Where the Colonial Meets the Cyber

Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, greets the 21st century with an eye on the past

By: Jim Calio

HANOI, Vietnam Early on a balmy evening, cars, bicycles and cyclos (tricycle taxis with the passenger seats in front) pull up to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in the city’s Hoan Kiem district. As passengers disgorge and file up a long staircase, young ushers hand out paper fans, a tradition as much as a necessity, in case it gets too stuffy inside.

When the lights go down, pure magic begins. Intricately designed ceramic puppets animated by puppeteers standing waist deep in water and wielding long bamboo poles splash and dash through a small pond, enacting scenes from rural Vietnamese life. It’s a surefire crowd-pleaser, and even the most cynical theatergoers come away smiling.

But just in case anyone needs reminding that this is the 21st century and Vietnam is poised to take its place at the table of modern Asian nations the sound of cell phones snapping open the minute the performance is over should do the trick. Soon, young and old are busy chattering, making plans for dinner or a cafe date.

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam with a population of 3 million, sits right in the middle of the fertile Red River delta in the northern part of the country. For most Americans, the name Hanoi conjures up memories of a long ago, bitterly-fought war, one that the Vietnamese refer to as the “American War.” But more than half the population of Vietnam was born after the end of the war in 1975, and for them the war is ancient history. They’re busy making money, buying cars, cell phones and computers, and enjoying the good life. The surprise for most American tourists in Vietnam, and Hanoi in particular, is that it is very American-friendly. And safe.

The center of Hanoi, both geographically and spiritually, is Hoan Kiem Lake, which separates the cramped, fascinating Old City and the French Quarter, with its tree-lined boulevards. Indeed, the French influence from years of colonial rule is everywhere, but mostly in the grand old buildings and the city’s frenetic cafe life.

To the west of this area is the former Imperial City, with its wide, open parks and Ba Dinh Square, where Ho Chi Minh declared the country’s independence in 1945.

In fact, there are reminders of Uncle Ho, as he is still fondly called, everywhere. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which contains the patriarch’s waxed remains (he was famously against such preservation), draws busloads of tourists, foreign as well as Vietnamese.

Nearby is Ho’s modest house, with its highly polished downstairs meeting room and simple upstairs bedroom with a single telephone. It is rumored that the carp he fed daily will still jump out of the water if you clap your hands. And, of course, at every turn, there are the ubiquitous souvenir stands, where one can buy Ho Chi Minh cigarette lighters, coffee cups and key chains. The best time of year to see Hanoi is in the autumn, when it cools down from the usual broiling 80- and 90-degree days. January and February are also good months, although the rainy season begins around that time.

The best way to see Hanoi is with a guide and an air-conditioned car. Although many Vietnamese speak fluent English (and love to engage Americans in simple conversation), the city is difficult to navigate without a guide, especially if you have a limited amount of time.

The major tourist sites are well worth a stop in addition to the monuments and buildings near Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, there is the Temple of Literature, built in 1070 and the site of Vietnam’s first university. The 82 stele, or stone tablets, commemorate the work of early doctoral students. It’s a strangely peaceful oasis in the middle of a bustling commercial district. Fashionistas will notice that the long, elegant ao dai (literally “long dress”), favored by so many Vietnamese women in the early part of the last century and now worn by all the female flight attendants on Vietnam Airlines, is back in style. Modern-day tailors, like Le Van Hao on Cau Go Street, will fit them to visitors at prices that range from $50 to several hundred.

But Hanoi is not only about the preservation of tradition, although there is certainly enough of that. Wander through the Old City and you will see a bustling cafe society, with new restaurants and fast food joints on every corner. And the proliferation of cyber cafes speaks to the speed with which Vietnam has flung itself into the Internet age.

Nha Tho Street, with Saint Joseph’s Cathedral at the end, is typical of the mix of old and new. The church, built in 1880, was patterned after Notre Dame in Paris. But the surrounding area, with its funky and fashionable restaurants and boutiques, has been dubbed “Le Marais” after the trendy Paris quarter, which only means rents will surely start to rise.

Can Starbucks be far behind?


Sofitel Metropole Hanoi
Built by the French in the early 1900s, this gorgeous property in the heart of Hanoi has hosted the likes of Graham Greene, Charlie Chaplin and Jane Fonda. The lobby bar is polished and elegant, good for a drink any time of day, and the Opera wing, although lacking the old-world charm of the older building, provides international-class luxury. The Metropole also offers business and fitness centers, and a full range of in-house services. Rates: $144-$178, double; $330, suite.

Hilton Hanoi Opera
With a view of the famous Opera House from the pool, this five-star hotel also boasts a convenient location. The building’s façade blends right in with the neighboring architecture, and the rooms are first-rate, with generously proportioned bathrooms and sitting areas. Three restaurants serve Chinese and French cuisine, with a famous Sunday brunch that brings in both tourists and locals. Vietnamese ceramics and indigenous furniture decorate some rooms. Rates: $85-$115, double; $215, suite.

Sofitel Plaza Hotel
Some rooms feature stunning views of Truc Bach and West lakes, which local fisherman still ply early in the morning. Although not in central Hanoi, this luxury property is just minutes from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the diplomatic district. There’s a swimming pool on the fourth floor with a retractable roof. Early morning joggers along the lake will run into Vietnamese doing Tai Chi, ballroom dancing and various other forms of exercise. A full range of services includes in-room dataports, two restaurants and travel services. Rates: $89-$134, double; $307, suite.

Hotel Nikko Hanoi
The Japanese-style rooms are luxurious and simple. Located near Lenin Park, the 15-story hotel features Japanese, Chinese and French cuisine. The Sunday dim sum is the best in the city, and Restaurant Benkay has a terrific, if pricey, Japanese menu. The rooms have wooden furniture and spacious closets, as well as in-room dataports and the usual business and personal services. Rates: $190-$210, double; $410, suite.