Landmark Spotting in Hanoi's Calmingly Cool Districts
Hanoi (the Capital of Vietnam) at first glance might seem like just any other South East Asian city with its street food and chaotic traffic. And if you look past Hanoi's Old Quarter (it has a lot of Vietnam's famous landmarks) what else is Hanoi other than another formulaic copy of Bangkok? Well, you couldn’t be more wrong.
For one, Hanoi’s food scene is vastly different compared to other cities as can be seen through its obsession with rich noodles. Most importantly however, it has managed to preserve much of its French colonial legacy unlike other Southeast Asian cities that have prioritised modern renewal over the preservation of historical sites. For tourists that are enamoured by such colonial endowments, a visit to Hanoi is in order; include a secondary trip to cities like Luang Prabang if you’re feeling adventurous.
Sights and sounds
Here are just some of the city’s landmarks that we think have a certain measure of historical and political significance to the city’s inhabitants.
Long Biên Bridge
Built in 1903 as an icon of French colonialism, the century old Long Biên bridge is still in operation and remains as one of the city’s key infrastructural efforts even if these days only maintenance works are in place. Without it, rail connections to the port city of Haiphong would be severed, a vital link even with the prevalence of air cargo.
Trains trudge slowly along the bridge as if to pay homage not only to how important it is to the city but also because it is a practical concern for the ageing bridge. Alongside the rumble of the passing train, Long Bien also has a narrow strip to accommodate vehicular traffic. Serving a city dominated by motorcycles, Long Biên has its fair share of the city’s unending stream of cargo laden scooters. While more pragmatic riders use the bridge to transport goods, their enthusiasm is adequately matched by affluent riders balancing on the backs of imported Vespas.
The site of the bridge is actually in itself, an unintentional transport hub. Besides its obvious rail function, one can find the city’s major highway underneath the bridge which was constructed as a parallel to the city’s dominating river, the Song Hong. On it, barges carrying raw materials float with a mark of precision that is usually not immediately apparent to the casual observer.
There is a bustle of activity surrounding the iconic landmark, with roadside hawkers and merchants offering their goods to tourists and locals alike. Visitors can also find the namesake train station being bounded by fleets of trucks that are meant to move cargo off-rail and onto the winding roads and alleys of Hanoi.
While Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam, the pace of commerce seems to have lagged behind its more industrious sister to the south and the bridge is perhaps a telling sign of this disparity. Despite featuring a few foreign-owned towers, much of the city’s economy actually operates informally. Just like the city, the bridge’s steely resolve is masked by rust, a striking representation of its under-commercialised/corporatised pace of economic activity.
Nhat Tan Bridge
Joining Long Bien, the Nhat Tan bridge straddles the Song Hong and serves as a critical piece in the transport infrastructure puzzle of the city. Built with Japanese help and standing at a staggering full-length of 8.3 kilometers, Nhat Tan links the city with the oddly far (45 mins by taxi) International Airport at Noi Bai. Try not to sleep on this drive in to the city and you’ll be treated to the bridge’s monumental design which can be seen as a mitigating factor for that long ride to the airport.
The bridge is equally majestic at night as it lights up with colours that make the bridge noticeable from across the city. Interestingly, this light display is the result of a partnership with Phillips, lining the bridge with LED bulbs that can emit 16.7 million distinct colours as if to serve as an advertisement for the company’s Hue products.
Head over to the Summit Lounge located on the top floor of the Pan Pacific Hanoi to get a view that best complements the bridge’s grandiose stature, albeit with a menu of drinks that can be somewhat pricey. Their complimentary spiced nuts are pretty nice though.
Sofitel Metropole Hotel
Few landmarks in Hanoi can be considered to have a reputation on par with the Metropole. Since its inception in 1901, it has been able to masterfully retain its heritage and approach to hospitality even despite its seizure in 1950 as the country turned towards communism.
As the country began to open up to the rest of the world, the Pullman portfolio (later transferred to Sofitel), entered a joint venture with the Vietnamese government to restore the premises to its former glory. Extensive restoration works were commissioned; resulting in the hotel now boasting several dining concepts and also space for many luxury brands. Serving as the accommodation of choice for esteemed foreign guests, make no mistake; the Metropole is no Ryugyong-ian eyesore and is rather like the Raffles in Singapore.
Hanoians seem to embrace the hotel’s architectural beauty with open arms though I suspect that the more radical elements of the country (especially in the past) would still regard the hotel as a symbol for oppressive French rule. Nevertheless, the hotel (located in the Hanoi's French Quarter) is a particularly frequented place for newly-weds using it as a backdrop for their photoshoots. Apart from the Hanoi Presidential Palace and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, the Metropole is perhaps one of the city's most iconic landmarks and definitely a stand out in the French Quarter of Hanoi.
A stay at the Metropole is the ultimate luxury for any traveller especially if one gets to sample any one of the hotel’s distinctive dining options. If a stay is not on the cards (its quite expensive), I’d suggest having a meal at the La Terrasse, which is an outdoor bistro inspired by its Parisian counterparts. Though meals are priced at the higher end of the spectrum relative to Hanoi’s other dining options, rest assured that the quality of food and drinks on offer are exceptional.
St Joseph’s Cathedral
Hanoi’s St Joseph’s Cathedral stands right in the middle of the city’s Hoan Kiem district (and also Hanoi's Old Quarter) as one of the first few structures built by the French. As such, the church played an important role in the French effort to cement Hanoi as the capital of French Indochina as it sought to tighten control over its fledging colonial outpost.
The cathedral is popular with tourists mostly because of its Neo-Gothic architecture but perhaps its most striking quality lies with its worn facade. Further reading about the church has revealed that its worn exterior (the cathedral’s USP) is the result of its checkered history with the state. While I’m sure that we’re all familiar with the atrocities of the Vietnam War, the worn nature of the church is actually not due to conflict but is curiously the result of palpable neglect.
As the Viet Minh took control of the city following the Geneva Accords, it quickly imposed an atheistic fervour that resulted in the confiscation of church property along with other counter religious actions. Consequently, the church fell into a state of disrepair as its congregants fled across the border into South Vietnam. This was a key sociopolitical development for Vietnam as the South quickly became a catholic haven until the capitulation of General Diem’s regime in the 1963 following a Buddhist Crisis that gripped the country.
At present, the cathedral has been once again allowed to act as the centre for Catholicism in the region despite the fact that large parts of Vietnam are either atheistic or adheres to traditional folk beliefs.
If you do decide to visit the cathedral, a visit to the adjacent Cong Caphe is recommended - grab a cuppa and do some people watching while you’re at it; Hanoi’s version of the Notre Dame is a guaranteed crowd puller.
Hoàn Kiem Lake
Weekends in Hanoi cannot be considered to be well spent without a visit to Hoàn Kiem Lake. Serving as the informal center of the city, the Lake District is more than conducive for all sorts of leisure activities. It is commonplace to see passersby strolling along Hoàn Kiem’s wide boulevards, its closed off roads teeming with battery powered mini-cars and enthusiasts earnestly filling the streets with bubbles.
Why though, you might ask, am I highlighting such seemingly mundane occurrences? Well, to me, the fact that people can freely roam the city speaks volumes about the sense of freedom that has overtaken the city - a remarkably new development for Vietnam.
It is an open secret that Vietnam has been copying the economic reforms of its neighbour (or rival) to the north. With a government-led transition to a market economy, Vietnam has been receptive to foreign investment resulting in the establishment of places like the Metropole and Trang Tien Plaza. Whereas hitherto all forms of private enterprise were banned, the notion of making a living through one’s own effort is now once again encouraged.
However, despite this liberal economic turn, the government still maintains a monopoly over political power, expression and all avenues of association. While authorities are generally accepting of innocuous leisure activities, they are known to clamp down hard on nightlife in the city. The bars that operate in the city’s capital are welcome to serve all customers but are routinely expected to close before midnight and no big (and reputable) clubs exist within the city’s limits. Bars of significant heritage like Tadioto have been subject to countless raids as they often serve as a meeting place for intellectuals just like the salons of revolutionary France.
Finding myself amongst the weekend crowd, it was easy for the bustle to mar the fact that Vietnam has a bloodied history of authoritarianism and strict socialism. However, make no mistake - Vietnam is still firmly under the control of the party, albeit now with a friendlier face.
Nevertheless, with the notable absence of large scale shopping malls in the city (other than the ornate Trang Tien Plaza), Hoàn Kiem lake is likely to remain as the one of the city’s most popular places and is definitely one of the top things to do in Hanoi.
On the lookout for more
There are definitely other attractions worth visiting in the city like the Đong Xuân Market but we thought that it was more appropriate to highlight the landmarks of the city that have an interesting backstory to them. This piece was originally meant to be a short one about the quaint oddities of Hanoi but its probably morphed into an overly serious appraisal of the city’s history and the politics of the country (sorry! please don’t run away).
Whilst the Vietnamese government still maintains its staunch nationalism, the fact that it has seen value in preserving the city’s French heritage is laudable. Just like what Singapore was to the British or Melaka was for the Portuguese, Hanoi was the seat of French colonial power in the region and much to the delight of tourists, still embraces many of its French influences. Add to this the city's venerated iconic like the Presidential Palace in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and you'll realise that Hanoi is rich in history and heritage.
To those that shun Hanoi in preference to its more boisterous sister to the south, We think you’re missing out on what this great city can offer. WE just have one regret though; I wish I tried the famous Tràng Tien ice cream - we've only heard great things about it.
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