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Hanoi Vietnam The Paris of the East: A Complete History

September 2, 2022

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When you see the words Hanoi Vietnam, certain images probably spring to mind. If you've looked at Vietnam from afar, what crops up might be the war, the American planes overhead, and the communist star flying from government buildings.

However, Hanoi and Vietnam are so much more than a byword for destruction reigned down in an ill-conceived war. Modern-day Hanoi is a thriving metropolis aiming for the same status as places like Singapore and Hong Kong. Vietnamese history is being remade in the 21st century.

Of course, if you've booked a trip to Hanoi, the next logical step is to learn the language, and Ling is the place to do that.

We're not going to lie to you; Vietnamese is super tricky to learn from an English or even European base, so you're going to need all the help you can get.

Ling is a smart app with SRS flashcards, native audio, speaking practice, and a host of fun mini-games and quizzes. Download and give your Vietnamese learning that crucial leg-up. 

Hanoi Vietnam- The Basics

  • Capital of Vietnam
  • Located in Northern Vietnam on The Red River
  • 140km inland from the South China Sea
  • Municipal Population estimated: 6,400,000
  • Airport- Noi Bai International Airport

Hanoi - Early Beginnings

Hanoi was no doubt inhabited in prehistoric times, but it didn't really enter the historical record until 1010, when Ly Thai To chose Hanoi(at the time called Thang Long) as his capital.

As a capital city, Hanoi was amazingly durable and lasted until 1802, when the Nguyen dynasty moved it to Hue in the South.

It wasn't until 1831 that the city name was changed to Hanoi (between two rivers).

What Was Hanoi Like Under French Rule?

If you read our article on the Vietnam war, you'll know that in the mid-nineteenth century, France gradually began to gobble up more and more of Vietnam. In 1902 Hanoi became the capital of the newly minted French Indochina. The crucial component in this decision was its location near Southern China, where the French hoped to exert influence.

French rule lasted until World War 2 when the Japanese army swamped Southeast Asia (at the time, France was in the hands of the Nazis).

woman in Hanoi

What Was Hanoi Like Under Japanese Rule?

In 1940 French forces were overwhelmed, and the Japanese took both Haiphong and Hanoi. However, it wasn't until 1941 that they moved into the rest of the country.

Given Japan's reputation at the time, you might think that they decimated the French, but the Parisian collaborationist government ensured that there was no bloodshed. The Japanese would occupy Hanoi, but the French would still run it. In this regard, not much changed for everyday citizens except the Japanese charm offensive, which included access to translated Japanese movies for citizens, etc.

It is remarkable to consider that at the time American forces worked with Ho Chi Minh, who was then ruling the Vietminh, to help overthrow the Japanese regime.

The uneasy relationship between the French and Japanese lasted until March 1945, when a rapidly collapsing Japanese empire imprisoned French colonial officials and took sole control. Their reign was short-lived, and after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, they fled Vietnam, leaving it in charge of the Vietminh.

An often overlooked aspect of this time is the 1944-1945 famine Nạn đói Ất Dậu. Estimates range between 400,000 and 2 million Vietnamese deaths.

Scholars put different theories forward for why this happened, including the Japanese stealing rice to fuel their war effort and American attacks on the transport system.

Whatever the cause, eyewitnesses say that the streets of Hanoi were filled with the corpses of people who'd starved to death. The Vietminh were able to gain power by leveraging the hatred the citizenry of Hanoi felt against the occupying forces.

What Happened To Hanoi Between World War II And The Vietnam War?

The Vietminh could only hold onto power for a short time before the French replaced them in the capital. After that, they fought a guerrilla war until French forces were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Once again, the Vietminh took control of Hanoi (and the rest of the North), renaming it the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Although the word democracy was in the title, it was very much run along the lines of Soviet Communism.

Tensions gradually escalated between the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese(now supported by the U.S government) until the region descended into an all-out war in 1963.

What Was It Like To Live In Hanoi During The Vietnam War?

The Citizens of Hanoi suffered greatly during the Vietnam War. North Vietnam was on an official war footing meaning food was scarce, and there was the constant threat of American bombs.

The Americans considered invading the capital but were presented with numerous obstacles. The biggest among these was the risk of an all-out nuclear war with The Soviet Union and China. A no less massive problem was the instability of South Vietnam at the time. Simply put, they could barely keep Saigon under control, let alone launch a full-scale invasion of Hanoi.

Although the citizens of Hanoi faced the threat of bombing all throughout the war, the most infamous time was during Operation Linebacker 2, or what became known as the Christmas day bombings of 1972.

The Americans dropped Twenty thousand tons of bombs on Hanoi and Haiphong, killing 1,600 civilians. If you go to modern-day Hanoi, you can see a memorial to the bombings at 47 Kham Tien. A bronze statue depicts a citizen called Mrs. De, who was killed along with her newborn child when their home collapsed.

Kham Tien was the most heavily bombed street in the region. The Vietnamese government estimates that 2000 buildings alone were destroyed. 

President Nixon hoped that this show of might would bring more favorable peace conditions; however, Hanoi residents viewed it very differently, saying that it only hardened north Vietnamese resolve (a result perhaps born out by the collapse of the South in 1975.).

The fact that the North Vietnamese were able to shoot down 16 B-52 American planes was a massive p.r victory. The North Vietnamese had already captured many American airmen and held them in Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton. Most famous among them was the future U.S presidential candidate John McCain.

Hanoi Vietnam

What Was Hanoi Like After The Vietnam War?

In many ways, victory in the war for the North Vietnamese was pyrrhic. Vietnam was unified; however, much of it had been destroyed. The leadership in Hanoi now faced the problem of reintegrating the South and the North.

This was a time when large parts of the country were on the move. Families who'd been split up during the war set to work finding lost relatives, and there was migration from North to South as new bureaucrats were tasked with re-educating the South in communist doctrine. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were still missing in action, and village committees were set up to hunt for those lost.

The biggest changes were undoubtedly in Ho Chi Minh City(formerly Saigon), which had become heavily congested with refugees from the war. Six hundred thousand were sent into the countryside to new economic zones, although many later tried to escape and return to the city.

In some ways, this was the darkest time for the residents of Hanoi. They were just as poor, if not poorer, but now there was no common enemy to unite against.

Things became even bleaker when the country went to war again in Cambodia in 1978 and then with China in 1979. 

Things could possibly have been different if it had been earlier in the world socialist project, but after the war with China (the major communist power in the area) and the collapsing Soviet Union, Vietnam was unable to secure the kind of aid that would've allowed it to prosper. This was also in tandem with a crushing U.S trade embargo that made Vietnam very much like the North Korea of today.

What Was Like Hanoi After 1986 And Đổi Mới?

If you read our article on the Vietnamese economy, you'll know about the rejuvenating effects of Đổi Mới, which essentially opened Vietnam back up for foreign investment and led to the U.S trade embargo being lifted in 1996. 

The change in the city's appearance and the lives of the residents has been monumental since then. GDP per capita alone has gone up 10x. Where 30 years ago, Vietnamese residents were queueing in the streets of Hanoi for bread; now, they are eating orange organic truffles in Western-style bakeries.

No more is the economic revolution noticeable than in the city's skyline. Check out this list for a stunning illustration of just how quickly Hanoi has reached for the heavens. The 20 tallest skyscrapers in the city were all built after 2011!

The prosperity also plays out in the demographics nationwide. In 1986 the population was 60 million, and in 2018 that number had risen to 97 million. Life expectancy has also increased by 6 years in a similar time frame.

What Is Modern-Day Hanoi Like?

Modern-day Hanoi has become a must-visit place.

Its charms are numerous, chief among them the cost of living. A westerner used to western comforts can live here for about $1000 per month. High-speed internet is available if you ensure you live in the right location.

Hanoi has become a haven for backpackers due to its low cost of living, weather, and proximity to other Southeast Asia backpacking hotspots like Halong Bay(UNESCO World Heritage Site), as well as the beaches of Thailand. Even as I write this in August 2022, the bars of the Old Quarter are filling up with adventure-seekers, and the street vendors are back out in full force.

Hanoi is also increasingly popular with middle-income tourists from China, Korea, and Japan. There are countless boutique and high-end hotels in the city center and the Hoan Kiem district(where the famous Hoan Kiem lake is). 

There are also endless museums, including the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the National Museum, the Vietnam Military History Museum, the Vietnamese Women's Museum, and the Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum.

If you're looking for something a little different, you can take a trip to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. In communist tradition, Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body lies in state, guarded by Vietnamese troops in immaculate white uniforms.

 Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Tay Ho, or West lake, is a favorite with ex-pats. The area is surrounded by a lake with a 17km shoreline. On its waters, you'll find boaters, rowers, and fishermen. Tay Ho itself is much more chilled than the city center, with traditional Vietnamese architecture; however, this is changing with numerous skyscrapers starting to spring up. 

A significant amount of ex-pats make their living as English teachers. Vietnam has embraced English speaking like no other area in the region. Walking around parks, you'll often find eager students coming up to you asking if you'll spend 5 minutes helping them practice their English.

Becoming an officially licensed teacher requires a degree from a western university. A starting wage at a reputable school is about $25 per hour, which means to make ends meet, you might only have to work 10 hours per week (although many schools require more to sponsor a visa).

There are also examples of architecture from the French colonial period, which has led to its moniker as the Paris of The East. Of course, encroaching modernity has swallowed up many of these old buildings, but they are still there if you know where to look. Some personal favorites are the Hanoi Opera House (built in 1911), St Joseph's Cathedral (designed to mirror Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris), and Trang Tien Plaza (designed to resemble an old style French shopping center).

What Are Modern-Day Hanoi Residents like?

Surprisingly chilled out, considering how crazy the city's history has been over the last 60 years.

I have only ever had one encounter with an older man who mentioned my status as a westerner negatively in relation to the war. The younger generation, those who have really benefited from the effects of Đổi Mới, are universally polite and curious. In fact, because they pay you so much respect, you can feel like you're a brand ambassador for a company you never signed up for! 

Of course, I always feel a personal responsibility to ensure that any smiles are returned, and I'll stop and talk to any students in the park, even if I'm late for work. 

Hanoi Vietnam

Learn Vietnamese With Ling

As I've made clear already, there is a mad scramble in Vietnam to learn English, and that leaves in me a desire to reciprocate the feeling and learn Vietnamese.

It is absurdly easy to make a Vietnamese friend for life. All you have to do is speak the most basic Vietnamese phrases, and that effort represents a great level of respect. The action you put into learning Vietnamese, even if it's just for a vacation, will be paid back in kind 10x.

If you enjoyed this blog, think about checking out a few others previously mentioned, such as the Vietnam War, and the Vietnamese Economy.

Thanks for reading.

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