Hanoi is a bustling metropolis at a bend in the Red River a hundred kilometers inland from the Gulf of Tonkin. Human settlement in Hanoi dates back 2500 years, and traces of ancient times still remain amid the modern development of the city. The Chinese colonized north Vietnam for a thousand years, until driven out in the eleventh century A.D., and Chinese influence is visible in architecture and in monuments such as the Temple of Literature, a Confucian temple that is more than a thousand years old. The name “Hanoi” comes from the Chinese name “He Nei,” meaning “within the river.”
The French ruled Vietnam from 1862 till the end of World War II, when the French-Indochina war began, with Ho Chi Minh’s struggle for independence. The system of writing Vietnamese with the Roman alphabet came from the French, as did the many spacious colonial villas scattered around Hanoi (ocher plaster now flaking from their walls). The French also inculcated the Vietnamese with a love for coffee, and the unique style of coffee mixed with condensed milk can be enjoyed in thousands of cafés around Hanoi.
Hanoi was ravaged by bombs during the American-Vietnam war, most famously in President Nixon’s Christmas bombings of 1972. It was then that John McCain parachuted into a lake on the north side of Hanoi when his plane was shot down. Museums and monuments commemorate the “struggle against imperialism,” but despite years of war and millions of deaths, today the Vietnamese people are welcoming and friendly to Westerners, and treat them as honored guests.
Vietnam was closed to the West from 1975 till the early 1990s, when it began to open up to foreign tourism and trade. Since then the economy has boomed, with all the advantages and disadvantages that come with rapid expansion. While Hanoians have greater prosperity and access to consumer electonics and other goods, the city has grown more crowded and polluted as hundreds of thousands of immigrants have poured in from the countryside.
Today Hanoi is vibrant, hectic, colorful, sometimes wonderful, sometimes maddening. Noise and air pollution can be oppressive to Western visitors, but the rich cultural traditions, unbroken despite wars, famines and social upheaval, keep many expats charmed by this ancient-modern marketplace.
Western amenities have proliferated rapidly since the early 1990s—there are now plenty of bars, cafes, markets, and specialty stores catering to western tastes and expat workers in Hanoi. The expat social scene, too, has expanded, with enough groups and clubs to keep everyone busy and entertained.
Despite years of deprivation, war and oppression—or because of them—Vietnamese are among the kindest, most amiable people on earth. They are friendly and curious towards Westerners, and many students spontaneously approach Westerners to make friends and practice English. Because Vietnam was a closed society for many years, young people in Hanoi will be eager to learn as much as they can about you and your country, and to share their culture with you in return.