City description

Hanoi means “city inside the river”; the river being the Red River, which flows down the mountains of China to arrive in the Vietnamese capital under a romantic cloud of mist. As visitors arrive via the massive metal Long Biên Bridge, they will be introduced to the city’s unusual atmosphere. Perhaps it’s the presence of the tree-lined lakes, like the famous West Lake, or Hoan Kiem Lake, overlooked by Ngoc Son Temple, which give the city its unique feel. Unless it’s more to do with the charm of the old quarter and its 36 streets, reminding us of the city’s colonial past, or the Neo-Gothic façade of St Joseph’s Cathedral. Each part of the old imperial city has its very own atmosphere, taking you from the hustle and bustle of streets packed with scooters and street food stalls, to the tranquility and lush greenery of the Ba Vi National Park in a matter of kilometres.

This unique diversity is also on show at Vietnam’s Museum of Ethnology, which showcases the country’s 54 ethnic minorities. A Confucian pagoda and an academic academy, the Temple of Literature with its roof made up of fine tiles, its ponds filled with water lilies and its stone turtles, is known around the world; but sometimes we forget about the cultural riches that the city has to offer. From opera to traditional water puppet theatre and the Fine Arts Museum, Vietnam’s arts scene is buzzing in the capital, where history is also celebrated. Whether you’re visiting his museum, his mausoleum or his stilt house, Ho Chi Minh, the nation’s “father” is omnipresent, as is the memory of the extensive battles fought in the not-too-distant past. The Vietnam Military History Museum looks back in detail at the key battles in contemporary history, while Hoa Lo prison commemorates some of the darker episodes of French and then American occupation.

Today, Hanoi is an incredibly cosmopolitan city; with an estimated population of 7 million people, the capital is a peaceful, cheerful place, where different nationalities live harmoniously together. In particular in the tourist hotspots, like the Night Market, which brightens up the old colonial district every weekend when stallholders and sightseers take over the streets. During the day, Dong Xuan Market, with its wholesale stalls, offers a glimpse into the daily lives of the Vietnamese, while the brand new Almaz Center, with its multitude of restaurants, symbolises the rise of the next generation, on the lookout for the hip places to be.

Throughout the year, the city’s calendar is packed with a range of celebrations. Tet, or New Year, gets the ball rolling with several days of festivities and ceremonies bringing luck and prosperity for the months to come. On the fifth day of the first lunar month, the Dong Da Festival commemorates victory over the Thanh dynasty in 1789. In the summer, the Trang Nguyen Festival is one of the holiest times of the year for the Vietnamese, a time to respect the spirits of their ancestors on the day in which “the living and the dead meet”. During the Mid-Autumn Festival (Tết Trung Thu in Vietnamese), celebrated in much of Asia, traditional “mooncakes” are made and enjoyed. In Hanoi, a buzzing city with a military past, traditions are lovingly kept alive, without ever overshadowing the city’s modernity and respect for nature.
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