My Top Ten Buildings in Hanoi

One of the things I love most about Hanoi is its architecture. It has a charm and character unlike anywhere else. Many cities in South East Asia have become all too generic, with the domination of glass, steel and concrete. Hanoi still has a much more eclectic mix of buildings, in part because there were other priorities during the thirty five years of war while Vietnam fought the Japanese, the French, the Americans and finally the Chinese.P1030875

The Word magazine recently did a feature entitled ‘The Elements of Style’ where Katie Jacobs and I described the various architectural time periods – pre-Colonial Vietnamese, early French Colonial, Transitional, Soviet-influenced, and Contemporary. My favorite buildings fall in the first three categories. I have spent so much time photographing buildings over the last three and a half years that it was hard to narrow down my favorites, but here we go – some are famous, others more obscure.

1) Den Quan Thanh (on the corner of Thanh Nien and Quan Thanh)

A Taoist temple dedicated to the guardian of the north – Tran Vu – known by the French as ‘the big-headed Buddha’ as they mistakenly thought he was a Buddha. It was one of the first temples built on the northern boundary of the city shortly after its founding by Ly Thai To in 1010. My photos don’t do it justice as what makes it so beautiful is the wonderful mother of pearl inlay on the woodwork inside as well as the huge black bronze statue of Tran Vu. Rubbing his toe is said to bring luck and good health. There are also a quirky pair of oversized boots left by one of the last Nguyen Emperors who was banished to Reunion for feigning insanity and plotting against the French.

2) Huyen Thien (Hang Khoai – North of Dong Xuan Market)

Huyen Thien is a Den (temple dedicated to a spirit), a Chua (pagoda dedicated to Buddha) and a Dinh (a community house) all rolled into one and presided over by nuns. For two years I often drove past the seemingly locked front gate and it was only later that someone showed me the secret entrance down the side alley. The main chamber, also dedicated to Tran Vu, has a wonderful atmosphere as it hasn’t been restored in over 100 years – faded, uneven encaustic tiles cover the floor and the room remains dark with shafts of light coming from a few small skylights. Restoration has begun in the outer courtyard so I don’t know how much longer it will stay looking run down. Many Dens, Dinhs, and Chuas are now being restored due to increasing wealth and a revival in religious interest. It is also considered a sign of respect and part of a building’s ‘life cycle’ to completely rebuild it periodically.

3) St Joseph’s Cathedral (the end of Nha Tho Street)

The oldest church in Hanoi first opened for Christmas mass in 1886. Building the cathedral was one of the ways France imposed power and authority over its new colony. The cathedral was built on the site of an important Vietnamese temple which the French destroyed. The pollution-weathered, neo-Gothic Cathedral is a striking feature in the Old Quarter, still used regularly by Vietnamese worshippers.

4) Obscured villa on Tran Phu (5 Tran Phu Street)

I don’t know the history of this early French Colonial villa but I love the way, like many buildings in Hanoi, it has been adapted for the growing population of the city and now has many families living in the house, while the garden has become small shops and makeshift dwellings. The city has become so dense and layered that many wonderful buildings have become hidden and take a little time to find – whether it be going down an alley or squinting past all the haphazard additions.

5) Clinique Building (89 Ly Thuong Kiet)

The striking Clinique building is a good example from the art deco era. It was built in 1936 as a doctor’s surgery and is now a hospital. The art deco buildings follow the international modern style of the time which is not unique to Hanoi but I still love the look with curved corners, round windows and flat roofs. The Cuban Embassy (Ly Thuong Kiet) and the Polish Embassy (Chua Mot Cot) are also good examples from this period.

6) University of Hanoi (19 Le Thanh Tong)

Completed in 1926 as the University of Indochina, this building designed by Ernest Hébrard, an influential architect and town planner. He was highly critical of what he saw as the culturally and climatically inappropriate neo-classical architecture introduced by the French. Applying his knowledge of traditional Vietnamese, Chinese and Khmer architecture, Hébrard sought to fuse classical European elements with more traditional Asian decorative features, in structures that were better suited to the hot climate of Hanoi. His designs became known as Indochine Style and also include the National Museum of Vietnamese History, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Cua Bac Church.

7) Hidden Art Deco Funeral Hall (down an alley behind social housing off Nguyen Cong Tru)

This is one of my proudest finds as it is not in any guide book nor visible from a main road. I just happened to be exploring some of the smaller back alleys near Pho Hue and chanced upon this building hidden behind market-stalls and parked motorcycles. It was clearly a grand building in its day, probably dating from the 1920s or 30s judging by its art deco style. The huge, heavy wrought iron doors were locked when I first found it so I returned another day to discover that inside is an enormous badminton hall! I haven’t been able to find it in any books so all I know has been gleaned from a particularly ancient tea lady who sits outside. She says it was originally a funeral hall for French officers of the colonial period. During American bombing raids in the 60s and 70s she and hundreds of others hid under the building using it as a bomb shelter.

8) The State Bank of Vietnam (on the corner of Ly Thai To and Le Lai)

The Bank of Indochina (now the State Bank of Vietnam) was built in 1930 by Georges-André Trouvé, and was designed to look imposing and solid as a symbol of the serious formality and structure needed to manage the colony’s finances. The bank follows Art Deco trends, such as the geometric shape, flat roof and three-ringed dome over the portico, but also incorporates Asian features, such as the octagonal vents with Asian motifs above the windows.


9) The Tilted House (on the corner of Nguyen Gia Thieu and Lien Tri)

In an attempt to stimulate the depressed economy in the 1930s, the government opened up the formerly marshy area to the south of Tran Hung Dao, encouraging Vietnamese architects who had trained at the Beaux Arts School to build modern and fashionable designs. Many of the villas in this area were built for wealthy Vietnamese families. I particularly love the villa pictured below which stands proudly while simultaneously subsiding – its former right angles slowly shifting as the building sinks.

10) Indochine style villas (76 and 78 Phan Dinh Phung)

Phan Dinh Phung is my favorite street in Hanoi due to its well preserved villas and towering trees. It’s well worth a wander as there are lots of beautiful villas but because most are government buildings guards will usually stop you before you get more than one photo! Below are two good examples of the fusion Indochine Style found in the villas of wealthy Vietnamese and Chinese from the 1930s. Traditional European style villas were embellished with medallions and Taoist symbols, circular moon gazing windows, Chinese characters on carved stylised scrolls and upturned curved-tile roofs.

Of course there are so many other wonderful buildings full of character around Hanoi. Below are a few other favorites and of course the hound sniffing around!

However, Hanoi is changing rapidly. Sadly many older buildings are being pulled down to make way for new buildings that are more modern and space-efficient. It is of course better for living conditions but it will also change the character of the city. Below are pictures of just some of the many buildings that have been pulled down while I have been here. The photo of the Habeco Factory were taken two years ago – all that remains now is rubble.