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A Short History of Hanoi and its Highlights

| Words by Laura Gordon-Duff |

The Ancient capital of Hanoi is filled with history and wonder. Here is a brief overview.

Hanoi has been Vietnam’s capital city for 1,000 years, save a century when Hue took the helm. Before that, the Chinese ruled Vietnam for a millennia. Nestled in a great bend of the Red River, Hanoi has a compelling charm not bestowed on its raucous southern sister, Saigon. If you're doing your research for a holiday to Vietnam or you'd like to learn more about this enigmatic city read on, and enjoy!

The Old Quarter

Hoan Kiem Lake is the focal point of Hanoi’s exotic Old Quarter. Steeped in legend, the serene water’s shores are a gathering place for locals to dance, read, eat, and gossip; a peaceful contrast to the hustle and bustle of the Old Quarter’s tangled maze of shops, galleries and cafes. This UNESCO-protected heart of Hanoi is bursting with bargains, from its simple street stalls to its chic boutiques. Made up of some 40 streets, weave your way through the Old Quarter’s 13th century lanes, crammed with bikes, scooters, cyclos and hawkers, to find beautiful silks, mysterious vegetables, and quirky keepsakes.

Bun Cha and Bia Hoi's

Bia HoiA typical Bia Hoi in Hanoi

Negotiating this chaotic cauldron of commerce is a joyful thrill in itself. Sample some of the cities famous street foods or Hanoi's signature dish Bun Cha; a slow-grilled pork dish accompanied by fresh sauces and rice noodles. Pull up a road-side stool and soak up local life at one of the city's many Bia Hoi's for a fresh-beer at an easygoing $1 a glass.

Temple of Literature

A mile west of Hoan Kiem Lake, the Temple of Literature is a fine example of traditional Vietnamese architecture, built in 1070. Its courtyards and manicured lawns still exude a peaceful harmony, despite the ceaseless sounds of modernity from beyond the walls. Dedicated to Confucius and Vietnam’s most revered scholars, the country’s first university was founded here.

French-colonial architecture

Hanoi's Opera HouseHanoi's Opera House

Hanoi was chosen by the French colonialists to be the capital of all Indochina from 1902 to 1953, which its wide, tree-lined boulevards and delicious Franco-cuisine bear testament to. Elegant colonial architecture is also prolific, like the elaborate Hanoi Opera House, built in 1911, where classical performances are still held. Admire the graceful columns of the Opera House from the pool in the adjacent Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel, an iconic city landmark and deluxe property.

Another beautiful reminder of the city’s colonial past is the Sofitel Legend Metropole, a luxury hotel with a historic past. Charlie Chaplin spent his honeymoon here, and Graham Greene took a break from writing The Quiet American to prop up the mahogany bar and also featured on out Deluxe Vietnam Journeys. Other French-built buildings include the Presidential Palace, The cathedral St-Joseph and much of city's Old Quarter.

Ho Chi Minh

After the division of the country once the French left in the 1950s, Ho Chi Minh resided in Hanoi as president of North Vietnam. The revered former leader’s humble wooden Stilt House, built over a carp pond, is a perfectly preserved traditional dwelling. Also preserved, but not as perfectly, is the man himself. Dead for over 40 years, Uncle Ho’s embalmed body is still on display at the Mausoleum, despite his request to be cremated. File by in silence with hundreds of respectful Vietnamese, straining to get a better view under the watchful eyes of numerous guards.

Legacy of conflict

Long Biên Bridge, just outside HanoiLong Biên Bridge, just outside Hanoi

The last in a long line of interventions, the US bombing of the American War, 1965 to 1973, destroyed swathes of Hanoi city. While the physical damage has long since been repaired, poignant remnants remain, such as Hoa Lo Prison Museum. The sprawling complex was built by the French in 1896 to detain, and often guillotine, Vietnamese revolutionaries; the museum’s focus is on the struggle to shake off the colonial yoke. Ironically dubbed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by US pilots incarcerated there, Senator John McCain among them, flight suits and photographs of the era are on display. 

Just 4 kilometers outside of the city stands Long Biên Bridge, originally christened Paul Droumer Bridge). Built by the French, the imposing steel bridge was a strategic crossing during the American Vietnamese conflict and remains one on north Vietnam's busiest crossings.

Hanoi’s history is tangible in its atmosphere, as well as its sights. The turmoil of Vietnam’s past and the vitality of its present are reflected in the city’s inimitable character, which is unusually distinctive for a capital.

Read our traveller reviews of Vietnam, browse our collection of small group tours to Vietnam or explore Hanoi on a completely bespoke holiday.