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The nium n e l l i M City On the eve of its 1,000th anniversary, Hanoi is an increasingly cosmopolitan capital with a cultural heart, reports Connla Stokes. Photography by Aaron Joel Santos


photography aaron joel santos


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Motorcyclists ride past the Legend Beer Hall and Highlands Coffee Building

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happ y b i r t h day ha n o i

happ y b i r t h day ha no i NGO worker Luu My Lai

A skateboarder takes to the air near the Statue of Lenin

Hair stylist Tran Linh

Kids make up Over half the population – two-thirds are under the age of 35. Hanoi is an old soul with a youthful zing



s a boomtown with a

venerable William S.

rich and fascinating

Logan in his book,

architectural heritage,

Hanoi: A Biography of a City. One of the most clear-cut turning points in the modern urban development of Hanoi was the arrival of the French in 1873. As part of the colonial administration’s mission civilisatrice (civilising mission) French town planners drafted a blueprint replete with tree-lined avenues, a modern sanitation system, gaslights and an opera house in the style of Paris’s Palais Garnier. But there are plenty of other competing influences across a cityscape where socialist monuments, ancient Buddhist temples with strong Taoist and Confucian accents and, now, luxury shopping and office complexes vie for attention. For many, battle-hardened Hanoi is the

Vietnam’s capital manages to be both exhilarating and enchanting. The spiritual

and geographic centrepiece of Hanoi is Hoan Kiem Lake, the fabled body of water where in the 15th century, Emperor Le Thai To – in the manner of King Arthur – is said to have returned a charmed sword after leading his embattled troops to victory over Chinese Ming dynasty warriors. For the leg-weary sightseer, the lake offers a poetic stillness amid the city’s motorbike-powered mayhem. And it’s that incongruous mix of serenity and gusto which seems to be Hanoi’s trademark. For more than a thousand years, Hanoi has been “bending with the wind” to resist foreign domination while at the same time absorbing overseas influences. So says the

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ultimate symbol of defiance. Naturally, Fashionable youth

both residents and visitors show an interest in the Vietnam-American war – out of sympathy or respect, if not admiration.

Exterior of Tan My Design

Still, most people show little inclination to dwell on the conflict. This is a city that’s busy embracing the new. Kids make up over half the population – two-thirds are under the age of 35. Hanoi is an old soul with a youthful zing. And there may be no better summation of the uneasy balance between past and present than the sight of teenage break-dancers with backwards-baseball caps and sagging jeans doing their thing in front of the Statue of Lenin on Dien Bien Phu Street. Proof, perhaps, that history does irony. Christina Yu, the Hong Kong designer and

photography aaron joel santos


It’s that incongruous mix of serenity and gusto which seems to be Hanoi’s trademark

Skateboarder chic

Christina Yu, founder of Ipa-Nima

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Downtown Hanoi intersection

Server at Verticale restaurant

Street vendor shouldering her wares



Chillies and spices in the Old Quarter Clothing display at designer Ha Truong’s showroom

This city’s got grit as well as glamour but with little tension on the surface

founder of Ipa-Nima, a Hanoi-based brand

well as glamour but

known for its ultra-funky handbags and

with very little tension

accessories, first came here in 1995, when

on the surface.

the city had a sleepier disposition. “Vietnam

have taken a financial

past 15 years,” says Yu. “Back then, most of

quantum leap, much of

the population still lived a simple life and did

the city’s population lives far

not have a real sense of money’s worth.”

more humbly. These extremes

Morning ritual on Nha Tho Street

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photography aaron joel santos

That’s because at the time money was

Cyclo driver near Dong Xuan Market

While Hanoi’s elite

has moved from bicycles to Bentleys in the

“Hanoi is one of the most unique cities in Asia, but like it or not it is driving forward at a rapid pace”

mean visitors can enjoy gratifyingly

always better to sit closer to the gutter on a plastic stool. Even the owners of the town’s swankier eateries seem to agree. The host of World Café

Asia on Discovery Travel and Living, Hanoi-based restaurateur

decidedly tight. A generation ago people

diverse experiences. You can lose

were queuing up for rations of rice as

yourself in the clamour of Dong Xuan

as “intimate and true. There’s no bullshit

the national economy floundered after a

Market before slurping down a bowl

‘foo foo’ food,” says Bobby. “From the

decades-long scrap for independence.

of noodles while perched on a plastic

street stall that has perfected one dish

Now, well-heeled ladies stroll into opulent

stool. Or you can browse through

for generations to the street merchant

shopping malls to pick up a pair of Salvatore

the latest collections from the city’s

who walks miles from a country village

Ferragamo stilettos, while high-rolling

trendiest designers at Tan My Design

with her goods across a pole – selling on

businesspeople drive to golf courses in

on Hang Gai Street before enjoying

the streets until she sells out.”

BMW 4WDs. Elsewhere, there are reminders

afternoon tea or apéritifs at the iconic

that not all boats rise with the tide – the

Sofitel Legend Metropole.

huckster flogging watermelons and the

You can find plenty of high-end

Bobby Chinn, describes the local food

It’s worth doing some research on street food before setting off with an empty stomach. No less an authority

shoeshine boy pitching would-be customers

establishments serving ultra-refined

than author and chef Anthony Bourdain

at a roadside café. But Hanoi straddles

versions of what family-run restaurants or

once said, “You don’t have to go looking for

these poles with ease. This city’s got grit as

street vendors sell. But for the best food, it’s

great food in Vietnam. Great food finds you”.

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However, in a city as heaving as Hanoi, there

commercial, glitzy, high-rise direction,”

are still mediocre versions of local classics.

he says. “There is an informal coalition

If you’re lacking inside information, stick to

dedicated to preserving `inner’ Hanoi, which

kept pace. It’s hard to argue that Hanoi’s

the seasoned traveller’s rule of thumb and

has scored a few victories, but no one knows

fragmented bar-and-nightclub scene is in

make a beeline for the busiest restaurant.

what to do with the Old Quarter.”

the same league as those in other cities in

Acutely aware of Vietnam’s rich culinary

The Old Quarter has a street plan that harks back to Medieval times. It is one

heritage, the French chef and owner

of the most congested urban

of La Verticale restaurant,

zones on the planet, with

Didier Corlou, has conjured up his own brand of French-Vietnamese haute cuisine. He did so on the strength of his encyclopaedic knowledge of indigenous ingredients and his natural flair for

833 people per hectare.

There is an informal coalition dedicated to preserving ‘inner’ hanoi

who before taking a job with a Spanish NGO managed several of Hanoi’s most prominent

the shopfronts, many

breakdancing crews. “You might be

of the inhabitants

standing outside and not know it but behind

Elsewhere, many of the city’s pagodas

of a sub-genre. On a similar wavelength are

and temples are being engulfed amid a

Green Tangerine and La Badiane – both

flurry of construction projects in suburban

housed in restored colonial-era villas, which

residential areas. It’s also not unusual to see

are coveted universally, sometimes not for

a street-side restaurant operating by the

the purpose of restoration.

gates of a pagoda.

Just this year, a plan to sell off hundreds

However, Matthew Powell, Hanoi

of state-owned villas – which would have

branch director of the UK-owned property

left their fate in the hands of capricious

group Savills Vietnam, is optimistic that

developers – was rescinded in the face of a

development can work its way around the

public outcry. Australia’s leading authority

city’s precious heritage. “Hanoi is one of

on Vietnam, Professor David Marr, who first

the most unique cities in Asia, but like it or

came to Hanoi in 1974, remains sceptical

not it is driving forward at a rapid pace,” he

that Hanoi can preserve its heritage amid

says. “But with good planning and control

runaway development. “I much prefer Hanoi

systems in place, this should increase its

to Saigon, but fear it’s heading in the same

capacity to serve its growing population

A floral display at Hoan Kiem Lake

the shutters there’s a party going on!” Certainly no-one is shy about getting an early start to the evening. Throughout the city you will find locals enjoying bia hoi

Streetside bia hoi drinkers

(fresh beer), a sort of home-brew style lager that’s light on alcohol and sold for pocket change. It’s not uncommon to see hordes of young men stand in unison shouting, “Mot, hai, ba, dzo!” (One, two, three – in!) before swilling the beer back in one gulp. Curious foreigners may be invited to join. And it’s tricky to politely refuse or slip away after just one. Elsewhere, an old man sitting by himself may timidly enquire, “Vous êtes français (You are French)?” before shuffling off into the night. That’s Hanoi to a tee – in your face one minute, elegant and charming the next.

“Vietnam has moved from bicycles to Bentleys in the past 15 years”

Tiger Airways flies to Hanoi three times per week from Singapore.

Hanoi’s Must-Sees Kinh Do Café, 1 Nha Tho, Hoan Kiem District A hole-in-the-wall coffee shop beside St Joseph’s Cathedral with wonderful, strong, chocolaty coffee – order ca phe den da (iced black) or ca phe sua da (coffee with condensed milk).


Sofitel Legend Metropole, 15 Ngo Quyen, Hoan Kiem District, +84 (0)4 3826 6919, www. For a splurge, come for


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lunch or dinner or enjoy drinks on the terrace, and bask in the post-colonial Indochina chic. Built in 1901, this is one of Hanoi’s most iconic buildings. La Verticale, 19 Ngo Van So, Hai Ba Trung District, tel: +84 (0)4 3944 6317, www. For a culinary odyssey, order the tasting menu. Possibly the only restaurant in Hanoi that could plausibly pick up a Michelin star.



Highway4, 25 Bat Su or 3 Hang Tre, Hoan Kiem

Christina Yu

District, Top-notch traditional Vietnamese food and delicious fruit-flavoured, ricebased liquors as well some more potent drams. Green Tangerine, 48 Hang Be, Hoan Kiem District, tel: +84 (0)4 3825 1286 Set in a wonderful old villa in the heart of the Old Quarter, with an array of dishes that play Vietnamese and French recipes, ingredients and flavours off each other.



Art works at Bui Gallery

La Badiane, 10 Nam Ngu, Hoan Kiem District, tel: +84 (4) 3942 4509 Refined French-owned restaurant that also specialises in mixing and matching Vietnamese and French flavours.


Bia Hoi restaurants: 1 Duong Thanh, Hoan Kiem District; 19c Ngoc Ha, Ba Dinh District; 1 Quan Su, Hai Ba Trung District; 22 Tang Bat Ho, Hai Ba Trung district


Display windows at Vincom Towers

Offerings at Verticale A streetside eatery

photography aaron joel santos


“After midnight you might think Hanoi is

street life. But behind

only problem? Nobody seems keen to go.

French cuisines have become something

guidebooks suggest.

stay open,” says 25-year old Luu Mai Ly,

other side of the Red River. The

Vibrant amalgams of the Vietnamese and

is “early to bed, early to rise”, as some

observe the teeming

by offering them land on the

(noodle soup) served with foie gras.

planet as Bangkok. Not that everyone

eat, drink, shop or

to cajole residents away

plain playful, like, say pho

the region – it’s not even on the same

sound asleep but in the Old Quarter bars

plan has been mooted

and spectacular – or just

Nightlife is one industry that hasn’t

It’s a thrilling place to

are living in squalor. A

combinations both subtle

without losing its underlying charm.“

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Tiger Tales Cover Story on Hanoi, Sep/Oct 2010  

A feature on Vietnam's capital city from 2010 -- the year of Hanoi's millennium celebrations

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