Keeping an ageless charm through centuries, Hanoi – the capital of Vietnam is famous not only for the Old Quarter with its narrow and crowded streets but also for the nostalgic feeling that it brings. While Saigon is a young and modern city, ancient Hanoi is still a true beholder of history.
Location of Hanoi and How to Get There
Located on the banks and at the center of the Red River’s flow, Hanoi is the second-largest city in Vietnam with a population of over 7 million in 2016. Hanoi is in the North of Vietnam, about 1,600 km to the north of Saigon and it is also the center of the Red River Delta. Instead of going by bus or train, you can take a direct flight (about 2 hours) from Tan Son Nhat Aiport to Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi to save time.
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A Brief History of the Capital of Vietnam
The capital of Vietnam hasn’t always been Hanoi, there have been times when the country’s capital was placed in Hue – hence the ancient citadels remaining in the city. However, very often Hanoi was the chosen capital throughout different dynasties due to its favorable geographical features. The name Hanoi also went through many changes (such as Dai La, Thang Long) before the title as we widely know it today became official.
During the early stages of the country’s establishment, the capital of Vietnam was the most prosperous and well-being place. However, for several consecutive centuries, Vietnam suffered many wars that caused damage to property and people, especially in the capital. There are so many historical events that changed the way of life and mindset of the people.
Read more on Vietnam Ancient Cities
The area around Hanoi has been chosen as the cultural, economic, and social center of the whole country several times throughout history. It used to be a citadel of previous dynasties and has recently been chosen to be the country’s capital since 1945. Minh Mang was the one who gave the name Hanoi to this place (which means “inside the river”, implying the location of the capital).
Before Thang Long Establishment (prehistory – 1010)
Ngoc Son Temple
Many archaeological pieces of evidence show that humans appeared in the area around Hanoi thousands of years ago. The establishment of the country is believed to be from the Hung Kings Period, and as a way to remember the dedication of Hung Kings as a founder of Vietnam, a lot of people come to Hung Kings Temple in Ninh Binh every year to commemorate his death date on March 10th of Lunar Calendar. One of the capitals of that time was named Co Loa, and its location was a district of Hanoi today.
From 179 B.C., Northern colonists started with invasion attacks to occupy Vietnam and dominated Vietnam for the next one thousand years. During this time, Hanoi was known by many names such as Tong Binh, and Dai La, but was the only city that the Chinese emperors used to control the southern country. It was not until the Ly Dynasty (in Vietnam history) that Hanoi became an important government area.
From the Ly Dynasty to the Tay Son Dynasty (1010 – 1787)
After the continuous struggles of the Vietnamese to gain sovereignty from the Northern colonists, Emperor Ly Cong Uan decided that Thang Long (Hanoi) was the largest cultural, political, economic, and social center in the country. And from then this land went by many names such as Dong Do, Dong Quan, and Dong Kinh.
It is also considered the most prosperous period of Thang Long (Hanoi) in history. The first university of Vietnam was built, many Buddhist temples were inaugurated, and trade flourished. The famous Old Quarter with 36 streets was also born during this burgeoning period of the nation.
Hanoi and the surrounding area continued to be the government area until the sixteenth century when Tay Son troops led by Quang Trung overthrew the Trinh lordship and imprisoned them in Thang Long. Then Quang Trung took the throne and established a new government in Phu Xuan, Hue. Dai Viet (Vietnam) officially relocated its capital to Phu Xuan, Hue, and Thang Long (Hanoi) became a city in the north.
Nguyen Dynasty and French Colonization (1787 – 1945)
Long Bien Bridge is one the iconic remnants from the French colonial period
Tay Son Dynasty soon ended and Gia Long, the first king of the Nguyen Dynasty, also chose Phu Xuan as his capital and built the country from there. At that time, Thang Long was part of Hanoi Province. The position of Thang Long no longer stayed the same as the economic development was no longer focused like it was before. Most of the activities to earn a living here were mainly on agriculture, handicrafts, and retail trade.
In 1858, the French established colonization in Indochina for the first time, and by 1873, the French advanced to Thang Long (Hanoi), and the residents of the city fought fiercely despite the Hue government’s policy of peace. However, Hanoi, as well as other provinces of Vietnam, were officially under the “protection” of the French after the Nguyen signed a Treaty in 1884.
The city of Hanoi was formed in 1888 and became the official capital of Indochina in 1902. With the support of the French, Hanoi gradually changed. More and more universities, hospitals, and markets were built. Roads were improved, and trade developed constantly. The culture is more or less influenced by the harmonious combination of Eastern and Western cultures.
Indochina War and Vietnam War (1945 – 1975)
This period was a time of complicated political change in Hanoi. Hanoi people suffered many losses of war, constant relocation, stagnation, and even no food at this stage. Before 1945, Japan and France participated in the war and gained the right to occupy Hanoi. After the Allies won World War II in 1945, Japan withdrew from Vietnam.
Hoa Lo Prison stores many of the haunting memories from the war-torn years
President Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence, and gave birth to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, choosing Hanoi as the capital on September 2nd, 1945. It was such a momentous event for not only Hanoi but also the Vietnamese after years and years of fighting consistently for their independence.
In late 1945, France returned to Hanoi, and the Indochina war broke out. It was not until the Dien Bien Phu victory in 1954 that the Vietnamese regained their national sovereignty. As the Vietnam War escalated, Hanoi suffered severe consequences affecting the lives of its people because it was the headquarters of the campaign to reunify and liberate the South of Vietnam.
Hanoi in Modern Time
After the liberation of the country on April 30th, 1975, in Saigon, the Vietnam War ended and two regions North-South were reunited. All roads, schools, hospitals, and markets were rebuilt to serve the lives of residents. The government of Vietnam followed, at that time, a way of economic development in the form of a planned economy, a feature of the communist economy. Vietnam officially entered the subsidy period. This period was a significant milestone for everyone living in Hanoi. And since 1986, the country adopted a new approach called the socialist market economy.
In 1999, Ha Noi was recognized as the “City for Peace” by UNESCO, and in 2010, Hanoi celebrated 1000 years of establishment and became one of the oldest cities in Southeast Asia. Through many planning stages, Hanoi expanded its urban area by merging with many neighboring areas such as Ha Tay Province.
Like other big cities such as Saigon, and Hanoi the number of immigrants who come from other provinces to find a better job or to study in a better education increases every year. The speed of urbanization and population increase so fast that Hanoi is now facing problems such as environmental pollution, traffic congestion, and narrow houses, and roads.
However, every year Hanoi still receives a large number of international tourists thanks to the historic attractions. The old atmosphere of Hanoi still gives visitors a feeling of traveling back in time. In one way or another, Hanoi always steals the hearts of those who have come to visit.
One of the things that makes Hanoi so special is its people. If you have the opportunity to visit the capital once, you will easily notice the lifestyle of the Hanoi people is very traditional. They, who have lived in this city for a long time, always maintain their cultural customs, values, and beliefs despite changes and urbanization.
Where to Go in Hanoi – the Capital of Vietnam
Hanoi Old Quarter’s streets
Hanoi is famous for historical sites where you can find out about the heroic past of this nation, such as Thang Long Imperial Citadel and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. And cultural sites that help you understand the religions and social characteristics of the capital from ancient times, which are still preserved until now. A few to name are One Pillar Pagoda, Temple of Literature, Sword Lake, and Bat Trang Pottery Village. Read more on What to do in Hanoi in 3 Days Guide.
Hoan Kiem Lake
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What to Eat in Hanoi
The cuisine of Hanoi is extremely rich in colors, each dish is made with the chef’s enthusiasm and attached to history. The famous dishes that you should try when coming here are Pho, Bun dau mam tom (Vermicelli with shrimp paste and tofu), and Com (Green sticky rice). Check out more delicious dishes in the North of Vietnam in our guide.
Bun Cha in Hanoi
Conclusion on What is the capital of Vietnam
In spite of the fact that Hanoi is getting more and more modern, tourists are coming more and more, Hanoi always keeps for itself something special that you can hardly find anywhere else in Vietnam. Because of that, Hanoi has been and will always be a historical witness, which holds many of the nation’s most precious memories over periods of time since its inception, growing up and also breaking down and starting everything back.