The single element most remarked upon by visitors to Hanoi is the traffic. It is wild, but there is a structure to the chaos. Have a beer in the City View Cafe in the centre of the Old Quarter in Hanoi and watch the motor scooters, and you will be reminded of schools of fish or flocks of birds. Packs of two-wheeled vehicles move through the streets, passing effortlessly around a car, truck or pedestrian, using an intuitive skill that must take years to develop. T-shirts sold throughout Hanoi show an image of a traffic light and say: ‘Green—I can go; Yellow—I can go; Red—I still can go’. After a couple of days you are charging through the traffic like a local, and thinking, like Polonius, ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.’
The rest of Hanoi is similar. It seems chaotic on the surface, but beneath the chaos is a calmness, a depth and an order that is not always immediately apparent. It seems more like a determination, in fact—a resolve to get things done.
There are many lakes in the city and the most important culturally is Hoan Kiem Lake, or ‘Lake of the Returned Sword’. In many ways the story attached to this lake parallels that of King Arthur and Excalibur. The 15th century emperor Le Loi was sent a sword from the gods, delivered by a golden turtle, to help to drive the Chinese from Vietnam. When victory had been achieved, another turtle appeared in the lake, grabbed the sword from the emperor’s hand and disappeared with it, returning it to the gods.
To the north of Hoan Kiem Lake is the Old Quarter, to the south the French Quarter. The Old Quarter of Hanoi has retained much of its pre-colonial structure. Many of the streets are named for the services available: Hang Gai Street sold hemp; Hang Bac was the street of silversmiths; Hang Dong was for copper products; Hang Thiec for tin and tin boxes; Hang Ma sold votive papers; Hang Ca was the fish sellers; Lo Su was the coffin and memorial builders; Lo Ren the street of blacksmith. While some of the businesses have moved to more convenient locations, many of the older businesses still ply their trades in the streets named for them.
The French influence in the city remains strong. Hanoi was the French colonial capital from 1902 and many of the buildings have a distinctly Parisienne style. The Hotel Metropole is the most exclusive in the city, and would not look out of place on the Champs Elysees.
There is no doubt that wars with France and the USA took their toll. During the ‘American War’, Hanoi was subject to some heavy bombing. From 18th-28th of December 1972, the city was victim to the largest US bombing raids since WWII. In eleven nights, more than two hundred B52 bombers dropped over 40,000 tons of bombs on the city. 1,624 Vietnamese civilians were killed, including 28 staff at the Bach Mai Hospital when a stray B52 bombed it on 22nd December. Sixteen B52s were shot down by Vietnamese anti-aircraft gunners, one of these crashing to earth in Huu Tiep Lake. Part of the bomber remains there, a reminder to the Vietnamese people of their defeat of the ‘… US imperialist’s strategic air raid [and the] Vietnamese people’s anti-US resistance for national salvation …’
Hanoi today is a fascinating city that is once again the country’s capital. While it welcomes tourists, it feels right that it is not geared towards them.