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This Way for Sightseeing – A Meandering Tale of the Hanoi Citadel

When I first came to Hanoi as a timid eighteen year old backpacker, I headed straight towards the old quarter and didn’t leave for the duration of my stay, like almost every other backpacker in the history of backpackers. The old quarter was and is a frenetic maze of alleyways, choked with motorbikes and overpriced silk shops, temporary street restaurants made up of tiny plastic stools and tree shaded courtyards serving thick treacly Vietnamese coffee. It sounds exotic, romantic even, and was for the first few days of my stay, until I ran out of money, got robbed, kicked out of my hotel, and stranded in the city for far too long. Hanoi suddenly seemed nightmarish, and I navigated the old quarter with my head down, making a daily beeline for a boulangerie were I spent my measly $5 a day budget on an overpriced croque monsieur pretending I was in France and slipping into semi-starvation.

Thinking back on it, I was incredibly stupid. I could have spent my $5 a day on three hearty street meals a day, never eating the same dish twice, which would have given me the energy required to escape the old quarter. I could have wandered south, where the city opens up into wide, grid-planned boulevards and architecture left over by the French. I could have wandered north, where the tangled, honking streets come to an abrupt end at Tay Ho lake where the sky stretches ahead indefinitely. These are the areas where most expats go to make peace with Hanoi. Tay Ho has the organic bakeries, fancy international schools and yummy mummy cafes needed for families to settle down, and the French quarter has enough opera, string quartets, French cuisine and cafe culture to make it sufficiently bohemian. Unfortunately, like many travelers, I believed Hanoi ended with the limits of my guide book map.

The simple fact is, Hanoi is huge. And it’s hoping to get bigger. As well as the expat infested north and south, the large majority of Hanoi’s massively expanding population opt for the west. Here Hanoi sprawls out into a grim expanse of super highways and flyovers, shopping malls and mega marts, which seems to blend imperceptibly into countryside. Here you will find My Dinh, a new district dominated by huge glass skyscrapers, clouds of dust from countless building sites and weird luxury, American-style gated communities built for the lucky few. There is also talk of a sky rail, a subway system and five star hotels. My Dinh features heavily in the ‘Great Hanoi Project‘, a redevelopment plan modeled on other successful Asian mega-cities and it’s southern sister, Ho Chi Minh City. In addition, there are five further satellite cities in the pipeline to be built before 2050 , each representing a different function including science, industry and culture (read: shopping for ethnic clothes.) Foreign investors seem optimistic, but anyone with a passing knowledge in economic trends (and Vietnamese corruption) feels the ‘Great Hanoi Project’ is a dream that will never be realised.

They say there was a time when Hanoi was full of tinkling bicycles. Looking at a map of Hanoi from 1873 you can see that the above mentioned areas were then labelled simply ‘rizières’ (rice fields) and little dots indicate villages that have since been eaten up by a ravenously expanding city. The ‘Ville de Hanoi’ in 1873 barely touches the Hoan Kiem lake (then a stinking swamp) where tourists now flock to take photos of themselves wearing conical hats and is considered Hanoi’s official center on google maps. .

Compare this with the map of Hanoi present and there is one striking similarity. The mysterious grey square that makes up a huge part of the Ba Dinh district and what is known as ‘The Hanoi Citadel Complex.’ Despite the enormous changes on all sides, the historic center of Hanoi remains seemingly untouched.

I first became interested in this area when I drove through it every day to get to work. Despite the roads that intersect it, the buildings behind the high walls are closely guarded by soldiers. When the gates would occasionally open, sleek cars with black-tinted windows would slide out accompanied by police on motorbikes. These cars had red license plates indicating that they were above the law, and by no means could be stopped by any traffic warden but would be waved ahead of the motorbike driving hoards. The young soldiers who guard these gates day and night, in freezing rain and blistering heat look chronically bored and would salute me as a waved at them from my motorbike. I later learnt that they paid for the privileged position of guarding these gates.

There were talks of uprooting governmental offices from their 1000 year old home, suggesting (you’ve guessed it) My Dinh as a potential administrative area of Hanoi. As of yet, party offices will remain in and around the Hanoi Citadel. The argument that there would be more space for public areas such as parks in the evacuated citadel is a fair point. The army has allowed access to two buildings, and excavations of the site have uncovered interesting artifacts and ruins of the old Thang Long Imperial City. But uprooting this ancient heart of Hanoi could eradicate the last vestige of ancient Hanoi, turning the entire central area over to tourism.  In Vietnam’s drive for modernisation, the term ‘sustainable tourism’ is bandied around as the answer in uniting the conflicting elements of fast development whilst maintaining ancient cultural heritage, and alongside the tower block and skyscrapers there has been a museum building drive and even a whole satellite city devoted to the cause. unfortunately tourists do not come to Hanoi to visit museums. Street venders crying their wares supporting baskets of steaming soup vats on a shoulder pole, alleys stuffed with noodle seller stalls who compete with each other using distinctive recipes inherited from their grandmothers, crowds of young  Vietnamese friends sitting out on plastic stools by the square of the old French cathedral sipping sweet ice tea at dusk, the chaotic and sprawling shack of the  fruit market under Long Bien bridge which is a throbbing hive of activity that peaks at 4am when the trucks arrive from China. This is the ‘Hanoi’ we read about in guide books, which in museum speak is called ‘intangible culture’: the kind of culture that, by its very nature, cannot be labeled and displayed in a museum exhibition. And it is precisely this kind of ‘culture’ that is under threat of modernisation plans that want to banish or curb these practices within the city center on the grounds that it is unhygienic, chaotic and messy looking.

Hanoi’s ’36 ancient guild streets’ now mostly tout fake ray-ban sunglasses, communist posters and ‘I love pho’ t-shirts. What would be the fate of the Thang Long Citadel? Opening up the site to tourists would mark the most decisive step in the relocation of ‘real’ Hanoi to My Dinh and break with 1000 years of tradition. Indeed, the age of city itself (formerly known as Thang Long) is marked from 1010 when Ly Thai To – the founder of the Ly dynasty – moved his court from Hoa Lu to the site of the Thang Long citadel, naming Hanoi as capital of Vietnam. The order was considered the first example of fine Vietnamese prose, and describes the high appreciation of the Ly Dynasty and it’s people of the value of the ancient citadel. Subsequent dynasties would occasionally move the capital to different regions, but the citadel would always reemerge as the best choice for the seat of their courts.

Vietnam’s 1,000 year history has been characterised with long resistance and brilliant defeats of mighty invaders; regular invasions from Chinese armies, the long French occupation and finally the Americans. The citadel was taken, retaken, abandoned and stormed many times over, and was renamed by numerous successors to reflect its fluctuating importance within Vietnam. In 1888 the Nguyen dynasty surrendered the citadel to the French colonialist, and by the time it was liberated in 1954 the occupation that caused huge damage to the site as they knocked down ancient buildings to make way for a large horse racing track. It was near the citadel that Ho Chi Minh directed the Northern Vietnamese army from a simply furnished stilted house next to a carp pond, having refused to move into the colonial presidential palace, favouring a modest lifestyle in keeping with the peasant farmers he was leading. Nearby is the imposing mausoleum containing Ho Chi Minh’s waxy embalmed body (contravening Ho Chi Minh’s dying wish to have his ashes scattered in the North and South of Vietnam) which is open to the public and has become somewhat of a pilgrimage for the Vietnamese.

A history of the city of Hanoi with its succession of dynasties can be charted around these changes and alterations of the Thang Long citadel, as well as serving as a powerful symbolic image of the sturdy heart of a nation beleaguered with waves of foreign invaders. Would it be too melodramatic to suggest that the latest wave of invaders are the hordes of tourists that annually sweep Hanoi each summer? Perhaps. But the combination of rapidly planned city planning due to a bulging population growth and a strong emphasis on the tourism industry to generate money within Vietnam could be what finally topples the ancient citadel.

I visited the Hanoi citadel one sunny afternoon, skipping out the Vietnamese Military History Museum with its rows of bomber jets and tanks captured from the American troops, and heading straight to the large grassy courtyard of the citadel with its old administration buildings painted the distinctive crumbling yellow used for all schools, police stations and government offices in Hanoi. The area distinctly lacked any Western tourists posing in the war room. There were none taking photos of Ho Chi Minh’s typewriter either. In fact I was probably the only Westerner in the whole place. There was a sleepy and peaceful atmosphere in the center of the dense city; happy Vietnamese family day trips lounging on the grass, ladies in conical quietly scrubbing flagstones, and  that ever so Vietnamese pursuit, couples posing for wedding photos dressed in the traditional Ao Dai and silk tunic, imitating a past time.

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