HANOI, AN ANTIQUE RISING DRAGON

The region around present-day Hanoi was settled in prehistoric times, and the location was often chosen as a political centre by Chinese conquerors. In 1010 Ly Thai To, the first ruler of the Ly dynasty (1009–1225) of Vietnam, chose the site of Hanoi—then called Thang Long (“Rising Dragon”)—for his capital. In 1831 the city was renamed Ha Noi (“Between Two Rivers”) by the Nguyen dynasty.

Hanoi, one of the most beautiful cities in Asia

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 (the the Socialist Republic 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. It didn’t get its first McDonald’s until 2017.

Hanoi is located along the Red River on an alluvial plain approximately 150 kilometers from the coast. It is surrounded by rural countryside consisting largely of rice paddies. 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 juxtaposed against quaint and pastel-colored turn of the century houses and neighborhoods. 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.

History of Hanoi

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 capital 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.

Hanoi Today

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 as Vietnam’s Cultural Center

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.

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