Published: April 2010CITY GUIDE
Hanoi Destination Guide
Photo: Hanoi
Locals drive past the French-designed Hanoi Opera House.
Text by David Swanson
Photo by Joerg Modrow/laif/Redux

With its own lush beauty, the capital city of Hanoi remembers the past as it embarks on its second millennium.

Like a savvy negotiator, Hanoi prefers having it both ways. Upscale restaurants serve Vietnamese cuisine but cavort with those of foreign neighbors and would-be conquerors. Art galleries offer modern paintings from talented young Vietnamese artists, while garish, kitschy wartime propaganda posters of the 1960s await a few doors away. A sleek new business district is emerging at My Dinh just west of the capital, but Hanoi's Old Quarter—a key lure for foreign visitors—remains an appealing mishmash of architectural history. And while Hanoians look to the future, this year they can also look back, and even inward, as Vietnam's capital celebrates the 1,000th anniversary of its founding.

As the clock on a billboard next to Hoan Kiem Lake ticks off the seconds till the fireworks launch on October 10, there's time to ponder that history. It was in the autumn of the year 1010 that Emperor Ly Thai To built a walled citadel in what is now Hanoi, originally named Thang Long, or Ascending Dragon. Hanoi became capital of the reunified north and south in 1975. But it was Saigon—now Ho Chi Minh City—that benefited from government reforms and emerged in the late 1980s, becoming Vietnam's financial engine. As the economy boomed, Hanoi slumbered in the background as the country's sullen political center.

Not anymore. Hanoi has emerged as something rare: An historic city where ancient buildings mingle with modern society, often gracefully. In the Old Quarter, one thousand buildings date back more than one hundred years, and the names of narrow streets honor the trades still plied today: Fried Fish, Silk-Dyer. The city's lush French Quarter dates to the half-century French occupation that ended with a whimper in 1954; here, lemon-hued villas sit on tree-lined streets. Hanoi's centerpiece is willow-trimmed Hoan Kiem Lake, which percolates at dawn with exercise rituals and winds down each evening with couples strolling its perimeter against waves of motorbikes.

Planning ahead To be sure, modernization and population growth are vexing for city planners. Traffic boondoggles abound. Eight new bridges will soon span the Red River, two of which opened last year. Traditional bicycles are unsexy, so motorbikes and now cars are the prized steeds for Hanoians. A new plan proposes to reduce the Old Quarter's formidable population density by resettling 30,000 dwellers to outlying residential areas over the next decade. Observers say city officials are on the right track. “There are two new skyscrapers that opened last fall,” says Kai Speth, general manager of the city's beloved Sofitel Metropole hotel. “But the government understands that it is important to retain the look and feel of the historic city.” Speth says officials even halted some projects that were deemed out of character. Archaeologists have unearthed more than a million artifacts from Hanoi's original citadel, mounting a case for the Thang Long site to be given UNESCO World Heritage status.

Hanoi's hotel options have not kept up with demand, but recent additions include the 55-room Maison d'Hanoi in an 11-story structure on a narrow plot. This modern hotel belies its Old Quarter locale, with compact rooms and decor that embraces both French colonial and Vietnamese accents. The InterContinental Hanoi Westlake rises waterside in the now trendy West Lake district, a ten-minute drive from the city center. More than half the 359 rooms at the design-forward hotel are on piers connected by wooden walkways.

Anniversary events begin this summer. A huge mural depicting Hanoi's history will wrap around the Temple of Literature; the ugly dike road paralleling the Red River will be renewed with colorful mosaics. Festivities climax over the ten days leading up to October 10 with concerts, history exhibits, art shows, and culinary events.

Published in the April 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

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