The capital of Vietnam for a thousand years, Hanoi has a complex history involving a rich blend of occupation and Western colonialism that has left myriad layers of culture. After long domination by China, Hanoi in the 1880s became capital of Indochina, the French colony that encompassed Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The city’s Old Quarter is filled with fascinating contrasts, where chaotic, maze-like market alleys stand next to tree-lined boulevards with French-style mansions, and ancient temples share streets with the neo-Gothic St. Joseph Cathedral. Hanoi’s more modern history is told in the Military History Museum and the Museum of the Revolution, which recount 20th century struggles against France and the United States.
Hanoi is a paradox, an ancient city with a modern future. Vietnam's second largest city, with a population tipping the scales at just over 3 million, Hanoi, in North Vietnam, dates its existence back nearly 1,000 years. Emperor Le Thai founded the city as the capital Thang Long in 1010; that same century, two major landmarks appeared: the petite One Pillar Pagoda rose up in 1049, and Vietnam's first institution of learning, the Temple of Literature, opened in 1070.
The city has changed hands, names and appearances several times over the centuries, becoming Dong Kihn ("Eastern Capital") after the Chinese were ousted in 1428, and thenHanoi in 1831. Forty years later, the French invaded, tearing down many early buildings and replacing them with French Colonial structures. Hanoi served as the capital of the French Indochinese Union from 1902 to 1953.
In this century, Communist leader Ho Chi Minh left the greatest mark on the nation and the city. At Ba Dinh Square, he delivered his Declaration of Independence before a crowdof 500,000 in 1945, sparking the revolution which eventually threw off the collar of French Colonial rule. After Ho's death in 1969, his tomb in Hanoi, modeled after JosefStalin's mausoleum, became a major landmark. Visitors can still see Ho's remains (though not during the warmer months), and learn about his life at his House on Stilts andat the Ho Chi Minh Museum.
Today's Hanoi is surprisingly intact for a city often under siege during the Vietnam War. Despite heavy bombing of Hanoi's industrial areas, much of the city remained relatively unscathed. Visitors can still stroll through such landmark areas as the Old Quarter, with its jumble of narrow townhouses and shops, and the Hoan Kiem District, with its French buildings and the elegant Opera House; Hoan Kiem Lake is also popular with recreationists, and tourists who gather for the charming water puppet shows.
The city's most infamous Vietnam War-era landmark, Hoa Lo, the so-called "Hanoi Hilton" -- a military prison where American airmen were held -- is being transformed in a way that reflects the future of the city: The site is being developed into a real hotel, the Hanoi Towers, a 22-story hotel/office complex being built in a joint venture with a Singapore development firm.