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Hanoi

Cleaving the yellow walls of a centuries-old Chinese temple, an old gnarled banyan tree is adorned with flowers and offerings of rice wine and incense. Adjacent to the tree is a designer boutique and gallery, farther on is an Internet cafe, and, out front, an endless stream of honking motorbikes whiz by, rustling the tree's leaves.

If the 200-year-old banyan could speak, it might tell stories of the 19th-century tradesmen that worked on the avenue out front, the arrival of the French, or the introduction of the automobile. It could speak of the years when revolutionary murmurs became skirmishes and barricades lined the streets of the Old Quarter, or of a time -- years later -- when a full-scale war, with an enemy that attacked from the skies, almost completely evacuated the city. It might talk about the quiet years after peace in 1975, years of austerity. And then it might tell of one-time enemies returning as investors, bringing recent years of capitalistic excess.

The most obvious reminders of the past in Hanoi are written in the vestiges of precolonial and colonial buildings -- low facades tucked beneath towers of concrete, especially in the city's Old Quarter. But even these centuries-old structures are recent, considering the rich history here that dates back thousands of years. Through it all, stalwart and struggling for its patch of ground, the old banyan looks on, ready for whatever changes come its way and grappling its crooked arms around new hunks of pavement -- choking on motorbike fumes. A visit to the Vietnamese capital is surely a highlight.

Hanoi ranks among the world's most attractive and interesting cities. Originally named Thang Long or "City of the Ascending Dragon," the city was first the capital of Vietnam in A.D. 1010 and has had many names until its current incarnation. The name Hanoi, in fact, means "bend in the river" and denotes the city's strategic location along the vital waterway. Historians liken the life-giving Red River -- its banks crowded with green rice paddies and farms -- to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a cradle of civilization.Even when the nation's capital moved to Hue under the Nguyen dynasty in 1802, the city of Hanoi continued to flourish, especially after the French took control in 1888 and modeled the city's architecture to their tastes, lending an important aesthetic to the city's rich stylistic heritage, even expanding the city and adding rail connections over the Long Bien Bridge in 1902. In 1954, after the French departed, Hanoi was declared Vietnam's capital once again. The city boasts more than 1,000 years of history, and that of the past few hundred years is marvelously preserved.

Hanoi has a reputation, doubtless accrued from the Vietnam War years, as a dour northern political outpost. The city is certainly smaller, slower, and far less developed than chaotic Saigon, but Hanoi's 3.5 million residents still seem to be in constant motion -- an endless stream of motorbike and bicycle traffic. You'll see some vestiges of Soviet-influenced concrete monolith architecture here, along with plenty of beautiful, quiet streets and tranquil neighborhoods to explore. The city's placid air gives it a gracious, almost regal flavor. Hanoi is dotted with dozens of lakes -- small and large -- around which you can usually find a cafe, a pagoda or two, and absorbing vignettes of street life.

Among Hanoi's sightseeing highlights are the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum; the National Art Museum; the grisly Hoa Lo Prison (also known as the infamous Hanoi Hilton); central Hoan Kiem Lake, where Hanoians enjoy brisk morning walks or tai chi in a tranquil city landmark that symbolizes the city's mythical origins; and the Old Quarter, whose narrow winding streets are named after the individual trades practiced here since the 15th century. Hanoi is Vietnam's cultural center, and the galleries, puppetry, music, and dance performances are worth staying at least a few days to take in.

You might also want to use the city as a base for excursions throughout the north to Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island, to the Ninh Binh area south of Hanoi and Tam Coc, the "Halong Bay in the rice fields," or for a primate encounter at Cuc Phuong National Park. In addition, Hanoi is a jumping-off point for rugged travel in the highlands of the northwest, among hilltribes and along high passes lined with lush terraced rice farms in a loop that includes historic Dien Bien Phu and the old French holiday escape of Sapa, the most popular town in the north that is easily reached by overnight train from Hanoi.

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