Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is a fascinating blend of East and West, with Chinese influence from centuries of dominance, and French design from its colonial past. It is largely unspoiled by modern architecture of the 1970s and 80s, and is now going through a modernization that is making it a rising star in Southeast Asia.
Invading forces from every direction agree: Hanoi makes a fine capital. It has held that title for more than a thousand years, through several invasions, occupations, restorations, and name changes. The Chinese conquered the imperial city of Thang-Long in 1408 and renamed it Tống Bình. Le Loi repelled the invaders in 1428 and ascended the throne, becoming known as Lê Thái Tổ (黎太祖); for his efforts, a slew of legends about his heroic exploits, many centred around the Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter.
The Nguyen Dynasty gave the city its modern name of Ha Noi in 1831, but they had transferred power to Hue by then; it remained there until 1887, when the French made Saigon and then Hanoi the capital of all French Indochina. It changed hands again in 1954, when it was ceded to Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh after almost a decade of fighting, and it became the capital of North Vietnam; Saigon was the rival in South Vietnam. Upon reunification in 1976, it assumed that title for the entire country.
The first institution of learning in Vietnam, Quoc Tu Giam, was founded here in the 11th century. Nine hundred years later, the first western-style universities in Vietnam were also founded in Hanoi. The city is one of the leading centres of scientific study and research in the country. Hanoi retains much of its older charm of bygone eras, despite the battles that have raged over it; conflict had the side effect of making it largely oblivious to modern architecture, and as a result, few buildings in the city centre area are higher than five stories. The Old Quarter is second only to Hoi An for uninterrupted stretches of colonial and pre-colonial architecture, well-preserved on dense warrens of narrow, wonderfully atmospheric streets. It trades the commercial boom and sprawl of Ho Chi Minh City in the South for a more understated charm, worth enjoying for an extra day or two, and with countless transport options and travel agents, it makes a perfect base for exploration of the North.
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