Shopping, sightseeing, art and culture Hanoi, Asia's greenest city certainly has it all.
Hanoi is on the banks of the Red River, 100km from its mouth. Metropolitan Hanoi covers a large area and is divided into four sectors. The very beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake (lake of the restored sword) is in the centre of Hoan Kiem, the oldest and most densely-populated sector. The lake has two islands, with the Turtle Pagoda standing on one. The lake is a popular place, with many people doing tai chi in the misty daybreak.
Vast parts of Hanoi were built during French occupation and its broad boulevards and French-inspired architecture have left behind a cosmopolitan feel.
Hanoi is rightfully proud of being Asia's greenest city. Its lakes, wide, shaded boulevardes and green public parks are a delight for its three million residents, as well as visitors. It is also enjoying economic reforms, while retaining traditional ways as a legacy of a rich culture. Two thirds of its population are aged under 30 and the emerging youthfulness is obvious in this place of ancient culture.
Once a place foreigners avoided because of constant police harassment, it is now the place to go. More attractive and with less pollution and traffic than Ho Chi Minh City, it is relatively slow paced. Its blocks of ochre buildings remind of a 1930s French provincial town. Despite so few motor vehicles, it is a noisy city, but not offensively so.
Don't let the crowded streets daunt you. Cars are few and far between and all locals pedal their way about the city. Cyclos for two are there for tourists with tired feet and too much shopping. If you stand on the kerb waiting for traffic to stop for you, you might never get anywhere. The best shot is to step onto the road and begin walking slowly and steadily. As if by magic, cyclists just go around you.
Similar to Europe’s guild age, Hanoi’s Old Quarter has 36 guilds, created when artisans moved to the capital to conduct business. They gathered in groups as a way of sharing resources and many streets are named after their crafts – paper products, jewellery, silk, vermicelli, onions, marble headstones, tin, shoes - though streets no longer trade exclusively in the product they are named after.
The Old Quarter is beautiful and fascinating. Its maze of streets is more than 1000 years old and there are still tube houses. They are just 3 metres wide but can be up to 50 metres long. Taxes were once calculated on just the width of the merchant’s shopfront, and the obvious solution was to go narrow and long!
The Old Quarter was the setting for much of the filming of The Quiet American, based on Graham Greene’s book which was set in Hanoi. It is also where Catherine Deneuve’s Indochine was filmed.
It's hard to know when to stop shopping in Hanoi, but remember dollar prices are US dollars. Ask the vendor to convert to Australian dollars or take a calculator and you must do some hard bargaining. It's expected of you!
There are many temptations, ranging from colourful materials (silk, cotton, linen) either made into garments or by the metre. Plenty of tailors are on hand to create clothes in lightening time. Ready-made clothing is everywhere, but like most things, quality is dependent upon the price you pay.
Bed linen, tablecloths, wall hangings and home furnishings are quite inexpensive and there are exquisite hand-embroidered goods, colourful lacquerware, silver objects and local craft to buy.
Art by local painters is popular with collectors, particularly in other parts of Asia, and there are plenty of beautiful galleries presenting their works.
Dong Xuan, the city's oldest market, occupies an entire block behind an 1889 façade and is full of fresh and dried foods.
Food is plentiful and basically healthy, with emphasis on rice, noodles, chicken, beef and fresh vegetables. You can buy pastries, among the flowers and postcards, from ladies with laden baskets on their heads. You can eat well from roadside stalls, with delicacies cooked while you wait. You can be served typical Vietnamese meals or fine French cuisine on a beautifully-set table in a converted colonial villa. Ice cream and pastries are very popular and Fanny's Ice Cream Parlour next to the lake serves scoops of delicious ice cream made from natural ingredients with no preservatives coffee, coconut, lemon, raspberry and wicked double chocolate.
Hanoi's history is long and interesting. Settlement dates back to the third century BC. In 1010, known as Thang Long, it became capital of the first dynasty independent from the Chinese.
It was given its current name in 1831, but at that time Hué was the capital of the empire. The French conquered Hanoi and in 1883, forced the uncolonialised north of the Vietnamese empire to accept the status of a French protectorate.
They then divided the country into Cochin China in the south, Annam in the centre and Tonkin in the north. Hanoi became the protectorate Tonkin.
The French abandoned Hanoi after defeat at Dien Bien Phu and Vietnam was divided into two states, according to the Geneva Treaty signed in 1954. Ho Chi Minh then made Hanoi the capital of North Vietnam and concentrated on expanding the city's industry. During the war in 1965-1968, 75 percent of Hanoi's population was evacuated, but post-war, the city grew rapidly.
Even though Hanoi is Vietnam's political capital, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south is way ahead economically. Hanoi has always been an important agricultural and manufacturing centre. Rice has been a critical crop for more than 2000 years and, along with vegetables, is grown in profusion. Other industries are the manufacture of machinery, processed food, chemicals and textiles.
North-west of Hoan Kiem is the Ba Dinh sector, home of the tomb of 20th-century Vietnamese Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh. The mausoleum is a huge attraction for locals and tourists. Also there are the National Assembly and Party Headquarters and Tran Quoc Pagoda. To the south is Dong Da, the largest sector, noted for hospitals and schools. The fourth sector is Hai Ba Trung, which lies along the Red River bank.
Hanoi has long been the north's centre of education. From 1442 to the late 19th century, it was a major site of the country's periodic civil service examinations which tested knowledge of Confucianism, the foundation of the state's political system. Today it is proud to have 19 universities and colleges and various museums and libraries, including the National Library, the Army Museum and the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts.
Like every city in the world, Hanoi has too many street kids, in this case many from poor rural areas. They come to the city hoping to find paid work to help support their often large families. Sadly, this doesn't always happen and it is estimated there are 19,000 homeless children trying to survive on the city's streets, some falling into drugs and prostitution.
Thanks to Jimmy Pham, Vietnamese-born and Australian-educated, at least some children are being given the chance of education and hope for a positive future.
In 1996, Jimmy began KOTO (Know One Teach One) to give skills to children so they could find stable jobs. Street Voices is an Australian registered charity which helps pay for the hospitality training of street children and disadvantaged youth in Hanoi. As well as a hospitality training school, there is a restaurant serving delicious food and drink to up to 80 people at a time.
KOTO Restaurant opened just over three years ago and more than 100 young people have gone through the program. All are employed in hospitality. Similar programs operate in other countries, but Jimmy Pham's was the first. One of his favourite stories is about President Bill Clinton dropping in. After a security check, he sat and ate with other stunned diners.
Accommodation is plentiful, ranging from very cheap budget guesthouses, mid-range and top-of-the-line, spread right across the sectors.
The Sofitel Metropole is one of Vietnam's great luxury accommodations. The low-rise, beautifully-restored French colonial building was created by two private French investors in 1901 and quickly became the place for colonial society in the first half of the last century.
Following independence in the 1950s, the new national government used the hotel to accommodate visiting VIPs and during the war years it was a base for press and diplomats.
Its classical white façade, green shutters, original wrought iron, wood panelling and lush courtyard are from a past era. The 232-room hotel has two restaurants, three bars, a pool and health club.
It is a gentle stroll to the lake where you can take part in or just watch the morning tai chi. The grand Opera House and History Museum are close by, as are streets full of galleries, shops and eateries.