In 2010, Hanoi celebrated its one thousandth anniversary since the city was established back in the early 11th century. When walking around Vietnam’s capital and second biggest city, the mix of outside influences is clearly evident in the various neighbourhoods that make up the city. This shouldn’t be surprising considering Hanoi has lived through eras of Chinese and French colonialism, as well as one of the most brutal wars of the 20th century. Stone-slabbed cathedrals mix with colourful pagodas and intricate temples, whilst locals make and eat ancient Vietnamese street food in dingy cafes, next to food stalls offering cheese sticks, the latest Western craze to hit the streets of Hanoi. All of this makes Hanoi a city strangely at odds with its own culture and yet somehow distinctly Vietnamese all at the same time.
Geography & Demographics
Some of Vietnam’s brightest minds and princes have studied in Hanoi and passed through the courtyards at the country’s oldest university, the Temple of Literature, so what better than to follow in their footsteps and study in Hanoi yourself? The city has moved with the times and yet retained the different cultural and historical elements it’s seen during its lifetime that makes the city what it is today - an eclectic and vibrant city in which to live. Hanoi is a city full of surprises just waiting to be discovered. Who knows what awaits the next 1000 years of the city’s lifetime?
Hanoi is located in the North of the country, around a three hour drive from the coast where the South China sea lies in wait to the east. Another, much smaller, body of water, Hoan Kiem lake, is the centerpiece of the city, where life and the constant hum of never ending motorbikes revolves around its still waters.
In terms of demographics, Hanoi and its 6.5 million inhabitants are, if the 2009 Vietnamese census is to be believed, a non-religions bunch. The country’s latest survey had over 80 percent of the country down as having no religious belief at all. Other studies, however, suggest that the government’s figures have grossly overestimated these figures. Whilst religion’s importance is perhaps not as obvious as it is in other countries in Southeast Asia, religion still maintains an important part in the lives of many Vietnamese. Although there are conflicting figures, indigenous religions are popular amongst many Vietnamese, as well as official religions such as Buddhism and Catholicism. Despite the difference in religious beliefs, Hanoi’s ethnic population is dominantly Kinh, or Viet, making up 98 percent of the population of Vietnam’s second city.
Like many countries in Southeast Asia, Hanoi has a warm humid subtropical climate. After the driest, hottest months of the year, March to May, the clouds start to roll in more frequently and the wet season takes place from around June to September. However, unlike the central and southern regions of the country, Hanoi can get relatively cold during the colder, drier months of November to February. Temperatures even occasionally drop down into single figures during this time of year.
Food & Culture
Directly north of Hoan Kiem lake lies The Old Quarter of the city. This area of the city is Hanoi’s most popular tourist area; many can be seen wandering through the 1000-year-old neighbourhood, interspersed with Vietnamese traders and merchants wearing their famous conical hats, carrying silks, jewellery, food, and whatever other goods they might be selling from market to market.
However, it’s the food available in this area of the city that defines the Old Quarter and food stalls are visible at almost every street corner. Low tables and even lower plastic chairs sit nestled on the pavement and even in the road for customers to perch on whilst they eat. Whilst they don’t make for the most comfortable eateries in the city, they provide some of the best and cheapest food that Hanoi has to offer. Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) is the most famous dish, whilst the other must try foods include Bun Cha (grilled pork with thin vermicelli noodles) and Cha Ca (small fish fillets marinated in fresh herbs). There’s also pho mai que (cheese sticks) available for the less adventurous, perfect with a complimentary bottle of Hanoi Beer to wash them down.
Hanoi is also home to some of the world’s best coffee. Ironically, coffee was introduced to Vietnam by the French in the late 19th century. The second most important ingredient in Vietnamese coffee, condensed milk, was originally added as an alternative to fresh milk as there was a lack of fresh milk available in the country at the time.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the city, examples of Hanoi’s more recent colonial past can be seen in The French Quarter. Vietnam made up part of French Indochina from the mid-19th century until as recently as 1954. The influence can be seen in this part of the city especially, hence the area’s rather ept name. Ornate grand mansions and villas make up some of the fine examples of architecture whilst the French Quarter’s wide roads and open spaces completely contrast with the narrow streets and more traditional examples of Vietnamese architecture in nearby neighbourhoods.
Reminders of Vietnam’s turbulent history after Indochina, most obviously the Vietnam War, remain. One such infamous landmark is Hoa Lo prison, which was dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” by its’ inmates, made up almost exclusively by American POWs during the war. The leader of North Vietnam throughout the majority of the war, Ho Chi Minh, is still a dominant figure in Vietnamese culture decades after his death. His face is visible on posters plastered throughout the country and also on money, featured on all of the rather colourful Vietnamese Dong notes. This means scrunching up or stepping on money to stop it from blowing away is a big faux pas.
You can also visit his Mausoleum, the memorial named after the country’s most famous son and leader, where Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body rests in a central hall where visitors can pay their respects. The Mausoleum is usually open every day, apart from September to December when Ho Chi Minh’s body, rather bizarrely, gets transported to Russia every year for restoration work.
Things to Do
Outside of Hanoi, some of Vietnam’s most famous landmarks are not too far away and demand to be visited. To the east, arguably the country’s most famous landmark, the stunning archipelago of limestone rocks that make up Ha Long Bay lies in wait for many eager visitors waiting to spend a day or two within the UNESCO world heritage site.
Northwest of the city lies the mountainous frontier town of Sapa, famous for its many hill tribes, rice terraces, and stunning scenery. To the south, Cuc Phoung National Park the country’s largest nature reserve and first national park, which was established by Ho Chi Minh in the 1960s, is a must visit for animal and nature lovers interested in Vietnam’s flora and fauna; the park is home to thousands of species of plants and animals.
With so much to do, friendly and hospitable people, delicious food around every corner, and a city that stands as one of the cheapest in the world in terms of cost of living, Hanoi might just be the perfect place to live and study.