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Hanoi travel guide

Hanoi Introduction

| 21 Aug 2017
Last updated 21 Aug 2017

Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, can make a strong claim to being one of Asia’s most compelling and beguiling cities. The tangled streets of the old quarter still teem with atmosphere, while French era tree-lined boulevards and fading grand villas showcase relics from an ambitious colonial project that was roundly repudiated.

Hanoi travel highlights

Photographer’s dream - Hanoi is one of Asia’s most photogenic cities. Architecture, street life, people and food - it’s all there.
History - Hanoi and the Red River Delta are where Vietnam’s story begins. The city’s historic heart is still beating amidst the rush to modernity.
Street food - Hanoi’s street food scene is a culinary delight.
Museums - Vietnam’s best museums are found in the capital
Make it your base - Hanoi is the best place for accessing some of Vietnam’s most loved places - Halong Bay, Sapa, Mai Chau, Ninh Binh and more.

Get the details in our Hanoi see and do listing.


Introduction continued...

But Hanoi is in a hurry. And the challenges to the city’s age old rhythms are real.

Hanoi may be rich in tradition and the source of much of Vietnam's legend, literature, music and poetry, but upheaval and consumerism have been the defining themes of the past decade.

Grand old heritage buildings disappear. Pagodas are renovated beyond recognition. The upheaval strikes family life too.

Yet so soon after embracing consumerism, in some quarters at least, Hanoians are showing signs of fatigue. Many young people are animated by environmental issues - evidenced by the huge campaign that mobilised against cynical plans to cut down thousands of the city's magnificent colonial-era trees in early 2015.

Others are concerned by the age-old threat from China that has resurfaced over competing East Sea (aka. South China Sea), claims.

Hanoi has also led Vietnam's "Pride" movement - agitating for gay rights.

For centuries, national heroes have been created here, leading armies against Chinese invaders. And it was from Hanoi that Vietnam’s long southward march to its modern borders began in the 11th century - picking up Cham and Khmer territory along the way.

In the early twentieth century a national movement took shape in French administered Hanoi that went on to evict colonial forces in 1954 before humbling the United States 21 years later.

But Hanoi’s victories over foreign aggressors have come at a terrible human cost. The twentieth century was a rolling disaster of colonial repression, hardline communism, war and famine, briefly interrupted by victory celebrations. The relative prosperity of the present has been hard won.

Even in 1976 when Hanoi officially became capital of a peaceful, unified Vietnam, the dividend was continuing misery and dire poverty. The nation’s communist leaders proved unable to translate battlefield success into post-war prosperity.

By the late 1980s, the communist hardliners had cracked. Limited market reforms were put in place and a rapid economic turnaround began to smooth over the hardest edges of life in the city. But Hanoians, conservative by nature, were slow to take up the new opportunities of economic reform.

In the mid 1990s, congenitally commercial Saigon began to race ahead of the capital.

During the past decade, Hanoi has started to catch up. The capital today is a captivating collision of generational extremes. The elderly, steeped in tradition, formed by battle and sacrifice - the globalised young, impatient and acquisitive. Bentleys and BMWs ply streets that were congested with bicycles only a generation ago.

It could be the story of any city. But here, the extremes are magnified many times by the excessive hardship of decades past and the excessive wealth at the fingertips of Hanoi’s young elite.

Much of Hanoi’s daily life still unfolds on its busy cramped streets. It’s a dramatic visual feast, perfect for photographers. The human landscape - especially Hanoi’s ever visible elderly - is a big part of its magnetism.

Hanoi’s streets are home to an impressive food culture. Locals are rightly proud of their culinary specialties. Avoid debating whether pho noodle soup is tastier in the north or the south. But don't miss local dishes like bun cha and cha ca.

Hanoi has long been one of our favourite cities. The profound bitter sweetness of its past still imbues its contemporary persona.

Few places are as rich in history and character. But Hanoi retains an elusive quality and reveals just enough to keep your interest piqued.

For information on travel to Hanoi, read on.