If any city in the world has had a crowded 1000 years of history, it is Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. This place is an intense collision of crumbling French facades, communist bunker-style concrete edifices and ancient temples and pagodas, woven together by leafy boulevards, lakes and over three million industrious locals. Chinese, French and American history has clashed here in a big way over the last millennium, each era leaving its indelible mark on the city.
Whether it’s the rusty remains of a B-52 bomber jutting out of a small lake on the city’s fringe, the brutal Hon Lo gaol constructed by the French in the late 19th century, the vibrant Old Quarter with its myriad of shopping streets and cafes, or the ancient Ngoc Son Temple that sits peacefully on an island in Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi engulfs an incredible cross section of human history.
Our ever-smiling local guide, Cuong, seemed to exemplify what so many Vietnamese now feel — an immense pride in the city and how it has finally emerged to determine a future of its own. “We do not dwell on the past, we are happy with the present, and we appreciate what we now have,” Cuong said, as he showed us the city sights. “And, no, there is no animosity.”
A soldier in the Vietnam War, Cuong marched on the dangerous Ho Chi Minh trail for three months, constantly being bombarded by US planes. “We were fighting for our country — and we won,” he said triumphantly, immediately bursting into a rousing rendition of Vietnam’s national anthem, the Red Song, which he and hundreds of fellow soldiers had sung on the long march south.
As we pulled up to the infamous Hon Lo prison (nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by captured US troops) near the Old Quarter, Cuong told us of how US Senator John McCain, then a fighter pilot, was shot down over Hanoi and parachuted into a nearby lake, then hauled out by locals. We also learned that hundreds of Vietnamese, fighting for independence after World War II, were incarcerated in Hon Lo, with many being put to the guillotine.
Walking through its drab rooms where prisoners were manacled and tortured, it was a sombre reminder of a dark period of Vietnam’s recent history and its brutal struggle for independence from the French.
From here, we hopped on the back of a motorbike for a high octane ride across town, dodging buses, trucks and cars, to tour the Hanoi Army Museum. On display here are captured American tanks, the wreckage of a US B-52 bomber, along with military exhibits from the Vietnam War. Taking pride of place is the army tank that drove through the presidential gates in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in the final days of the Vietnam War, now a symbol of liberation.
But it is not a show of triumphalism. While the North Vietnamese did win the war, over four million Vietnamese — mainly civilians — lost their lives.
After so much emphasis on the country’s war history, we needed a little peace, and headed for the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake in the city’s heart. Surrounded by a band of parkland, it’s a place where the locals relax, play chess, drink tea and escape from the mayhem of surrounding traffic. After watching the menagerie of everyday life pass by, we stepped back into the fray; the nearby Old Quarter. This is a crazy, noisy mix of 70 laneways and roads which craftsmen and merchants have called home since the 13th century.
Whatever you want, the Old Quarter has it in droves; silks, embroidery, silver, gold, jewellery, handicrafts, shoes, art, technology, a flower market and funky cafes, restaurants and bars. It is a place where you can lose yourself for hours wandering from street to street, dodging bikes and people. This buzzing place is the heart and soul of the city, both day and night.
Later we stopped at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, a charming remnant of colonialism dating back to 1901, where we sipped gin and tonics on the balcony in the cool of the evening.
From there, we went in search of one of Hanoi’s coolest bars, Minh’s Jazz Club, a smoky club reminiscent of New York in the 1920s. We eventually found it, wedged between old warehouses and dilapidated French colonial buildings in the Old Quarter. A lady on stage sang the blues and the musicians played big band swing.
This music scene, ironically, is courtesy of the US military radio stations that broadcast Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker to troops during the war. The Vietnamese embraced this music and now Americans go in search of Minh’s Jazz Club for a taste of the blues.
With 1000 years of turbulent history well behind it, Hanoi is a place that remembers its past but looks to the future. The blues may be the order of the day at Minh’s Jazz Club, but this vibrant city clearly has a bright future.
The writer travelled as a guest of Vietnam Airlines.
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