No rating available
Considered to be one of the jewels of Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi offers travellers a unique and fascinating blend of Eastern and Western culture. Stretches of wide European-style boulevards dotted with French buildings blend seamlessly with Sino-Vietnamese architecture and cultural surroundings.
Hanoi boasts a rich, centuries-long history as Vietnam’s political centre. Multiple occupations by foreign conquerors have given the capital its Chinese- and European-infused flavour, lending it a very distinct vibe compared to sister cities like Saigon. Today, Hanoi is undergoing a building boom owing to its open economy and influx of tourism, and the capital is frequently rated among the world’s best cities for travel.
Nestled on the bank of the Red River, Hanoi was officially founded as the capital of Vietnam in the year 1010 C.E., although settlements in the area date back to the 3rd century B.C.E. Named Thang Lang, meaning “ascending dragon,” Hanoi enjoyed capital status for over eight centuries even as Chinese and Vietnamese forces battled for control over the territory. In 1802, the political centre of the country was temporarily shifted to Hue with the ascension of the Nguyen dynasty.
It was in 1831 that the city, having changed titles several times, was finally renamed Hanoi. When Vietnam became a French colonial territory in 1902, Hanoi again became the political centre of the country and remained so throughout the political upheavals in the 20th century. Following China’s lead, Vietnam shifted from a closed-off communist country to a more open market economy in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, spurring a period of growth that continues to this day.
The capital’s urban area now boasts a bustling population of four million people, and many award-winning restaurants, hotels, and other attractions have sprung up all over Hanoi since Vietnam has opened its doors and its economy. Skyscrapers now form a modern skyline that surrounds the old centre of the city, serving to juxtapose Hanoi’s rich history and traditional Vietnamese culture with its new-found status as a world-class metropolis.
Hanoi remained largely unscathed throughout the 20th-century wars that wracked Vietnam, allowing the many historic landmarks and cultural treasures of the capital to be preserved. The city contains over 600 temples and shrines, including the 11th-century Temple of Literature and the popular Ngoc Son Temple. Tourists also flock to more recently-built attractions such as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hoa Lo Prison (dubbed “The Hanoi Hilton”), and the National Museum of Vietnamese History.
The Vietnamese capital might seem a bit tamer when compared to Saigon, Hanoi’s sister to the south and Vietnam’s largest city. Perhaps owing to its unique history and Western cultural influence, Hanoi is known to have a more relaxed vibe than one might experience in other Asian metropolises. Visitors can still expect to find a number of bustling districts, crowded streets, and busy thoroughfares, however.
Hanoi is an ideal destination for the independent traveller who enjoys exploring on foot and being immersed in the culture and daily life of the locals. The capital is indeed a walking city, with many tree-lined boulevards packed with locally-owned shops, eateries, and more. The city can also be easily explored via bicycle, motorbike, or taxi, although Hanoi’s main tourist area – the Old Quarter – is compact and easy to enjoy in a relatively short amount of time.
The capital is a modern metropolis in all respects, but the Old Quarter remains the beating heart of Hanoi. Also called the Ancient Quarter or the “36 Streets,” this area is contained within four districts and centred around Hoan Kiem Lake. Centuries-old Chinese and Vietnamese architecture, French buildings, scenic promenades, and two dozen lakes combine to give the city centre its serene charm and famous beauty. Visitors who are looking for an authentic cultural experience rather than a sterile or commercialised tourist trap will find much to love here. When booking a hotel in Hanoi, it is worth looking for one that is within or close to the Old Quarter if you plan to spend a lot of time exploring the city on foot.
Decades of French colonial occupation left an indelible footprint on Vietnam and the capital in particular. Many parts of the city were built or added to by the French administration, and the many European-style buildings and streets that line the city continue to stand out as one of Hanoi’s most charming aspects. Although they resisted the French occupation, locals have not rejected the unique contribution that France has made to the character of the city.
The residents of Hanoi have widely embraced French culinary culture in particular, and the capital is flush with European-style cafes, bakeries, patisseries, and restaurants. A myriad of places exist where visitors can relax with a baguette, some pate, French cheeses, a cup of coffee, or a glass of wine and take in the atmosphere. You might even overhear some older locals conversing in French. A number of hotels in Hanoi are set in these beautiful old French-style buildings as well.
Although the French left a large footprint in Hanoi, the residents still treasure their own rich and unique culture, etiquette, cuisine, and folk art. Locals take great pride in their city and are known to be very warm and open to travellers. It’s not uncommon for friendly Hanoians to approach and talk to foreigners on the street with genuine curiosity. Many artisans also make and sell Vietnamese crafts in family-run shops throughout the Old Quarter, a practice that sadly may soon be dying out as the country continues to develop and industrialize.