By turns exotic, squalid, gauche and hip, the high-octane Vietnamese capital of Hanoi provides a full-scale assault on the senses. Its crumbly, lemon-hued colonial architecture is a feast for the eyes; swarms of buzzing motorbikes invade the ear, while the delicate scents and tastes of delicious street food can be found all across a city that – unlike so many of its regional contemporaries – is managing to modernize with a degree of grace. Despite its political and historical importance, and the incessant noise drummed up by a population of over six million, Hanoi exudes a more intimate, urbane appeal than Ho Chi Minh City.
Hanoi city centre comprises a compact area known as Hoan Kiem District, which is neatly bordered by the Red River embankment in the east and by the rail line to the north and west, while its southern extent is marked by the roads Nguyen Du, Le Van Huu and Han Thuyen. The district takes its name from its present-day hub and most obvious point of reference, Hoan Kiem Lake, which lies between the cramped and endlessly diverting Old Quarter in the north, and the tree-lined boulevards of the French Quarter, arranged in a rough grid system, to the south. West of this central district, across the rail tracks, some of Hanoi’s most impressive monuments occupy the wide open spaces of the former Imperial City, grouped around Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum on Ba Dinh Square and extending south to the ancient walled gardens of the Temple of Literature. A vast body of water confusingly called West Lake sits north of the city, harbouring a number of interesting temples and pagodas, but the attractive villages that once surrounded it have now largely given way to upmarket residential areas and a smattering of luxury hotels.
Modern Hanoi has an increasingly confident, “can do” air about it and a buzz that is even beginning to rival Ho Chi Minh City. There’s more money about nowadays and the wealthier Hanoians are prepared to flaunt it in the ever-more sophisticated restaurants, cafés and designer boutiques that have exploded all over the city. Hanoi now boasts glitzy, multistorey shopping malls and wine warehouses; beauty parlours are the latest fad and some seriously expensive cars cruise the streets. Almost everyone else zips around on motorbikes rather than the deeply untrendy bicycle. The authorities are trying – with mixed success – to temper the anarchy with laws to curb traffic and regulate unsympathetic building projects in the Old Quarter, coupled with an ambitious twenty-year development plan that aims to ease congestion by creating satellite towns. Nevertheless, the city centre has not completely lost its old-world charm nor its distinctive character.
Hanoi, somewhat unjustly, remains less popular than Ho Chi Minh City as a jumping-off point for touring Vietnam, with many making the journey from south to north. Nevertheless, it provides a convenient base for excursions to Halong Bay, and to Sa Pa and the northern mountains, where you’ll be able to get away from the tourist hordes and sample life in rural Vietnam. There are also a few attractions much closer at hand, predominantly religious foundations such as the Perfume Pagoda, with its spectacular setting among limestone hills, and the spiral-shaped citadel of Co Loa, just north of today’s capital. The Red River Delta’s fertile alluvial soil supports one of the highest rural population densities in Southeast Asia, living in bamboo-screened villages dotted among the paddy fields. Some of these communities have been plying the same trade for generations, such as ceramics, carpentry or snake-breeding. While the more successful craft villages are becoming commercialized, it’s possible, with a bit of effort, to get well off the beaten track to where Confucianism still holds sway.