Straddling both old world realities and modern aspirations, Hanoi has evolved into a city of great contrasts. TNA visits the Vietnamese capital in the winter of 2023 to file this destination story.
Depending on when your first visit to Hanoi occurs, you are likely to find it unforgettable for very different reasons. Having first set foot in this city 20 years ago with a subsequent absence of 16 years, I am surprised yet unperturbed at how developed yet unevolved Hanoi has become. For one the traffic is still a frustrating impasse but unlike the scene back in 2003, Hanoi's traffic today is largely a motorised affair in lieu of the two-wheel hordes of yore. Peculiarly, it is still a daunting task to cross the road today but the prospects of being run down by a errant cyclist or two is almost next to none; today crossing a road in Hanoi, despite the presence of traffic installations, is akin to playing chicken with a car. Or a truck. Or a bus. Or the countless motorcycles that know something you and I don't about how not to hit pedestrians with the right of way. The chaos of the traffic situation in Hanoi has only gotten bigger, not better, and yet for better or worse things are still able to function more or less as before despite the threat of ending up as roadkill looming larger. Of course I exaggerate, and I must prescribe road crossing in Hanoi as a worldly curriculum for all first world kiddos who'd never even felt the terror of chaos in their placid existence. This is the spot to pick up some realities and ironies of life, for despite appearances, there is a deeply rooted sense of calm and composure emanating from the daily dealings and common scenes in Hanoi, which then enigmatically translate as charm and allure to visitors from foreign realities.
With regards to charms, Hanoi has cultural relics aplenty to sustain a portal to the past, not just in terms of buildings and gardens, but also the olden ways that have survived to the present age despite decades of ravages that are footnotes to the country's modern transition. Once the city was known as Thang Long, the capital of ancient Annam from 1010 until Vietnam's last dynastic rulers shifted their seat to Hue in 1802. A century passed before French encroachers reestablished their capital here as Hanoi. A flurry of French architecture, most illustrious of them the opera house, was raised within the ancient city and today the forced confluence of eastern and western styles is a lasting mark on the face of Hanoi, with many new buildings electing the contours of Belle Epoch structures richly imprinted with Vietnamese accents.
The Temple of Literature is Hanoi's most famous old landmark that harbours an ideology that is still alive and well today. Dedicated to Confucius and the sages, the temple was also Annam's imperial academy, widely regarded as the country's first national university, and is still visited by hordes of worshippers thronging its sacred grounds to pray for good results over national examinations. The temple comprises five courtyards that feature wells, pavilions, gardens, lawns and worship halls.
The Hoan Kiem lake district is another famous old site within Hanoi. Riddled with fabulous fables, most of them with political undertones, the lake is today a beautiful reflection of Hanoi's cultural heritage, harbouring a temple and crimson bridge of Chinese style at its heart whilst delineated by rows of French style building right off its banks. The sights and sounds start early with dancers, joggers and contemplators all filtering in and around at the crack of dawn.
What has clearly evolved are the shops and businesses within Hanoi's famous old quarter. Whereas there were mostly vibrant galleries, old shops and quaint eateries lining the streets in the decades past, today there are imposing hotels, grand shopping centers, hipster cafes, international banks and all and sundry vying for the tourist dollar within this shopping district. While choices are not necessarily a bad thing for a shopping area, it can still elicit disappointment from folks who'd descended on an old spot to seek out weathered authenticity.
Hanoi is also a good springboard to explore Northern Vietnam's picturesque countryside. Day trippers routinely head out to Ninh Binh and Ha Long Bay for an eyeful of majestic vistas afforded by these scenic locations. From Hanoi, a short trip to Sapa is also well worth consideration. A remote mountainous region bordering China, Sapa is home to many ethnic minority groups who traditionally tend to the gorgeous rice terraces here. Like many minority races who exist within remote gorgeous places on earth, they too have no choice but to subsist their livelihood peddling folk crafts and trinkets to visiting tourists.