Most travelers to Hanoi know about its chaotic streets, its vibrant food scene, and perhaps the 20th-century wars that shape today’s Vietnam. But not many realize that this city has a rich history, dating back as far as the 11th century. It weaves through the historic core like a thread and is waiting to be discovered by those with keen eyes.
To the untrained eyes, Hanoi appears crowded and disorganized. It is, frankly, a dull concrete jungle congested with scooters and cars vying for the right of way. Together with the rest of the nation, the city is growing at a neck-breaking pace to make up for time lost to wars and the isolation afterward. Yet this kind of rapid development unintentionally brought a negative impact on the cultural landscape, with many heritage sites being destroyed.
Fortunately, there are several places where the soul of an old Hanoi is much alive, from the vestiges of an imperial citadel, the manicured gardens and stone stelae of the Temple of Literature, to the labyrinth of the Old Quarter. They represent the centuries-long history of a capital city that used to be named Thăng Long or “the rising dragon”.
1. The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
For a full picture of Hanoi’s history, there is no better place than Thang Long Citadel. This World Heritage Site was first built in 1010 by Ly Thai To, the first king of an independent Dai Viet (former name of Vietnam). He ordered the construction of a palace on the ruin of a Chinese fortification dating from the 7th century. In the next seven centuries, the royal compound was significantly expanded. Tran, Le, and finally Nguyen dynasty, all left traces here. The citadel remained the seat of power until 1810 when the Nguyen emperor moved the capital to Phu Xuan (today Hue).
In the late 19th century, Thang Long Citadel was largely demolished to build a Vauban fortress. Its state further deteriorated during the 20th century as a result of wars and negligence. The few edifices that are still standing today are Doan Mon (the southern gate), the flag tower, the entrance staircase of the Kinh Thien Palace, and Hau Lau (Princess Palace). By the early 2000s, a systematical excavation took place at 18 Hoang Dieu, just across the street. And the foundations of the imperial city were found, including remnants of old palaces, ancient roads, water wells, and a wealth of monuments and relics.
18 Hoang Dieu Archaeological Site
Measuring up to 20 hectares, the archaeological site at 18 Hoang Dieu is the largest of its kind in Vietnam. The excavation began in 2002 and 2003 when artifacts were discovered on the former National Assembly Hall site. At the time, the structure was torn down to make way for a new parliament building. Archaeologists unearthed eight to nine layers of architectural systems, relics, and artifacts. They overlay on top of each other, starting from the Dai La period (7th – 9th century, often known as the Chinese occupation era). To date, only a small fraction of the royal palace complex has been excavated.
For nearly thirteen centuries, without interruption, Thang Long Citadel and the remains in 18 Hoang Dieu have witnessed numerous historical events in Hanoi. The sites were also a cradle of religious and philosophical ideas, as well as artistic expressions. According to UNESCO, they reflect “a unique South-East Asian culture specific to the lower Red River Valley, at the crossroads between influences coming from China in the north and the ancient Kingdom of Champa in the south”. Thus, it isn’t exaggerated to say the citadel and its ruins are invaluable assets of Vietnam’s history and culture.
2. Temple of Literature
Less than two kilometers south of Thang Long Citadel is the Temple of Literature – Vietnam’s oldest university. It was first built in 1070 by King Ly Thanh Tong to pay homage to Confucius and the sages whom the princes came to study. Six years later, an imperial academy was established within the temple compound to educate members of the elite.
Under the reign of subsequent dynasties, the Temple of Literature continued to be the country’s largest and highest education center. Yet university admission became significantly more egalitarian. Any gifted student, regardless of social status, could come to Hanoi to study Confucius’s philosophy, literature, and poetry. By 1484, stone stelae were erected by King Le Thanh Tong to honor the greatest and brightest scholars. 82 remain standing to these days, mostly atop elaborate turtle statues.
An outstanding example of pre-colonial architecture.
After the capital’s relocation in the 19th century, the temple lost its prominence. But the complex has been well preserved due to its unique and elegant architecture. It covers an area of over 54,000 m2, including a leafy garden, a magnificent pavilion, a pond, and multiple courtyards surrounded by brick walls. In fact, the Temple of Literature is an outstanding example of pre-colonial architecture that still exists in Hanoi.
3. Hanoi Old Quater
Tucked between Hoan Kiem Lake, Long Bien Bridge, the citadel wall, and a former city rampart, Hanoi Old Quarter has a history that spans more than a thousand years. Starting as a snake and alligator-infested swamp, it evolved into a crafts district in the 11th century when King Ly Thai To built the imperial citadel. Soon after, skilled craftsmen migrated to the city. And artisan guilds were gradually formed by people originating from the same villages and offering similar services.
The craftsmen worked and lived together in a specific area, creating a cooperative system for merchandise. Finally, they gave the name of their crafts to the designated streets of the quarter, such that most streets acquired names beginning with hàng (Wares), for example, Hàng Da Street (leather wares street) or Hàng Thiếc Street (tin wares street). In total, there were 36 streets for 36 trades.
While several of these streets still specialized in the trade that gave them their names, others have been replaced with other types of wares to meet the demand of modern-day customers. For instance, Hàng Buồm Street (sail wares street) no longer sells sail equipment. Instead, it has become dominated by traditional cakes and candies. Aside from the trade, this buzzing area is the perfect place to sample phở, xôi, and many other specialties of Hanoi.
Arstisans gave the name of their crafts to the designated streets of the quarter.
3.1 Hoan Kiem Lake
Sandwiched between the Old Quarter to the north and the French Quarter to the south is Hoan Kiem Lake – another landmark in Hanoi. Its name literally means “Lake of the Restored Sword” and a legend is associated with it. According to this legend, King Le Loi obtained a mythical sword in 1428, which he used to drive away the Ming invaders. The sword, as you may have guessed, originated from the lake. After this victory, the king boated through the still water again when a massive golden turtle appeared and reclaimed the sword for its divine master.
After this peculiar occurrence, turtles reportedly began to be revered around Hoan Kiem Lake. Among them were a couple of giant Yangtze soft-shell turtles. Unfortunately, all of them passed away, with the last one dying in 2016. These days, the peaceful freshwater lake is a popular gathering site for both locals and tourists. They came here for exercises, matches of shogi, or simply to take a break from Hanoi’s hustle.
3.2 The Street Vendors
While wandering around Hanoi Old Quarter, you will encounter at least one or two street vendors. Even though it isn’t a feature unique to Vietnam, street vending is still an essential part of city life. No one has ever known what time or age they did appear. The only thing we know is that they serve as an informal yet extremely important agent in the local economy.
Strange as it may sound, street vendors do have stable trading relationships and frequent customers. Quality is, therefore, preserved to an acceptable extent and local people who shop for fresh groceries can enjoy the luxury of having products delivered to their door daily without any extra cost. Products vary as widely as needs call for, with vegetables, fruits, flowers, and homemade dishes being the most common goods. Nevertheless, bargaining is virtually obligatory, especially if you are a tourist.