Creative Cities: Hanoi

written by Shantel Wetherall September 29, 2023
a group of travellers walking in front of a mural in Hanoi

Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital is full of life. It buzzes frenetically around you, and just crossing the street feels like an adventure, yet the city still manages to strike a beautifully harmonious tone.

Vietnamese food is world-renowned, and the vibrancy of its signature dishes is no accident. Great care has been taken over many generations to create recipes that reflect the principle of yin and yang (or am duong in Vietnamese): Designed with a perfect balance of five colours, flavours and nutrients that nourish five key systems in our bodies and appeal to each of our five senses. 

So what might appear to be simple street food made with fresh produce is, in fact, a loving embrace of the past and present. That’s how culture works in Hanoi; it knits all the layers of contemporary Vietnam into a unique, cohesive and immensely enjoyable whole.  

Parts of Hanoi feel distinctly European, as Intrepid leader Huyen Nguyen explains. ‘Under French colonial rule, Hanoi was the capital of Indochina, which encompassed Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia,’ and French influence is still very present. 

The city features French villas, grand promenades, a Gothic cathedral and an opera house, all seamlessly enveloped in the fabric of a modern Asian city with a youthful, ambitious population. 

The different languages on the city’s pagodas speak of Hanoi’s history of weathering shifting cultural tides, as does its previous name, Thang Long – ‘rising dragon’ – which celebrates the city’s capacity to overcome adversity.

Mixing old and new, east and west, craft and tech. That’s the magic of Hanoi and its triumph as a city of culture.

It also reflects its current ambition to become a leading South East Asian hub. As a UNESCO City of Culture, Hanoi is committed to ‘embracing a new economic and urban development model driven by creative design, which honours its youthful population, its craft heritage and the growth of technology,’ as UNESCO put it when Hanoi was announced as a creative city. You feel that as you move around the city. 

At its heart, Hanoi’s Old Quarter has held onto many quaint traditions, including the street vendors, a favourite of Huyen’s. 

‘They are normal farmers,’ she says. ‘They live in the countryside near Hanoi and come to the city by bicycle to sell flowers or fruit. They make Hanoi more charming because you cannot see that in other big developed cities like Ho Chi Minh; they’re too big.’ In Hanoi’s Old Quarter, they have always been part of daily life in the city.

Hanoi is also filled with colourful public art, including the famous Phung Hung Mural, a collection of 17 pieces painted on the walls of a railway bridge, spanning multiple city blocks in the Old Town. As you walk down the leafy lane, on one side, you can take in the streetscape. It’s a curious mix of French and Vietnamese architecture and families on scooters zooming by ornate French lamp posts while enjoying the murals with their fabulous displays of traditional Vietnamese culture and rural landscapes on the other.  

There’s more impressive public art to enjoy as you make your way around the city, like the huge mosaic that stretches along the north side of Long Bien station. Created to mark Hanoi’s 1000th birthday, the mural is made of local ceramics manufactured in the nearby village of Bat Trang, which is famous for its porcelain. The colourful display depicts scenes celebrating Vietnamese heritage and landmarks from Vietnam and abroad. It took three years to complete, stretches over six kilometres and holds a world record as the biggest ceramic wall in the world. 

It’s wonderful to see local artisans being celebrated in new ways throughout the city – contemporary boutiques and design-led businesses are popping up all over town. Hanoi produces 5000 new design and tech graduates every year and hosts international events, like the Hanoi Festival of Creative Design. 

A whole new generation of creative entrepreneurs is emerging. As they take their turn to remix the city’s flavours, there is something new to discover on every visit. The creativity and vibrancy of the city stays with you long after you leave.

Indulge your creative side in Vietnam’s capital with one of Intrepid’s small group adventures to Hanoi.

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