The Hanoi of today is very different to the one found 10 years ago. As anyone who has lived in the city more than a decade will tell you. What was a sleepy town at the turn of the new millennium is quickly morphing into a fast-paced global city with a shiny new exterior. That’s not to say that the twisting alleyways, narrow houses and historic architecture have gone, but residents and planners are embracing the innovative architecture and glossy high-rise complexes that are shooting Hanoi straight into the future.
For much of the latter part of the 20th century, Vietnam was closely tied to the Soviet Union. Soviet architects and planners played a significant part in the city’s post-war reconstruction, and Hanoi’s architecture from this period reflects that connection.
The 1920s and 1930s were a dynamic and exciting time for urban change and creativity in Hanoi. There was a shift away from traditional colonial style, as architects embraced the culture and climate of the region.
In 1887, Hanoi’s cityscape was on the cusp of a radical transformation. The regions which are now Vietnam and Cambodia had just been declared the Federation of Indochina, and within the next two decades Hanoi would become the capital of this Southeast Asian French empire.
The ancient city of Thang Long — ‘Rising Dragon’ — was founded by Emperor Ly Thai To in 1010. “The name Hanoi didn’t appear until after the Nguyen Dynasty attained power in 1802,” says Carol Howland in her book Hanoi of a Thousand Years. Ly Thai To situated his Thang Long Citadel and Royal Palaces facing south, on a north-south axis in accordance with feng shui principles. The Citadel covered a massive area, originally extending east to the edge of the Old Quarter and west to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, and was accessible through 24 gates.
The past is gone — this you know every time you see the Bitexco Financial Tower breaking the skyline in the image of a lotus, with one helipad-shaped petal.
Peace brought new challenges, and construction stopped for much of the next 20 years — until the building boom of the 1990s. And with the shift in Vietnam’s direction came a change in the built trajectory of the 100 years before.
For most people, the styles associated with Saigon aren’t the ones tourists are directed to. For true Saigonese architecture, you have to look down the city’s alleys, at the unassuming multi-storey rowhouses that tower over both sides of the hem.
In 1920s Hanoi, Ernest Hébrard started fusing local and French architectural traditions into a homegrown style. Tasked with building the archaeology and ethnography museum that would eventually become known as Hanoi’s National Museum of Vietnamese History, its seven-year construction ushered in the age of Indochine Style. Festooned with shaded balconies and insulating double walls, Hébrard’s museum continued the trend of climatic innovation the French had spread through their hot-climate colonies the world over. But this iteration was distinctly Vietnamese.