Hanoi is a city where myth meets fact. Tales of a dragon rising from the Red River, a lake spirit bestowing the gift of a sword and the grandchildren of a dragon and fairy becoming the Vietnamese people are told to children across the country.
The reality, however, is no less fantastic. Hanoi has stood for 1,000 years, in one form or another, on this bank of the Red River. Despite only being the capital of a reunified Vietnam for the last 41 years, it has been at the centre of Vietnamese civilisation for a millennium.
What’s in a Name?
The history of Hanoi is the story of a city often faced with foreign colonialists. This struggle is reflected in how many names Hanoi has had across the period.
In 1010, Ly Thai To erected the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, and renamed the city for it. The previous name, Luocheng, was just the most recent name in a series chosen by Chinese colonialists.
However, despite overseeing the construction of some of Hanoi’s greatest monuments, including One Pillar Pagoda, Quan Thanh Temple and the Temple of Literature, Ly Thai To’s dynasty was not the end of Chinese domination.
The year 1408 saw the city renamed Dong Quan, or Eastern Gateway, under the control of the Chinese Ming Dynasty, a name which lasted until Le Loi drove out the Chinese in 1427.
Under the Le Dynasty he founded, the city became known as Dong Kinh (from which we get the name Tonkin), but in the later Tay Son Dynasty, the city was relegated in status to become Bac Thanh, or the “northern citadel.”
It wasn’t until Minh Mang of the Nguyen Dynasty, that the city got the name we use today. Meaning “between rivers,” Hanoi has been named such since 1831, even when its status as capital has been lost and regained.
An ancient bridge photographed during the time of French colonisation
A Hanoi pagoda in the early colonial era
It’s not unusual for a country to have more than one “main city,” and even less unusual for those cities to be locked in rivalry.
Hanoi’s status as the capital has fluctuated back and forth for centuries. Even when Minh Mang named the city Hanoi, Hue was still the capital of Vietnam, and of course even today, Ho Chi Minh City is still the largest city by population.
Before the emergence of the Dai Viet nation, the capital had been on the same site as Hanoi is today more than once, when it was named Co Loa (257 BCE – 208 BCE and (939 CE – 967 CE), Me Linh (40 CE– 43 CE) and Dai La (905 CE – 938 CE).
Between those dates, and indeed after the formation of Dai Viet under the Ly Dynasty, the capital of Vietnam had shifted around, mostly between Hoa Lo, Hue and Hanoi; but there have also been stints in Vinh Loc, Cao Bang and Binh Dinh.
Hanoi was made the capital of French Indochina, and of course served as the capital of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from 1945. However, from that time up until 1976, the Republic of Vietnam had named Saigon as the capital.
Since that brief schism, Hanoi and Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, have grown up, each with their own distinct personality, and each one vying for the status of Vietnam’s main city.
Pho Cho Gao on the edge of the Old Quarter
Pho Hang Ngang in the Old Quarter
From the modest dwelling serving as the capital of Au Lac (257 BCE – 179 BCE) or as the Giao Chi region when Vietnam was known as Van Lang (2524 BCE – 258 BCE), Hanoi has come a long way.
The landmarks mentioned above, built under the Ly Dynasty, were just the beginning of Hanoi’s transformation into a powerful centre of culture.
The medieval period saw Hanoi acquire even more of the landmarks which make it such a popular tourist destination today. In the 15th century, Quan Su Temple and Hoan Kiem Lake’s iconic Ngoc Son Temple were built.
The 17th century welcomed the renovation and expansion of Lang Temple and the Perfume Pagoda, now situated in My Duc, a rural district of Hanoi. Also during this time, Tran Quoc Pagoda was relocated to West Lake, and in 1812, the Flag Tower was added to Thang Long citadel.
By the end of the 19th century, the British Empire controlled a quarter of the world’s population; in the same century, the French were making sure their mark would be left on Hanoi in a visible way.
Completed in 1886, St. Joseph’s Cathedral serves as one of the most recognisable reminders of the French colonialists. However, the French also built Hoa Lo Prison, Long Bien Bridge, the Presidential Palace and the Opera House, among other things.
Hang Non Street, at a time when all the street sold were 'non' or conical hats
An outdoor barber's shop
Champions of the Rising Dragon
Hanoi has also been the staging ground and headquarters of some of the most legendary heroes in Vietnamese history.
Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, also known as Hai Ba Trung, led the first major rebellion against Southern Han rule in 40 CE. Born in Giao Chi, a territory which included the land of present-day Hanoi, they ruled Nam Viet for three years.
Their defeat came at the hands of a huge Chinese expeditionary army in 43 CE, in a battle on what is now the Red River Delta around Hanoi. However, their rebellion and short reign has endured as a symbol of Vietnamese resistance and freedom.
Ngo Quyen, born in what is now Hanoi’s Ba Vi district, is the leader credited with ending ‘The Long Eclipse’. This was a period of Chinese domination, lasting 1,000 years and dating back to 111 BCE. In 938, he led the Vietnamese army which defeated the Southern Han at the Battle of Bach Dang, near Halong Bay. His victory opened up an age of independence for Vietnam.
In more recent years, the general and politician Vo Nguyen Giap operated out of Hanoi. Giap served as the primary commander in the First Indochina War and the American War. On Aug. 28, 1945, Giap led his men into Hanoi, five days before Ho Chi Minh declared independence for the reunified country.
A map of Hanoi from 1875. At the time Hanoi had many more lakes than it has today - most of them were filled in
The Hanoi of today is the culmination of the actions of legendary heroes, combined with the will of a people who will never accept subjugation. The city, like its people, can never be held back indefinitely, and will always seek to expand and improve.
A recent example of this expansion came in 2008, when it was decreed that Ha Tay, Me Linh and several communes of Luong Son be merged into Hanoi, tripling the size of its metropolitan area.
In 2015, German real estate data mining company Emporis ranked Hanoi as 39th in the world for cities with the most skyscrapers over 100m tall.
With a population growing at a rate of about 3.5% per year, and a projected metropolitan population of 15 million people by 2020, we wait with bated breath to see where the future generations of Hanoians take their great city.