Wednesday, May 22, 2024

On the streets of Hanoi

Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, is a city where ancient history and modern development exist in an intricate dance, each step revealing layers of culture, conflict, and resilience. Rudi Romero paces the ancient streets.

In true Louis Theroux fashion, my journey through Hanoi was a deep dive into a city that feels both timeless and rapidly evolving, a place where the past and the present converge in fascinating ways.

I began my exploration in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a labyrinthine maze of narrow streets and bustling markets. This area, with its 36 guild streets, each historically dedicated to a specific trade, offers a glimpse into the city’s rich mercantile past. The architecture here is a striking mix of French colonial buildings and traditional Vietnamese shophouses, their facades adorned with vibrant signs and motorbikes parked haphazardly in front.

Wandering through the Old Quarter, I felt as though I had stepped back in time. Street vendors hawked everything from fresh produce to handcrafted goods, while the air was thick with the tantalizing aromas of street food. Pho, bun cha, and banh mi stalls were everywhere, each one promising a culinary delight. I couldn’t resist stopping at a tiny pho stall, where I slurped up the fragrant noodle soup, savoring the rich, layered flavors that define Vietnamese cuisine.

Ho Chi Minh mausoleum (Roderick Eime)

My next stop was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a stark, imposing structure that houses the embalmed body of Vietnam’s revered leader. The mausoleum, a symbol of Vietnam’s complex political history, attracts throngs of visitors who come to pay their respects. As I stood in line, I felt a palpable sense of reverence among the crowd. Inside, the atmosphere was solemn, almost sacred, as we filed past the glass-encased body of Uncle Ho, lying in state.

Adjacent to the mausoleum is the Presidential Palace, an opulent French colonial building set amid lush gardens. The contrast between the grandiose palace and the simple stilt house where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked speaks volumes about his persona and leadership style. Walking through the stilt house, I was struck by its Spartan furnishings and the sense of humble dedication it conveyed.

Hoan Kiem Lake (Roderick Eime)

Hanoi’s history is deeply intertwined with its lakes, and no visit would be complete without a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake. Legend has it that this lake is where Emperor Le Loi returned a magical sword to a golden turtle god, a story that adds a layer of mystique to this serene spot. The Ngoc Son Temple, perched on a small island in the lake, is accessible by a charming red bridge. Here, amidst the incense smoke and the sound of prayer, I felt a sense of peace that contrasted with the city’s bustling streets.

Hanoi's modern skyline (Hiển Hồ - Pexels)

But Hanoi is not just about history. The city is undergoing rapid modernization, and this is perhaps most evident in the burgeoning skyline of the West Lake area. High-rise apartments, luxury hotels, and trendy cafes are springing up, attracting a cosmopolitan crowd. I visited the Lotte Center, one of the tallest buildings in Hanoi, where the observation deck offers panoramic views of the city. From this vantage point, the juxtaposition of old and new Hanoi is striking—the dense, historic neighborhoods give way to sprawling modern developments.

In the evening, I found myself in the vibrant Tay Ho district, known for its nightlife and expatriate community. Here, the streets are lined with chic bars, international restaurants, and live music venues. At a rooftop bar overlooking West Lake, I sipped a cocktail while listening to a local band play a fusion of traditional Vietnamese music and contemporary jazz. This, I realized, epitomized Hanoi’s dynamic spirit—a city that honors its heritage while embracing the new.

As I walked back to my hotel, the city’s sounds and sights blending into a harmonious cacophony, I reflected on the myriad ways Hanoi embodies the essence of Vietnam. It is a city of contrasts—ancient temples and modern skyscrapers, traditional markets and trendy cafes, a place where history is ever-present but never a hindrance to progress. In true Louis Theroux style, my journey through Hanoi was an exploration of a city that is as complex as it is captivating, a testament to the resilience and adaptability of its people.


  • Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple: Located in the heart of the city, this picturesque lake is a popular spot for leisurely walks. The Ngoc Son Temple, situated on an island in the lake, is accessible via the iconic red Huc Bridge.
  • Old Quarter: A vibrant maze of narrow streets, the Old Quarter is bustling with life, traditional markets, street food stalls, and shops selling everything from silk to souvenirs. It’s a great place to experience the local culture.
  • Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: This monumental mausoleum houses the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh, the founding father of modern Vietnam. The adjacent Ho Chi Minh Museum and Presidential Palace offer further insights into his life and legacy.
  • Temple of Literature: Vietnam’s first university, founded in 1070, this well-preserved temple complex is dedicated to Confucius and features beautiful gardens and ancient architecture.
  • Thang Long Imperial Citadel: A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this ancient fortress dates back to the Ly Dynasty and offers a fascinating glimpse into Vietnam’s history.
  • Water Puppet Theatre: A unique traditional art form, water puppet shows at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre depict rural Vietnamese life and folklore.
  • Vietnam Museum of Ethnology: This museum showcases the diverse cultures of Vietnam’s various ethnic groups through artifacts, exhibitions, and interactive displays.


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