"Exotic", "Gauche", "Squalid", "Hip", "High Octane"... just some of the varied vocabulary used to try and describe the extraordinary capital of Vietnam. With its beautiful old colonial architecture, swarms of buzzing mopeds and all-pervading aromas of delicious street food, Hanoi provides a full-scale assault on the senses, underscored by a rich history that traces back more than a thousand years.
In the year 1010 King Ly Thai To (usually credited as Hanoi’s founding father) recognised the potential of an abandoned citadel beside the Red River and established his court there. From then on Thang Long (“City of the Ascending Dragon”) would be the nation’s capital for the next eight hundred years.
French occupation, revolution and war
By the 1830s Thang Long had been relegated to a provincial capital known as Ha Noi (“City within the River’s Bend”). It was easily overcome by attacking French forces and after 1887 became the Colonial capital of Indochina, with all the administrative and architectural trappings of a colonial city. Following the fight for independence in the 40s and 50s, and the Vietnam War in the 60s and 70s, Hanoi is reinventing itself as a dynamic international capital.
A Taste of Hanoi
It’s been said that you can get well acquainted with Hanoi in a day or two, but it takes a lifetime to know. A good place to start is the Old Quarter, a maze of streets dating back to the 13th Century. Everything spills out onto pavements which double as workshops for stone carvers, furniture makers and tinsmiths, and as display space for all manner of merchandise. As you explore the quarter you’ll come across sacred sites such as temples, pagodas and banyan tress hidden among the houses.
When it’s time for a bite to eat you’re spoilt for choice. It’s hard to have a bad meal in Hanoi, whether you choose an upmarket restaurant or one of the hundreds of small, one-dish street-side joints serving beef Pho or Hanoi’s famed Spicy Fish Fry-up.
Culturally Hanoi is the best place to experience traditional Vietnamese arts such as opera, theatre, puppetry, music and dance. Another highlight is the Temple of Literature, a sanctuary of Confucianism and Vietnam’s seat of learning for almost a thousand years.
Shopping in Hanoi offers a dizzying choice between traditional bustling markets and glitzy new shopping malls. For luxury foreign goods try the Trang Tien Plaza, a large three-storey complex on the southeast corner of Hoan Kiem Lake. On the northeast corner head for Hang Dau Street if shoes are your thing. Hang Gai Street is renowned for high quality silk materials and home furnishings, whilst for decorative items and souvenirs a good place to start is Nha Tho Street. Of the traditional markets, the largest is Dong Xuan Market, a highlight of a visit to the Old Quarter. A massive indoor pavilion is surrounded by streets teeming with sellers day and night. Even if you’re not wanting to buy anything, just the experience of walking around, soaking up the atmosphere and photographing the chaos is reason enough to visit.
On the other hand, you may not have the stomach for Cho 19-12 (the 19-12 Market), one of Hanoi’s, shall we say, “quirkier” markets. Near the main entrance is the “whole roasted dog” aisle, with crispy pooches stacked high. If you’re still hungry after seeing that, the market does have lots of excellent local food stalls as well as meat and produce stands.
While sightseeing, remember that state-owned attractions usually close for lunch from 11.30am to 1.30pm. Don’t accept any extraneous pamphlets are offers of guides as all sights have them for a nominal fee.