The site where Hanoi stands today has been inhabited since the Neolithic period. Emperor Ly Thai To moved his capital here in AD 1010, naming it Thang Long (Ascending Dragon).

The decision by Emperor Gia Long, founder of the Nguyen dynasty in 1802, to rule from Hue relegated Hanoi to the status of a regional capital for a century. The city was named Hanoi by Emperor Tu Duc in 1831, from the words 'Ha' meaning 'river' and 'Noi' meaning 'interior', referring to its position alongside Song Hong (Red River).

From 1902 to 1953, Hanoi served as the capital of French Indochina and was proclaimed capital of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam by Ho Chi Minh during the August Revolution of 1945. The French restored control and the First Indochina War ensued until 1954. Following the Geneva Accords of the same year, the Viet Minh, having driven the French from the city, were able to return.

During the American War, heavy US bombing destroyed parts of Hanoi and killed hundreds of civilians. One of the prime targets was the 1682m-long Long Bien Bridge. US aircraft repeatedly bombed this strategic point, yet after each attack the Vietnamese managed to improvise replacement spans and return road and rail services. It is said that the US military ended the attacks when US POWs were put to work repairing the structure. Today the bridge is renowned as a symbol of the tenacity and strength of the people of Hanoi.

It's hard to believe that Hanoi's millions of motorbikes and scooters would have been an uncommon sight as recently as the early 1990s, when most people got around on bicycles and the occasional Soviet-era bus. Today Hanoi’s conservationists fight to save historic structures, as the city struggles to cope with a booming population, soaring pollution levels and an inefficient public transport system that is only now being refreshed with a metro system. It's a case of 'get in quick' before the voracious growth and hasty modernisation spurred on by Vietnam's 'free-market-friendly' brand of communism drowns out history-rich Hanoi's vibrant palette of Vietnamese, French, Russian and American influences.