks accidentally exploded.

“Authorities have been cagey about releasing just how much was spent on the celebration, with one Hanoi official saying $15 million, not including the parade. However, the true price tag was likely much higher given the numerous facelift projects throughout the city pegged to the event. Some $2 million for the birthday party was spent painting buildings in Hanoi's famous Old Quarter, a narrow maze of ancient homes and shops popular with tourists. Another $2 million was allocated to replace tiles around Hoan Kiem Lake, but construction was halted after loud public protests saying it was a waste of money in a country where graft runs rampant. "The authorities are a little too extravagant on the celebrations," said Tran Thi Ly, 21, a student from Hanoi. "The country still has many other urgent needs to be addressed."


Dean Yates of Reuters wrote: Nestled on the banks of the muddy Red River lies one of Asia's most charming cities. Once synonymous with war and suffering, Vietnam's capital Hanoi still breathes the country's traumatic but proud history. Faded grey pagodas etched with Chinese charactors dot the city's many picturesque lakes, a reminder that Vietnam's giant northern neighbour once ruled this land for 1,000 years. Old men wearing striped pyjamas and green pith helmets saunter down tree-lined boulevards, past an array of ochre-coloured colonial buildings erected by the French earlier this century. [Source: By Dean Yates, Reuters, September 10, 1998 =]

“Rounding off Vietnam's sometimes troubled contact with foreign powers, the tangled fuselage from a downed B-52 American bomber sticks out from a pond in a residential area. This treasure trove of history, culture and architecture combines with Hanoi's traditional street life of cyclo drivers, sidewalk barbers and pavement pubs to give the city a unique old-world feel that is a mere memory in Asia's megacities. =

“Hanoi exudes charm. “Life in Hanoi is very civilised and polite. As the heart of the nation, the city is always exciting and cheerful,'' one old man told Reuters after doing his morning tai chi exercises by the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake in the city centre. Resident foreigners and tourists agree. “Hanoi is a special place. What makes it special is the people and the asthetics of the city, the architecture, the streets and the trees,'' said Aaron Stopak, general manager of a business publication in Vietnam. Jonathan Akerman, an Australian businessman, said the Vietnamese had their own distinct national character but had absorbed what they saw as appropriate from foreign powers they had contact with, something clearly on display in Hanoi. “Hanoians seem to have maintained a level of cheerfulness and politeness and...a sense of good taste in their architecture that has perhaps been lost in other Asian cities,'' said Akerman. =

“One foreign power and former benefactor that Vietnam had close contact with this century, Russia, thankfully left only a few Stalinist eyesores. Nevertheless, some parts of Hanoi remain drab, although at least not many colonial relics have been pulled down and only several glass-encased skyscrapers have sprouted. =

“Residents of Hanoi seem to have time on their hands, a sense that family and friends take precedence over anything else. Lifestyles are simple. The focus is the family, the market or street, and you see it everywhere. At dawn boys take over key roads to play soccer or badminton. Around Hoan Kiem Lake, hundreds of old men and women throng the water's edge as the sun rises to practice tai chi. Crowds congregate at street cafes for tasty Vietnamese fare, crusty French-style baguettes or the one thing that vies for Hanoians passion with soccer -- pho, a traditional soup enriched with chicken, beef or pork.

“At night, groups of young boys and girls ride bicycles four or five abreast around Hoan Kiem Lake, where the Turtle Tower (Pagoda) sits on a tiny islet, tastefully lit up. Even Vietnam's economic reforms have added to Hanoi's charm, especially in the Old Quarter, a warren of 36 twisting alleys named after the product predominantly sold along each street. There is Tin St, Silk St, Onion St and Fermented Fish St, where merchants sell their wares.Despite economic reforms, Hanoi, like the whole nation, is still poor. Yet Hanoians carry themselves with greater dignity than their annual per capita incomes of $600 would suggest. Beggars usually make only a cursory request for money, unlike their crafty cousins in southern Ho Chi Minh City, formally Saigon, who grab your leg and refuse to let go. =

“Indeed, while doing business takes center stage in Ho Chi Minh City, people in Hanoi see themselves as more learned, acutely aware of the nation's history and culture. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Temple of Literature, the cultural heart of Vietnam. Founded around 1070 and dedicated to Confucius, the grounds of the Temple of Literature became home to Vietnam's first university several years later. Today it's a haven for tourists and locals, who marvel at Chinese inscriptions on scrolls.Vietnam might have finally thrown off 1,000 years of Chinese rule around 938, but China's influence over culture, traditions and language remained constant in the centuries to follow. One aspect of life in Hanoi that could use some steadying influence is the roads. While there is none of the gridlock that bedevils Bangkok, the streets can prove a handful. Drivers with seemingly little road experience get behind the wheel of lumbering Soviet-built trucks, scattering motorbikes, cyclos and pedestrians alike. Also competing for space are Chinese-made army jeeps, Toyota Land Cruisers and the odd buffalo, perhaps an indication the past will remain the present in Hanoi for some time to come.”


Michelle Jana Chan wrote in The Telegraph, “As Vietnam prospers and progresses, the French legacy is being hotly debated. To pull down or not to pull down is the toughest question for property developers and city planners. The gorgeous old colonial buildings of Hanoi and (to a lesser degree) Saigon often cost more to renovate than replace. But demolition would be a travesty because Hanoi, in particular, is one of the most beautiful cities in Asia, with leafy boulevards of teak, lime, almond and banyan trees shading Provençal-style villas and lakeside pagodas. Against the forces of fast economic growth, the government is trying to preserve Hanoi's historical charm. It recently established an arts-and-crafts street market, held on weekend evenings, in the center of the Old Quarter (along Hang Dao and its continuation), banning cars from the area after dark. [Source: Michelle Jana Chan, The Telegraph, July 16, 2005 +]

“My guide, Ngo Thi Bao Khanh, told me that new buildings are being constructed in the traditional French way. "Now it's what everyone wants: the romantic style, high ceilings, big windows, lots of light." Hanoi is a wonderful city to explore by foot or cyclo - the modern-day rickshaw that uses pedal power (one company is called Sans Souci, French for "without a care"). The finest French architecture is along Duong Tran Phu and Dien Bien Phu streets, where most buildings serve as embassies or ambassadors' homes. +

“In the 1950s, when the French left Vietnam, the easy thing would have been to tear it all down and erase any memory of colonial subjugation. But perhaps some things are just too beautiful to destroy - the ochre-yellow residences with heavy green shutters and elegant cornices, the extravagant belle époque Opera House, the spires of Catholic churches. Downtown, the more modest villas are in Hanoi's Old Quarter around Hoan Kiem Lake, where a mixture of French colonial, Vietnamese and Chinese architecture is sometimes brought together under one roof. In this neighbourhood, roads are devoted to particular trades - there's Hang Bo, or "Large Basket Street"; there's also "Bread Street" and "Coffin Street". I stopped for lunch at Green Tangerine, a French and fusion restaurant on Hang Be ("Boat Street"), a reminder of times past when a network of canals threaded through the city. +

“Behind the 1928 peppermint façade was a room crowded with French-speakers, a mixture of expats and elderly Vietnamese. A bargain menu du jour featured crab remoulade with Vietnamese roots, dill, sesame and mushrooms, as well as other French dishes laced with mashed lotus seeds, tamarind sauce and chilli. The enormous French influence on Vietnam's cuisine is seen everywhere, from the slickest restaurants to the sweet-smelling bakeries and street markets. In no other region of Asia can you see baguettes carried in bicycle panniers or in woven baskets balanced on sellers' heads. Every street corner has a crowded café serving sweet, strong and gritty black coffee (cà phê ), as well as biscuits, cakes and pastries. +

“One wet, misty morning, I puddle-jumped between the stalls at one of Hanoi's crowded daily markets on a shopping expedition with Didier Corlou, head chef at the colonial-era Hotel Metropole. The narrow alleys were chock-full with delivery men and fresh ingredients, filthy underfoot, noisy with motorbike engines and horns. Customers dawdled past, catching up on gossip, haggling for ages over prices. As Didier put it: "C'est fantastique, non?" Didier told me he was the only foreign chef in Vietnam when he arrived from France 14 years ago. Ever since, he has been exploring the influence of colonialism in cuisine. "There is so much the same in France and Vietnam. The croissants here are maybe not sweet, but they are here. Bread has no salt, but is still bread. They have dill, and you do not find it anywhere in Asia. Then they make this beef bourguignon on the street, but cooked in rice wine, not red wine." Didier hardly took a breath. "This was fusion before I started doing it in restaurants." +

“We zigzagged between stalls, greeting traders and fingering food. Didier is a familiar sight, his trademark chef's jacket peeping white beneath his coat. We broke off leaves of herbs, crushed coriander between our fingers, snorted the strength of basil and sniffed soft cinnamon. Didier plucked scallops out of big plastic bowls, squeezing them between finger and thumb, complaining they were too white. He wagged crisp spring onions (for Asia's most delicate spring rolls) under my nose, pointed out the Vietnamese crèpe packed with shredded pork and the great slabs of mortadelle, jambo n and aspic. "Look at this artisan making pig's blood," Didier exclaimed, pointing to one of his vendor friends behind a table of deep-red sausages. "This is more expensive than fillet, say 75,000 dong [about £2, for a kilo], and fillet is 50,000. People really love it, just like in France. Now look at these snails. In all of Asia, it's only in Hanoi they have snails - best stuffed with ginger. There are a lot of eels because of the cold water. The same as in France. We don't see this in Thailand or China." +

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014



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