Population: 3 m
Area code: (+84) 4
Time zone: GMT +7
Currency: Dong (D)
Climate: Tropical; monsoon rain in May-Oct;
Average temperatures: 13C/55F - 20C/68F (Jan); 26C/79F - 33C/91F (Jun)
Noi Bai International Airport (HAN): 30km/ 19 miles
It still seems at times as if Vietnam's 'northern capital' has been caught in a time warp. On virtually every corner you will find yourself spirited back a couple of decades or so into a world before fax machines and cable television: a world which has not yet quite caught up with the rampant modernization overtaking arch-rival Saigon at the other end of the country. Hanoi is also hot in pursuit of the more (un)civilizing effects of civilization, of course, but as yet the invasion of mod, cons. and free enterprise is less aggressive here, and still tempered by a refreshing ingenuousness.
With their penchant for embellishing history with legendary touches which subsequently even acquired an aura of veracity, the citizens of Hanoi peopled their past with a valhalla of ascending dragons, golden buffaloes and a Divine Tortoise whose descendant still supposedly brings good luck as he surfaces once a year from the Ho Hoan Kiem Lake . The metropolis on 'This Side of the Red River' - thus the name - was founded on the site of a neolithic settlement by King Ly Thai To in 1010. Dynasties came and went, and with them the various names allotted to the city over the centuries: Kecho, Dai La, Thang Long, Dong Kinh, which was Latinized as Tunquin and (under the French) Tonkin. Little remains today of the miniature Forbidden City of royal palaces which once lay between the West Lake and the citadel, but the names of the 15th-century '36 streets and guilds' still live on. Temples and pagodas adorn tree-lined avenues between jerry-built shop-fronts and monolithic offices a la Bangkok. Imposed on this oriental concrete jungle are the ocher and white Belle-Epoque administrative buildings and villas left by the French, some crumbling, many lying in spacious garden behind filigree gateways and evoking Proustain visions of a market town in Provence.
The historical and political capital of unified Vietnam is also the industrial and commercial hub of the north, a railway engineering center and manufacturer of textiles and chemicals with rice mills and an important river port linked to the sea via nearby Haiphong. A university city, Hanoi;s galleries include some of the finest collections in the country. Amongst the wooden Buddhas and Dong son bronze drums in the Fine Arts Museum you will find Impressionist-style watercolors and family portraits in oils - delicately illumined with typically Vietnamese touches of gold lacquer - as well as the inevitable heroic peasant scenes in the Soviet realist tradition. Gazing down from countless posters and his forbidding mausoleum overlooking Ba Dinh Square, 'Uncle Ho' still seems as omnipresent as ever.
And yet, Hanoi is a city in transition, emerging with characteristic diligence and tenacity from the long shadow's of past and present history into the limelight hitherto monopolized first by Hue under the Nguyen emperors and then by Saigon under the French. As some of the white-stuccoed, green0shuttered colonial facades begin to sparkle anew in renovated splendor, the bullock carts still plodding along the streets are now laden with pyramids of red bricks for the myriad new buildings popping up throughout the city. Weaving in and out amongst the cacophonous jumble of bicycles and rickshaws following the ancient tram route along Silk Street are platoons of brand-new motorbikes heralding the dawn of a new area.
* Hanoi Attraction Guide (read more..)