Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, and also its second largest city, is a fascinating blend of East and West, combining traditional Sino-Vietnamese motifs with French flair. It is largely unscathed from the decades of war, and is now going through a building boom, making it a rapidly developing city in Southeast Asia.
Consistently ranked among the world’s top 10 destinations by TripAdvisor, the city and its surrounding region get more tourists every day.
The Nguyen Dynasty gave the city its modern name of Ha Noi in 1831, but they had transferred power to Hue by then; it remained there until 1887, when the French made Saigon and then Hanoi the capital of all French Indochina. It changed hands again in 1954, when it was ceded to Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh after almost a decade of fighting, and it became the capital of North Vietnam; Saigon was the rival in South Vietnam. Upon reunification in 1976, it assumed that title for the entire country.
The first institution of learning in Vietnam, Quoc Tu Giam, was founded here in the 11th century. Nine hundred years later, the first western-style universities in Vietnam were also founded in Hanoi. The city is one of the leading centres of scientific study and research in the country. Hanoi retains much of its older charm of bygone eras, despite the battles that have raged over it; conflict had the side effect of making it largely oblivious to modern architecture, and as a result, few buildings in the city centre area are higher than five stories. The Old Quarter is second only to Hoi An for uninterrupted stretches of colonial and pre-colonial architecture, well-preserved on dense warrens of narrow, wonderfully atmospheric streets. It trades the commercial boom and sprawl of Ho Chi Minh City in the South for a more understated charm, worth enjoying for an extra day or two, and with countless transport options and travel agents, it makes a perfect base for exploration of the North.
As you walk along the street, you may find that people start talking to you. It is a cultural norm there to make conversation with strangers. They might ask you where you are from and other general questions. It takes a while to get used to that. However, there are times when you find this friendliness extremely helpful, such as when you are lost or need help.
The Tourist Information Centre, ☎ +84 4 926 3366, Dinh Tien Hoang, just north of Hoan Kiem Lake, can provide a fairly useful map although bewilderingly, the blow-up of the Old Quarter is missing, making it useless in that part of town. The Centre also offers free internet and English-language advice.
There are self-help interactive screen information booths around the Old Quarter but their purpose is to superficially conjure an image of coming-of-age “Vietnam has arrived” impression to the unsuspecting passer-by. An example was an inquiry typing out the American Embassy as prompted by an empty field, then it flashed on to the next interactive page asking for which district (one may not be aware that the US embassy has branches in every district) – smart and amazing!
The climate is tropical, with wet and hot weather much of the year. But due to the city’s latitude, temperatures drop drastically in the wintertime and the wind chill and dampness means winter weather can feel cold. If possible, avoid the summer months of mid May to mid September, as the city turns into a sweltering sauna with little to no wind.