Hanoi Vietnam may be a communist city, but you’d never know it from all the capitalism.

The means of production seems controlled more by Vietnam’s stock market than by its proletariat.
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gray high-rise buildings under gray clouds during golden hour
Photo by Minh Luu (Minhluu.com & AA+Photography)

To be clear, Hanoi Vietnam isn't actually communist, because Vietnam is technically a socialist republic. I'm not exactly sure what the difference is, but their version of “” didn't impact our visit much, either way. We had a perfectly lovely time, and never once got arrested, tortured, or sent to a reeducation camp. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Tourists walking on Train Street, Hanoi, Vietnam
Trains plow right through the street between these shops—get out of the way, you morons!

Hanoi Vietnam is a CINO city (Communist in name only).

Confucian Temple Of Literature, landscaped courtyards, altars, and shrines.

Hanoi Vietnam isn't the first communist city I've been to. But like Beijing, Hanoi seems to struggle trying to live up to its classless and stateless Marxist-Leninist ideological principles.

Karl Marx by Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Remember that whole “workers own the means of production” and “no private property” thing? Yeah, well, get back to work or your bourgeoisie boss will fire you and the banks will repossess your house.

Now, I'm not saying that a workers' existence is any better in the . But at least we don't pretend to be anti-capitalist while embracing exactly that. Instead, we pretend to be a democracy while embracing crony- and corporate-capitalism. It's a tricky dance.

Ho Chi Minh Museum, Hanoi, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh shared communism with all of Vietnam.

“Communist Party of Vietnam Poster in Hanoi” by Jp16103 | CC BY-SA 4.0

After the Vietnam War—sorry, the American Invasion—Ho Chi Minh and his victorious North Vietnamese insisted that the now-unified country should, “Try communism!” And most did, often at gunpoint.

The holdouts were sent to camps to learn about communism's many benefits, least of which was “continued living.”

Use in case of falling GDP.

During the country's conversion, industrial operations were either nationalized, or forced into partnerships with the state.

And, predictably, the country's productivity and economic output slumped harder than my dad watching televised golf on the couch.

Two great tastes that taste great together.

three men in law enforcer uniform standing beside pavement
Central Committee members posing for their upcoming boy-band album release. | Photo by H. Choudhary

After ten years of economic decline, Vietnam finally “pivoted” to an economy which utilized “market forces, incentives, and private enterprise.” In other words, capitalism.

Vietnam's now “ardently capitalist communistsdid, however, preserve the whole “one-party” concept. Surely, its central committee members clearly weren't part of the problem. (Is that sarcasm..?)

Is that Singapore? Seoul? It's Hanoi!

Today, capitalism is everywhere in Hanoi, from street vendors selling Coca-Cola® and bánh mì sandwiches, to factory workers producing cars for nearly every foreign-owned automobile manufacturer (also, Vinfast).

Hanoi Vietnam is now indistinguishable from any other capitalist city in Asia, including Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing. In fact, you can't swing a dead cat in Hanoi without hitting someone using Grab, Vietnam's motorbike version of Uber®. Or having someone try to buy that cat off you to serve in a restaurant. That's capitalism, baby!

people holding flags during daytime
Photo decidedly not taken in Vietnam. @Moises Gonzalez

So why does Vietnam's government still claim to be a communist country?

Stalin? Lenin? Some statue in Prague.

Well, the government of Vietnam had already procured millions of military-style uniforms for bureaucrats. Plus, they'd printed up tons of those red, hammer-and-sickle flags.

Obviously, it would be expensive—and politically embarrassing—to replace them with all-new uniforms and flags emblazoned with whatever the Vietnamese symbol is for “free market economy.”

Also, Vietnam borders Laos and China, two of the last four communist countries. Abandoning the ideology altogether would make things super awkward for attendees of next year's Communist Comrade Convention (aka,C3”).

a large storm moving across the sky over a body of water
An approaching monsoon. | Photo @Daniel Lerman

Are communist countries always overcast and dreary?

Beijing on a “sunny” day.

When I visited Beijing and Hanoi, they were both smoggy, gray, and overcast. An atmosphere that evoked the stereotypical portrayal of communism often seen on Western TV. And that garbage weather made Hanoi look pretty unappealing when we went. So what causes these gray skies? Is it communists who control the weather? Nope, monsoons.

“Monsoon” by lokenrc | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Whereas Beijing has a “monsoon-influenced humid continental” climate, Hanoi Vietnam has a “monsoon-influenced humid subtropical” climate. It's supposedly similar to the Midwest/Northeastern US and the Southeastern US, respectively, though the weather seemed more like Seattle's.

Hanoi's “Spring” is from March through April. It's typically cloudy and foggy, with near-constant drizzle. Yet, despite averaging only 1.5 hours of sunshine a day, the average temperature is still ~74 °F at about 80% humidity. So if you're going to Hanoi Vietnam during their idea of Spring, bring a change of clothes or seventeen.

Hanoi means “inside the river,” referring to Vietnam's Red and Black rivers—two awesome adjectives for describing water.

“City view of Hanoi, Vietnam” by World Bank Photo Collection | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Hanoi Vietnam is the country's second-largest city.

Traditional dude.

The city of Hanoi has about 10-million residents, or about 20-million if they counted the folks out riding their motorbikes during the census. Though slightly smaller than Ho Chi Minh City (née Saigon), Hanoi has—off and on—been the capital of Vietnam for over 1,000 years. Considering that America's oldest city is less than 500 years old, that's a pretty impressive streak.

A jazz club we found.

Today, Hanoi is a cultural, economic, and education center of Vietnam, home to historic temples, museums, , universities, and mausoleums.

And, like many other modern cities, Hanoi has night markets, nightclubs, cocktail bars, and a killer food scene. In fact, Vietnamese is one of my Top-Five favorite cuisines, after Italian, Mexican, and Popeye's Spicy Chicken Sandwich.

Hanoi's unique duality is borderline schizophrenic.

people taking photo of collapsing building
“Screw you, tradition!” | Photo @Micah Williams

Between the city's unlicensed medical practitioners and its bougie bar scene, Hanoi offers locals and visitors a confusing blend of Vietnamese tradition and modernity. More recently, Vietnam's capital has been leaning hard on the tradition half of that combo meal. Why?

Because even a one-party government can't easily tear down a thousand years of culturally important architecture, no matter how often real estate developers ask them to. (I mean, I assume developers in Vietnam are every bit as unethical and money-grubbing as the ones here in the 'States—feels like a safe bet.)

Nice big lighted sign you can see from a distance when you're drunk.

Where to stay in Hanoi Vietnam.

We flew the surprisingly good Vietnam Airlines into Hanoi's Noi Bai International Airport and caught a cab. Forty-five minutes later, we were snarled in traffic inside the historical urban core of Hanoi, known as the Old Quarter.

Our driver reenacted “The Italian Job,” and finally careened to a halt in front of the very nice May De Ville Luxury Hotel with most of his tiny car's paint still intact.

The Intercontinental way over in Westlake.

The May De Ville is a nice enough hotel, but it's clearly an older building—actually, it's at least two older buildings, possibly three—all stitched together. So don't the place expecting the Intercontinental Westlake, or you'll be an hour's walk away from everything. 

That said, I had few complaints at the May De Ville, other than the lackluster water pressure in our shower. But the water pipes in that area of Hanoi Vietnam are probably from the Hồng Bàng period (2879-258 BCE), and no doubt encrusted inside with dinosaur droppings.

Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam and Hoàn Kiếm Lake 

A brief history of Hanoi's Old Quarter.

Massage spas were everywhere.

Colloquially known as “the 36 streets,” Hanoi's Old Quarter actually encompasses 76 streets. The nickname comes from a poem by a Vietnamese man who couldn't count so well. (Hey, not every poet is “good at math,” okay? Don't be so racist.)

Come on, that's artsy.

Anyway, the 76 streets comprise a 100-hectare commercial district with retail shopping at the street level, and residential “housing” on higher floors. The Old Quarter overloads a lot of prime downtown real estate with roadside stalls, shop houses, and a lake (see below).

“Hanoi 2018 Massage Time” by J-M Catcher | CC BY 2.0

Originally, each street had a specific type of merchant, selling traditional types of merchandise, such as silk, jewelry, bamboo crafts, or mobile phone SIM cards.

Today, however, it seems more like every merchant sells the same knock-off designer clothing, handbags, or watches. And massages, for some reason. There are a scary lot of foot and body massage places in Hanoi's Old Quarter, and I don't want to know why.

The Old Quarter of Hanoi Vietnam really looks its age.

The rooftops of four-story tube houses.

Venturing out of the hotel, our first impression of Hanoi Vietnam wasn't great. For starters, it was noisy as all get out. Everything in Hanoi makes a sound of some kind, often a loud and unpleasant one.

Second, the smell of sewage on Hanoi's Old Quarter streets was, at times, omnipresent. It made me almost long for America's now-pervasive pot smell, though that smells like shit, too.

Tube houses in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Third, the Old Quarter's narrow buildings look shoddily constructed, and about to collapse at any moment. The rat's-nest of exposed power wires snarled atop telephone poles in the district are likewise hilariously dangerous.

Wandering around Hanoi gave me real doubts about the existence of city building codes.

Whereas other European and Asian cities have old districts that are charming and quaint, this one just looks run down.

With all the rain and overcast skies, Hanoi resembled the movie set of “Blade Runner” (the first one, the good one) only without as much neon.

Cleanliness isn't next to godliness here, it's next to impossible.

A street in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Hanoi Vietnam's Old Quarter certainly has a long and turbulent history, including poverty and war.

Over the span of centuries, many of the Old Quarter's historic remnants have deteriorated and were in need of restoration. Or at least a good power-washing.

That house could use a coat of paint.

The area got so rundown that, for its 1,000th Anniversary in 2010—yes, you read that correctly—the city of Hanoi decided to blow two million dollars renovating and refurbishing the Old Quarter. Unfortunately, you'd never know it.

On the plus side, the Old Quarter of Hanoi Vietnam makes the soot-saturated city of Naples Italy look positively pristine by comparison.

Hanoi's “tube houses” test the limits of air rights.

That is a skinny house.

I did, however, like the Old Quarter's creative use of vertical space. There are countless super-narrow, multi-story, and yard-free homes wedged into the area. These tin-roofed “tube houses” appear to have been standing there—okay, leaning there—for centuries. Mostly because they have.

“Old Quarter, Hanoi” by @A. Schaffer | CC BY 2.0

For an area with about 70,000 people and only 5,000 addresses, use of space is clearly paramount. Deeded back before 65″ big screen TVs and two-car garages, Hanoi's so-called “tube houses” make use of every available centimeter of their approximately 300-square foot interior space. Then they built up.

Tube houses.

Most of these ancient houses were built in the 18th and 19th Centuries, back when a 300-square foot could comfortably house a family of eight. Today, those precursors to the tiny house movement would go for over US$1,000,000 each if you could convince all eight residents to move out. (Good luck with that.)

“Tube house” by caitriana | CC BY-SA 2.0

Like in the States, properties in Vietnam have certain “air rights.” That is, the amount of troposphere you own above your property. In Hanoi Vietnam, those zoning regulations must be looser than your bowels after eating congealed pork blood.

The downside of all this efficient space utilization is that Hanoi's Old Quarter has almost no playgrounds, flower gardens, or public squares. It does, however, have a bunch of lakes.

A view of the city of hoi an from a lake
Turtle Tower in the middle of Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Photo by Linh Tran

Hanoi Vietnam is known as the city of lakes.

That bright red Huc Bridge over to Jade Mountain Temple.

Within greater Hanoi, there is a river as well as a couple dozen other water features, one of which was mere steps from our hotel, namely Hoàn Kiếm Lake.

Turtle Tower, maybe?

While not especially large, the tree-lined banks of the Lake of the Returned Sword are nonetheless a beautiful setting to take a relaxing stroll. After all, it's one of the few places in Hanoi where you won't get hit by a motorbike.

Hoàn Kiếm Lake

The lake encompasses two islands, the one with Turtle Tower (above), and the one with Ngoc Son Temple (Jade Mountain Temple) which is accessible from a bright red bridge by the northeastern bank. Since the bridge cost money to cross, we didn't get to see the temple or learn anything about it. Hey, if you care so much, Google it.

This mausoleum was closed so we couldn't see the bones Vietnam's revolutionary leader and president, Ho Chi Minh.

Stuff to see in the Ba Đình district of Hanoi.

The One Pillar Pagoda was built during the famous Pillar Shortage of 1049.

We hired a guide to walk us around historic Hanoi, including the Old Quarter, the Quarter and Ba Đình, the political center of Vietnam.

Not a bad pad, Ho.

As we walked, he pointed out significant landmarks such as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (which was closed), as well as the Ho Chi Minh Museum (which we didn't go into for reasons I forget). But we did visit Ho Chi Minh's home while he was president.

Ho Chi Minh's Presidential desk.

In keeping with his communist egalitarian ethos, it had a pretty modest interior and a simple wooden desk. But outside, he went baller. The grounds—with their landscaping and private lake—veritably scream “private property,” as I'm pretty sure Ho Chi Minh didn't let the neighborhood kids in his personal lake.

Hanoi's wholly unsolicited French connection.

A french Bistro.

Around the southern side of Hoàn Kiếm district is Hanoi Vietnam's French Quarter, so called because of all the French-style buildings constructed during France's 72-year occupation.

The Presidential Palace is mango yellow.

to tree-lined boulevards, twenty-plus lakes, and thousands of French Colonial-era buildings, Hanoi is a popular tourist destination for frugal Francophiles the world over. In fact, Hanoi is sometimes dubbed the of the East” for its many French influences, least of which is smoking in public.

St. Joseph's Cathedral looks like Notre Dame de Paris.

France first tried getting chummy with Vietnam as early as the 17th century, with some success. However, a regime change in 1802 soured the relationship. When the French sent a hundred unsolicited Catholic missionaries to convert the population, Vietnam's new government, instead, converted them into Catholic martyrs.

The French then used these religious killings as a pretext to justify colonizing Vietnam and Cambodia for the following seventy years. During that time, French-Vietnamese cuisine was created. It's a delicious combination of traditional Vietnamese cooking and tyrannical French imperialism.

Everyone in Vietnam is way too nice…you know, considering.

Dick Nixon by @tonynetone | CC BY 2.0

After what Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon did to Vietnam back in the 1970s, it would've been understandable if the locals weren't super welcoming or cheerful about us being there. Oddly enough, they were. Extremely welcoming and cheerful, in fact. Of course, things in Vietnam have been looking up since 1985.

To the under-50 Vietnamese crowd, the United States represents new foreign investment that means better jobs, higher standards of living, and millions of new dongs (not a dick joke—the 1:24,000 exchange rate here is insane).

The older set—that is, people our age who still remember our government's proxy war with China and the Soviet Union—were understandably less enthusiastic about our presence. During the Vietnam War, many of the city's monuments and palaces were destroyed by U.S. bombing.

Still, the Vietnamese seem pretty big on the whole “forgive, but don't forget” thing. So, at no time during our trip through Vietnam, did we feel anyone was intent on doing us physical harm. However, we felt intense psychological damage after witnessing Hanoi's Water Puppet Show (see below).

Hanoi water puppet show @lawtonjm | CC BY-ND 2.0

Hanoi's water puppet show is weirder than you can possibly imagine.

We spent one night at a theater on the banks of Hoàn Kiếm lake. Somehow, we had tickets to what we were assured was a traditional and authentic Vietnamese experience, known as the Hanoi Water Puppet Show.

After a rather long wait in the theater , the previous show let out, and we got our first look at the “stage.” The stage, in this case, was a pagoda-topped curtain from which extended a pool full of waist-deep green water. Not knowing what was about to transpire, we sat a few rows back to avoid being in the splash-zone.

Watch this video at your own risk. You have been warned.

What followed still haunts my dreams to this day. After a Vietnamese musical prelude, the show began displaying puppetry technology that would've blown the minds of 11th Century children and simpletons. The wooden characters that emerged from the murky green water seemed shockingly alive and eerily reminiscent of the Jigsaw Killer from the Saw movies.

The show consists of several distinct story segments, each representing traditional folktales about dragons, eels, goat-herders, and their shrew wives. Acted, sung, and spoken entirely in Vietnamese, the show will likely make little sense to most Westerners, although a good nut-shot gag is pretty universal.

So should you visit Hanoi Vietnam?

I hate to judge a city based on one visit—especially one arguably made during the city's worst weather season. But I do that all the time on this site, so why change my approach now? Suffice to say, Hanoi is an interesting city with great food, nice people, and lots of cultural interest that I am sure many people love.

Yet the lack of color and general dreariness of the place turned me off to its doubtless charms. Of course, just like Naples Italy, the city of Hanoi Vietnam probably comes to life under blue skies and a brilliant yellow sun. We just never saw it like that.

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