Hanoi has a long and complex history, many aspects of which are still hotly debated by historians. But for the average visitor, the bare bones of the city’s development should be sufficient to appreciate its importance in both the past and present.
After a period of Chinese occupation between the 7th and 10th centuries, the Vietnamese finally ousted their invaders. But it was not until 1010 that Ly Thai To, generally recognized as Hanoi’s founding father, chose it as the capital of Dai Viet, as Vietnam was then known. History and legend often merge in Vietnam, and the city was first named Thang Long (“ascending dragon”) because Ly Thai To claimed to have seen a dragon flying up into the sky here.
The Ly dynasty flourished, and despite being re-taken for a few years by the Chinese in the early 15th century, by the late 15th century Thang Long was once again under control of the Ly dynasty and becoming of the most powerful cities of Southeast Asia. This period was short-lived, however, and the Ly dynasty came to an end early 1500s.
There followed two centuries of constant feuding between a pair of prominent families, the Trinh, based in Thang Long, and the Nguyen, based in Hue, for domination of the country. Finally, in 1802, Emperor Gia Long prevailed and established the Nguyen dynasty with its capital at Hue.
In 1831, Thang Long was re-named Hanoi (“city at the bend in the river”), though it was then nothing more than a provincial capital, playing second fiddle to Hue. Little resistance was offered when the French arrived in 1882, and the new colonial power chose it as capital of the protectorate of Tonkin.
Just a few years later, in 1887, the French chose it as the seat of government for their rapidly-growing Union of Indochina, which included the countries now known as Laos and Cambodia. The French quickly set about creating a European-style city centre, with huge, shuttered mansions lining broad, tree-lined avenues. This legacy remains today in the form of the French Quarter.
Despite a growing nationalist movement, the French held on to control of the country until the Second World War, when occupation of their own country by Germany caused the French to release their vice-like grip on Vietnam. The country was nominally controlled by Japan, Germany’s ally, until 1945, when a victorious Ho Chi Minh marched into Ba Dinh Square and declared independence.
The nationalists’ joy was soon dampened by the return of the French, who resumed their interest in Vietnam as soon as they had themselves been liberated from Nazi Germany. The First Indochina War, which lasted from 1946-1954, shocked the world when it ended with a humiliating defeat for the French at Dien Bien Phu. Despite their superior arms and military training, the French were outfoxed by the determined Viet Minh.
By this time, the USA was extremely worried about the spread of Communism through Asia, and when the country was split into North Vietnam and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel by the Geneva Conference of 1954, American assistance began pouring into the South and the Second Indochina War, aka the Vietnam War (but to the Vietnamese simply the American War) began officially in 1959.
When this infamous conflict finally ended in 1975, the victorious Communists re-united the country, with Hanoi as its capital, but the victory was won at a dear price. Vietnam’s people and their cities had undergone devastating hardships, including the ‘Christmas bombing’ of 1972, when Nixon ordered carpet bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong and thousands of civilians were killed.
Sadly, re-unification turned out to be more of a nightmare than wartime for many Vietnamese, with the country’s economy in tatters and isolation caused by a trade embargo imposed by the USA. Things didn’t start to improve until 1986, when the Communist Party General Secretary Le Duan, who had ruled the party since Ho Chi Minh’s death in 1969, died.
His successor, Nguyen Van Linh, introduced doi moi, a package of social and economic reforms that allowed the country to gradually open up to free trade. The reforms were accelerated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vietnam’s only ally and financial patron, in 1991, but it wasn’t until the USA lifted its trade embargo in 1994 that the economy really took off, fuelled by new trading partners and a nascent tourism industry.
Ironically, though Hanoi suffered a worse fate than almost any other city in the world during the 20th century, it ended the century and millennium in optimistic mood. That optimism has been justified during the first decade of the 21st century, as the economy continues to boom and the ever-growing city boasts stylish shopping malls and spruced up colonial villas.