Trend - March 2, 2019 | 11:30 pm PT

Vietnam’s capital: from war-torn city to Trump-Kim summit host 

Hanoi was devastated by the savage U.S. bombing, but has more or less fully recovered and is now a bustling modern city.

The air raid alarm went off one winter night in 1972. Nguyen Manh Tuan, a resident of Kham Thien Street, woke up and went down to the bunker right below his bed. 

Outside, the dark night lit up with bombs dropped by a U.S B-52. It was one of 12 consecutive days and nights on which the U.S Air Force carried out Operation Linebacker II, with B-52s dropping bombs. It resulted in 2,380 civilian deaths and 1,300 injuries.

When Tuan got out of the house, he saw the whole street had been destroyed and filled with rubble and debris of collapsed walls. The Hanoi Railway Station had been bombed with the grand clock on its front knocked down, Tuan recalls.


L: Hanoi Railway Station destroyed in bombing in 1972.  Photo by Shutterstock/Vietnam Stocks Image 

R: Hanoi Railway Station now. Photo acquired by VnExpress

That was Hanoi five decades ago, shattered by nearly 20,000 tons of explosives dropped on it. Now Hanoi plans to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the award of the title "City for Peace" by UNESCO in July 1999. 

It has just hosted the second U.S-North Korea summit where U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un discussed denuclearization and efforts to achieve peace.

Today Hanoi has a population of seven million, 132 times the number in 1954. In the same period it has expanded from 152 square kilometers to 3,000 square kilometers.

During the summit Hanoi was lit up with flowers and lights. There is a lot of high-rise buildings in the city. Lines of cars and motorbikes fill the streets during rush hours.

In the memory of Hanoians, Hanoi gave off a peaceful vibe in the late 20th century. But what used to be a small city with narrow streets, unassuming shops and few vehicles is now filled with skyscrapers, luxurious restaurants and cafés. 

"Back in the day having a bicycle meant you were affluent," Doan Hoa, 80, says. "The streets were without traffic, even in the downtown."


Sofitel Metropole Hotel Hanoi then and now. Photo acquired by VnExpress

Hoa used to work at a public library on Ly Thuong Kiet Street, just a few buildings away from the Melia Hotel, where North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stayed. 

Every day she used to cycle to work with a small lunch box of rice and some pickled greens. Now, as she travels by bus through the area, she has gradually gotten used to the wide new roads packed with people and vehicles. 

In the 10 years from 2008 to 2017 Hanoi spent $2 billion on traffic infrastructure, building eight modern roads to connect the city centre with the suburbs.

But still vivid in Hoa’s memory of Hanoi are the honking sound of the radio signaling approaching enemy planes, hurried evacuations to the suburbs, and bittersweet memories of the subsidy period before the country's Doi moi reform began in 1986.

During the subsidy period a family’s monthly food rations were listed in a ‘rice book’, which was among her most valuable belongings. "We used to queue in line to be able to buy anything. 

Now we can buy the groceries we need at many supermarkets out there, so I almost forget how hard it was."

Doi moi eventually resulted in improvement in the economy. For years now the city economy has been growing at a rapid and steady rate. But modernity has not erased Hanoi’s ancient values. Despite the high-rise buildings and bumper-to-bumper traffic, among the modernity Hoa can still see the remnants of the old.

"Now we have many tall beautiful buildings, and the old constructions also look more modern," Hoa says pointing at the grand shopping malls and luxury foreign brands whose names she cannot pronounce. 

"But I can still feel the old Hanoi here, in the old places like Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter."


Dong Xuan, one of Hanoi's biggest markets. Photo acquired by VnExpress

Now the city has revived from the past depredations.

Today Kham Thien Street, a major bomb target in 1972, is one of the busiest streets in Hanoi. A place once filled with the debris of bombed houses and dead bodies now has billboards glittering until late at night and markets busy from early morning with a constant flow of people commuting back and forth.

Tuan, who once hid in the bunker during bombing raids, now wakes up in the morning to other rhythms, runs off to buy food from the market, helps his wife sell pig offal porridge, and plays with his grandchildren.

When Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump came, Hoa hopes they saw a new image of Hanoi. 

"Now we live in peace and have all these grand avenues, modern hotels and airports to welcome foreign leaders. 

"They can see how we have recovered from the war and poverty, and how we have risen so strongly to this place." 

Story by Ngoc Bao